Bid to restore fibre to UK flax industry

A TRADITIONAL British industry which died out in the middle of the century is about to be reborn on a technological footing. The production of raw linen and other natural fibres, including hemp and jute, from crops grown in the UK, starts this month at the first of 10 planned regional processing centres, in the Silsoe Research Institute in Bedford. The centres will be operated by a new company, British Fibre Ltd, set up by the agricultural merchants Robin Appel of Southampton.

Faced with the over-production of food, the aim is to give farmers an incentive to cultivate non-food crops. But any alternatives must use the existing skills and facilities. "Flax has been grown in Britain since Roman times. It suits our climate and currently offers the greatest opportunities," said Nigel Bazeley, director of Robin Appel.

The Silsoe centre has the first production model of a decorticator, a machine that extracts fibres from the plant stalk. Developed in a collaborative project funded 50:50 by government and 10 industrial partners, the decorticator is manufactured by William Tathum Ltd of Rochdale. It is much cheaper, and depends on less labour-intensive methods, than existing equipment such as that used in the linen industry of northern France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Traditionally flax is harvested using specific machinery for pulling, deseeding, turning and baling. The crop is then processed to separate the fibres from the woody inner core of the stem. Labour and machinery costs are high.

Apart from being cheaper, the decorticator can process a range of fibre crops harvested with the combines used for cereals. It will be possible to produce raw linen for £1,000 per ton, compared to £2,000 per ton for existing production methods. This is also less than raw wool at around £1,400 per ton, and cotton at £1,200 per ton.

The linen fibres will be shorter, and therefore of lower quality than those produced by the old process, but they will be suitable for linen mixes. "For the first time textile manufacturers will have access to a large quantity of relatively low-cost linen fibre", said Mr Bazeley.

The decorticator was originally proposed by W M R Stewart and Son of Dundee, which makes high-precision components for textile machinery, as a way of dealing with the straw generated by linseed when the ban on burning was introduced three years ago.

Linseed, sister of flax, is grown for its seeds, which, as a source of industrial oil, can be cultivated on land set aside under the European Union's policy of cutting food production.

"During the development of the machine, we realised that it could be used to process the much more valuable flax," Mr Bazeley said.

The aim of British Fibre will be to establish a range of markets for fibres extracted with the new machine. The Ministry of Agriculture, which supported the decorticator project, recently announced a grant of £100,000 to develop suitable markets. These will range from linen for the fashion and tableware industry to hemp paper for banknotes, jute for floor coverings and linseed fibre linings for hanging baskets.

To back this diversification, Robin Appel set up the Natural Fibres Organisation last year. This already has more than 300 members, mostly farmers.

Although flax may not be grown on set-aside land, it is eligible for subsidy provided it is grown for fibre (it also produces oil, but seed yields are 30-35 per cent lower than for linseed). Another revival is hemp, a crop pioneered by Hemcore Ltd, which was set up three years ago. Hemp (cannabis, to the initiated), which may only be grown under Home Office licence, could provide fibre for paper-making and textiles.

The decorticator will be sold abroad, and Mr Bazeley said there had already been interest from Canada, Australia and Russia. The consortium is keen to develop the UK processing network and markets before commercialising the machine.

At present the European linen industry is small and specialist, producing a high-value product. "Now we have a machine which can produce low-cost, short-fibre flax. The potential is extraordinary," Mr Bazeley said.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Sport
Harry Redknapp. Mark Hughes and Ryan Shawcross
footballNews and updates as Queens Park Rangers host the Potters
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
i100
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

Market Risk & Control Manager

Up to £100k or £450p/d: Saxton Leigh: My client is a leading commodities tradi...

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Head of Audit

To £75,000 + Pension + Benefits + Bonus: Saxton Leigh: My client is looking f...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam