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Fibers & Fiber Plants



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Economic Classification (Fibers)

Filling Fibers    Natural Fabrics    Fibers for Paper Manufacture

Structure & Occurrence (Fibers)

Textile Fibers    Surface Fibers    Cotton Fibers    Cotton Characteristics     Kinds of Cotton

Sea-Island Cotton    Egyptian Cotton    Cotton Industry    Cotton Uses

Soft or Bast Fibers

Flax    Hemp    Jute    Ramie    Sunn Hemp    Misc Soft Fibers    China Jute or Indian Mallow    Kenaf     Roselle or Rama    Aramina or Cadillo

Hard Structural Fibers

Abacá or Manila Hemp   Agave Fibers     Henequen or Mexican Sisal    Sisal    Istle    Maguey    Mauritius Hemp    New Zealand Hemp    Bowstring Hemp   Coir    Pineapple    Pita Floja    Caroá    Brush Fibers    Piassava    Broomcorn    Broomroot

Rough Weaving & Plaiting Fibers

Hat Fibers    Mats and Matting    Baskets    Wickerwork    Filling Fibers     Kapok

Synthtic Fibers

        Kapok Substitutes    Misc. Filling Fibers   Natural Fabrics    Papermaking Fibers



Agaves     Bamboo     Kopok     Luffa Gourd     Palms     Wool & Cotton Tree





       Plants yielding fibers have been second only to food plants in their usefulness to humans and their influence on the furthering of civilization.  Primitive humans in their attempts to obtain the three most important necessities for life:  food, shelter & clothing, focused on plants.  Even though animal products were available, some form of clothing was needed that was lighter and cooler than skins and hides.  It was easier to obtain from plants such items as bowstrings, nets, snares, etc.  Also plant products were available from the leaves, stems and roots of many plants to construct shelter.


       Very early on plant fibers have had a more extensive use than silk, wool and other animal fibers.  Gradually as humans’ needs multiplied, the use of vegetable fibers increased greatly until presently they continue to be of great importance even after the onset of plastics.  It is impossible to estimate the number of species of fiber plants, but over a thousand species of plants have yielded fibers in America alone, and over 800 occur in the Philippines.   However, plant fibers of commercial importance ore relatively few, the greater number being native species used locally by primitive peoples in all parts of the world.  Their durability often exceeds those of synthetic manufacture, one example being sisal & Manila hemps.


       The most prominent fibers of the present are of great antiquity.  The cultivation of flax, for example, dates back to the Stone Age of Europe, as discovered in the remains of the Swiss Lake Dwellers.  Linen was used in Ancient Egypt and cotton was the ancient national textile of India, being used by all the aboriginal peop0les of the New World as well.  Ramie or China grass has been grown in the Orient many thousands of years.


Economic Classification (Fibers)


          Plastic materials are often used instead of natural products because they cost less and sometimes tend to be more durable.  However, natural plant products continue to have some superior attributes and are used when materials are readily available.  There are six principal groups of fibers distinguished according to the way in which they are used.


          Textile Fibers are the most important in that they are used for fabrics, cordage and netting.  To make fabrics and netting flexible fibers are twisted together into thread or yarn and then either spun, knitted, woven or in some other way utilized.  Fabrics include cloth for wearing apparel, domestic use, awnings, sails, etc., and also coarser materials such as gunny and burlap.  Fabric fibers are all of some commercial value.  Netting fibers that are used for hammocks, lace and all forms of nets include many of the commercial fabric fibers and a number of native fibers as well.  Both commercial and native fibers are used for cordage.  For this the individual fibers are twisted together instead of being woven.  Binder Twine, fish lines, hawsers, rope and cables are among the many types. 


          Brush Fibers are stiff tough fibers including small stems and twigs that are utilized for making brooms and brushes.


          Rough Weaving & Plaitling Fibers.  Plaits are fibrous, flat and pliable strands that are interlaced to make straw hats, baskets, sandals, chair seats, etc.  The most elastic strands are woven together for mattings and the thatched roofs of houses.  The supple twigs or woody fibers are for making chairs, baskets and other wickerwork.


          Filling Fibers are used for stuffing mattresses, cushions and in upholstery; for caulking seams in boats and in casks and barrels; as stiffening in plaster and as packing material.


          Natural Fabrics are usually obtained from tree basts that are extracted from bark in layers or sheets and pounded into rough substitutes for lace or cloth.


          Fibers for Paper Manufacture includes textile fibers and wood fibers that are used in either the raw or manufactured state.


          A plant cannot be restricted absolutely to any single group because the same fiber may be used for different purposes.  Also, a plant may yield more than one kind of fiber.  Thus the following discussion includes species that are considered in the group in which they are of the greatest importance.


Structure & Occurrence (Fibers)


          All fibers are similar in that they are sclerenchyma cells that serve as part of the plant skeleton.  They are predominantly long cells with thick walls and small cavities and usually pointed ends.  The walls often contain lignin as well as cellulose.  Fibers occur singly or in small groups, but they are more apt to form sheets of tissue with the individual cells overlapping and interlocking.


          Fibers may occur in almost any part of a plant:  stems, leaves, fruits, seeds, etc.  The four main types grouped according to their origin include bast fibers, wood fibers, sclerenchyma cells associated with the vascular bundle strands in leaves, and surface fibers that are hair like outgrowths on the seeds of the plants.  The term “bast fiber” is subject to criticism, as it gives no indication as to the particular tissue or region in which the fibers occur.  It might be preferable to designate those fibers that occur in the outer parts of the stem as cortical fibers, pericyclic fibers or phloem fibers.  But “bast” is a term that has been in use for a long time and is so established in commerce that it will be used in this discussion.


          Fibers of economic importance occur in many different plant families, especially those from the tropics.  Some of the more important families are the Palmaceae, Gramineae, Liliaceae, Musaceae, Amaryllidaceae, Malvaceae, Urticaceae, Linaceae, Moraceae, Tiliaceae, Bromeliaceae, Bombacaceae, and Luguminosae.


Textile Fibers


          These fibers must be long and possess a high tensile strength and cohesiveness with pliability.  They must have a fine, uniform, lustrous staple and must be durable and abundantly available.  Only a small number of the different kinds of fibers possess these traits and are thus of commercial importance.  The principal textile fibers are grouped into three classes:  surface fibers, soft fibers and hard fibers, with the last two often referred to as long fibers.


          Surface or short fibers include the so-called cottons.  The soft fibers are the bast fibers that are found mainly in the pericycle or secondary phloem of dicotyledon stems.  Bast fibers are capable of subdivision into very fine flexible strands and are used for the best grades of cordage and fabrics.  Included are hemp, jute, flax and ramie.


          Hard or mixed fibers are structural elements found mainly in the leaves of many tropical monocots, although they may be found in fruits and stems.  They are used for the more coarse textiles.  Sisal, abacá, henequén, agaves, coconut and pineapple are examples of plants with hard fibers.


Surface Fibers




          Cotton (Gossypium spp.) is one of the greatest of all industrial crops.  It is the principal fiber plant as well as one of the oldest and most economical.  It was known since ancient times and well before written records.  There are references to cotton by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Cotton was found in India before 1,800 B.C.  The Hindus were believed to be one of the first people to weave cloth in the Eastern Hemisphere, although reference to Nordic traders of woven goods in North America during the Bronze Age has been made by Fell 1982 (http://faculty.ucr.edu/~legneref/bronze/fell2.htm).  Cotton was introduced to Europe by the Arabs who called the plant “qutn.”  The plant had several origins because Columbus found it in cultivation in the West Indies, and it was known to the Amerindians of Neotropical America in Pre-Columbian times.  Cotton became a commercial crop in the united States after 1787.


Cotton Characteristics


          Several species of the genus Gossypium provide what we call cotton.  The fine fibrous hairs that occur on the seeds constitute the raw material.  These hairs are flattened, twisted and tubular.  They compose the lint, floss or staple.  Their length and other qualities vary with the different varieties.  The plant is a perennial shrub or small tree naturally, but under cultivation it is treated as an annual.  It branches freely and grows to a height of 4-8 ft. Cotton thrives in sandy soil in humid regions that are near water.  This environment is typified in the southern United States and in the river valleys of India and Egypt.  Cotton matures in 5-6 months and is ready to harvest soon after.


Kinds of Cotton


          Hundreds of varieties have been developed from wild ancestors or produced by breeding during the long period of cultivation.  Varieties differ in fiber character as well as other morphological features.  Cotton is a difficult group to classify and the exact number of species is subject to argument.  Cultivated cottons of commercial importance are usually referred to one or another of four species:  Gossypium barbadense and G. hirsutum in the Western Hemisphere and G. arboreum and G. herbaceum in the Eastern Hemisphere.


          1.--Gossypium barbadense  probably originated in tropical South America.  The flowers are bright yellow with purple spots.  The fruit, or boll, has three valves, and the seeds are fuzzy only at the ends.  Two distinct types exist:


          Sea-Island Cotton.  This type has never been found in the wild as it was already being cultivated at the time of Columbus.  It has fine, strong and light cream-colored fibers that are regular in the number and uniformity of the twists and they have a silky appearance.  These characteristics are valuable and sea-island cotton was formerly in great demand for the finest textiles, yarns, and lace and spool cotton.  Sea-island cotton was brought to the United States from the West Indies in 1785.  The finest types were developed on the islands off the South Carolina coast and adjacent mainland.  Here strong and firm stables of two inches or more in length were produced.  Another form of sea-island cotton was grown along the coast in Georgia to Florida and in the West Indies and South America.  This has a staple of 1.5-1.75 in. in length.  The yield of sea-island cotton was lower than other kinds of cotton, but this was compensated for by the greater value of the fiber.  The boll weevil almost completely eradicated production of sea-island cotton before control measures were discovered.


          Egyptian Cotton  This cotton is grown in the Nile basin of Egypt where it was introduced from Central America.  The plant is similar in appearance to sea-island cotton and is believed to be a hybrid.  However, the staple is brown in color and shorter.  Its length, strength, and firmness make this cotton suitable for thread, undergarments, hosiery, and fine dress goods.  Egyptian cotton was brought to the United States in 1902 as an experimental crop and 10 years later it was recommended to farmers in the semiarid regions that were under irrigation.  It was then grown in the western states of California, New Mexico and Arizona.  Repeated selection and breeding resulted in the development of new strains of which Pima Cotton is of highest quality.


          2.--Gossypium hirsutum is a native American species that was grown by Pre-Columbian civilizations.  It is usually called Upland Cotton, and is the easiest and most economical kind of cotton to grow.  It constitutes the greater part of the cultivated cotton of the world.  The flowers are white or light yellow and unspotted.  The bolls are four- or five-valved, and the seeds are covered with fuzz.  Upland cotton thrives under a variety of conditions but does best in a sandy soil with abundant moisture during the growing and fruiting season and dryness during the time of boll opening and harvest as well as a temperature of 60-90 deg. Fahrenheit.  The northern limit of economic growth is 37 deg. N. Lat.  The Cotton Belt of the southern United States grows mostly upland cotton.  The fibers are white with a wide range in staple length (5/8ths to 1.3/8ths in.).  There are over 1210 named varieties, many of which were developed through breeding experiments.  The species probably originated in Guatemala or southern Mexico and spread northward to its present limits in North America.  A well-marked variety, often recognized as a distinct species, occurs in the West Indies and along the dry coastal areas of South America as far as Ecuador and Brazil.  Another variety occurs in Central America, northward along the Gulf of Mexico to Florida and the Bahamas and in the Greater Antilles.


          3.--Gossypium arboreum is the perennial tree cotton of Africa, India and Arabia.  It was most likely the first to be used commercially, but production is now confined to India.  The staples are coarse and very short (3/8ths to 34 in. long), but they are strong.


          4.--Gossypium herbaceum  is the principal cotton of Asia.  It was grown in Indian in ancient times and continues to be used locally there and in Iran, China and Japan.  Its chief use is for fabrics, carpets and blankets and is often blended with wool.


          There are additionally several wild species of Gossypium in some tropical and subtropical areas.


Cotton Industry


          Cotton used to be an expensive material because it was difficult to remove the fibers from the seed.  The cotton gin developed by Eli Whitney in 1793 changed this situation and a revolution of the industry was started.  Cotton then assumed a very prominent position in world commerce.  The economics of cotton has had a profound effect on both the producing and purchasing nations.  It is well accepted that slavery was perpetuated in America because of this crop.


          There are several steps necessary in the preparation of raw cotton fiber in order to prepare it for the textile industry.  These operations involve ginning in either a saw-tooth or a roller gin, baling, transporting to the mills, picking to remove any foreign matter and delivers the cotton in a uniform layer, lapping where three layers are combined into one, carding, combing and drawing where the short fibers are extracted and the others straightened and evenly distributed, and finally twisting the fibers into thread.


Cotton Uses


          Cotton is used either by itself or in combination with other fibers in the manufacture of all types of textiles.  Unspun cotton is extensively used for stuffing purposes.  Treating the fibers with caustic soda, which imparts a high luster and silky appearance, makes Mercerized Cotton.  Absorbent Cotton consists of fibers that have been cleaned and from which the oily covering layer has been removed.  It is almost pure cellulose and makes up one of the basic raw materials of various cellulose industries.


          A noteworthy advance in the cotton industry was the utilization of what were formerly waste products.  In the early stages of the industry the cotton seed along with its fuzzy covering of short hairs or linters was discarded.  However, all parts of the plant are now conserved to yield products that are valuable.  The stalks contain a fiber that can be used to make paper or fuel and the roots possess a crude drug.  The seeds are used for oil extraction and for livestock feed.  The linters give wadding, stuffing for pads, cushions, pillows, mattress, etc; absorbent cotton; low grade yarn for twine, ropes and carpets; and cellulose.  The hulls are also livestock feed; fertilizer; lining oil wells to prevent cave-ins of the sides; as a source of Xylose, a sugar that can be converted into alcohol or various explosives and industrial solvents.  The kernels yield an important fatty oil, cottonseed oil; and oil cake and meal are used for fertilizer, livestock feed, and flour and as a dye.


Soft or Bast Fibers




          Once the most valuable and useful of fibers, flax gradually became less important as synthetics and cotton assumed more prominent roles.  Flax is more durable than cotton and can yield a very fine fabric.  The plant has been under cultivation for so long that its point of origin is unknown.  It was used by the Swiss Lake Dwellers and was known to the ancient Hebrews and is frequently noted in the Bible.  The ancient Egyptians wore linen and used it for the burial cloths.  They carved pictures of the flax plant on their tombs.  Long before the Christian era the Greek imported flax, and it is believed that the plant was being cultivated prior to 3,000 B.C.


          Flax is in the genus Linum that contains several wild species of no economic importance as well as Linum usitatissimum, the source of the commercial fiber.  The plant is an annual herb with blue or white flowers and small leaves.  It grows to a height of from 1-4 ft.  The fibers are formed in the pericycle and are made up of very tough, stringy strands from 1-3 ft. long that are aggregates of many long pointed cells with very thick cellulose walls.  Flax does best in soil that is rich in organic matter and moisture and in temperate regions, but it may be grown elsewhere.  Preparation of the fibers is a more expensive procedure than for cotton.  The crop is harvested and a process known as rippling breaks the stems.  The fibers may then be rotted out by submerging the stems in water or by exposing them to dew.  During this process called retting and enzyme dissolves the calcium pectate of the middle lamella, which holds the cells together, and frees the fibers.  After retting the straw is dried and cleaned and the fibers are completely separated from the other tissues of the stem by an operation known as scutching.  Finally the shorter fibers that constitute the tow are separated from the longer fibers. The long fibers are the only ones suited for spinning.


          The fibers of flax have great tensile strength, staple length, durability and fineness.  They are used in the manufacture of linen cloth and thread, canvas, duck, strong twine, carpets, fish and seine lines, cigarette paper, writing paper and insulating materials.  Fibers from the stalks of flax grown for seed are too harsh and brittle for spinning but may be used for other purposes.


          The principal production area was Northern Europe, with Russia producing around 70 percent of the world crop.  Some of the finest flax is grown in Belgium.  The Pilgrims introduced flax into North America and these and other colonists were growing sufficient amount for domestic use until 1900.  Flax is a good crop with which to reclaim native soil and for a long time its cultivation was confined to the frontier.  Flax is grown for its seed in areas with low rainfall.  The seed is used in medicine and as a source of linseed oil.




          The term “hemp” is applied loosely to include a number of very different plants and fibers.  The true hemp is Cannabis sativa, a plant native to Central and Western Asia but has spread worldwide where it often occurs as a troublesome weed.


          The plant is a stout, bushy, branching annual that varies from 5-15 ft in height.  It is dioecious with hollow stems and palmate leaves.  The best grade of fiber is obtained from male plants.  Hemp requires a mild humid climate and a rich loamy soil with an abundance of humus.  Calcareous soils are especially suitable.


          The fiber is white bast that develops in the pericycle.  It is valuable because of its length that varies from 3-15 ft, its strength and great durability.  However, it lacks the flexibility and elasticity of flax because of its lignification.  Yields are usually high with one acre producing 2-3 tons of stems, 25 percent of which is fibrous material.  The plants are harvested and shocked and dried.  The fibers are separated from the rest of the bark by retting, either in dew or in water.  They are then broken, scutched and hackled.  Hemp must be harvested when the male flowers are in full bloom or the fibers are too week or too brittle to be of value.


          Hemp is an ancient crop that had been grown in China before 2,000 B.C.  It was introduced into Europe around 1,500 B.C.  It reached North America in early colonial days and became a viable industry in Kentucky and Wisconsin.  By the 21st Century very little of the crop was being grown in North America.


          Hemp has been used to make ropes, carpets, twine, and sailcloth, yacht cordage, binder twine, sacks, bags and webbing.  The waste and woody fibers of the stem were sometimes used to make paper.  The finer grades can be woven into a cloth that resembles coarse linen.  The short fibers or tow and ravelings constitute Oakum.  This is used for caulking the seams between the plants in shipbuilding, in cooperage and as packing for pumps, engines, etc.  In the tropics hemp is grown for its seed, and also for a drug that is gotten from the flowering tops and leaves.  The seeds contain oil that is useful in the soap and paint industries as a substitute for linseed oil.  The drug, known as Hashish, is a resinous substance that contains several powerful alkaloids.  In America this type of hemp is known as Marijuana.  Ganja is a specially cultivated and harvested grade of hemp used for smoking and in beverages and candies.  It has high resin content.




          Jute has been used almost extensively as cotton even though it is much less valuable than either cotton of flax.  It is a bast fiber obtained from the secondary phloem of two species of Corchorus of Asia.  The best quality is from C. capsularis, a species with round pods that is grown in lowland areas subject to flooding.  The plant is a tall, slender, somewhat shrubby annual with yellow flowers that grows to a height of 8-10 ft.  It requires a warm climate and a rich, loamy alluvial soil.  Fiber from C. olitorius, and upland species with long pods, is somewhat inferior but the two are not separated in commerce.


          Harvest occurs within 3-4 months after planting and while the flowers are still in full bloom.  The stems are retted in pools or tanks for several days to rot out the softer gummy tissues, and whipping the stems on the surface of the water then loosens the jute, or Gunny, strands.  The pale-yellow fibers are very long, from 6-10 ft. in length, and they are very stiff being highly lignified.  They have a silky luster.  They are produced in abundance, but are not especially strong and they tend to deteriorate when exposed to moisture.  Despite these disadvantages they are economical and easily spun.  Plastics have replaced many of the products formerly made from jute, however.


          Jute has been used mainly for rough weaving into burlap bags, gunnysacks and covers for cotton bales.  The fiber is also used for twine, carpets, curtains and coarse cloth.  Short fibers and pieces from the lower ends of the stalks make up jute butts that have been used in paper manufacture.  India has the largest acreage of jute.




          Baehmeria nivea is a perennial, herbaceous or shrubby plant without branches when cultivated.  It has slender stalks that reach a height of 3-6 ft. and they bear heart-shaped leaves that are green above and white beneath.  The plant is from Asia and was grown in China in ancient times.  It requires a fertile, well-drained soil.  Several crops per year compensate for a rather low yield, especially in North America.


          Fine fibers are obtained from the bast, which are very long, strong and durable.  They also have a high degree of luster and would be desirable for textile purposes were it not for difficulties in the extraction and cleaning process.  The stems are first immersed in water.  The bark is then peeled off and the outer portions and green tissue are scraped off or are removed by oiling or mechanical means.  The fibers that remain are heavily coated with gum and require further treatment before they can be used.  They make up the China Grass, or Filasse, that is used in the manufacture of grass cloth and other dress goods in Asia.  Ramie has been used in Europe for under garments, upholstery, thread and paper.  Although it is one of the strongest fibers known, being three times as strong as hemp, ramie has not been generally used because the treatment necessary to remove the fibers is very costly.  The development of a simpler process has not increased the use of ramie.


          Another variety, Boehmeria nivea var. tenacissima, is sometimes called Rhea.  This plant is native to Malaya and resembles Ramie except that the leaves are green on both sides.  Rhea fiber is included under ramie in industry.


Sunn Hemp


          Crotalaria juncea is an important fiber plant in Asia.  It has been cultivated since ancient times and there are no known wild ancestors.  It is the earliest fiber to be mentioned in Sanskrit writings (Hill 1952).  It is a shrubby annual legume from 6-12 ft tall with bright yellow flowers.  It is grown primarily in southern India. 


Misc Soft Fibers


          Almost all the members of the Malvaceae yield bast fibers that can be used in textiles.  Some of the most important are as follows:


          China Jute or Indian Mallow (Abutilon theophrasti) is an annual plant that yields a strong, coarse, grayish-white lustrous fiber with characteristics similar to jute.  It has been extensively grown in China and was introduced into North America where it can thrive.  The fibers have great tensile strength, take dyes readily and are used in China for making rugs and paper.


          Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus) is a tall herb that yields a fiber with has over 129 names, among them Deccan, Ambari or Gambo Hemp, Java Jute and Mesta Fiber.  It is a substitute for hemp and jute in the manufacture of coarse canvas, gunnysacks, cordage, matting and fishing nets.  The plant is adapted to a wide range of climates and soils.  Harvest is right after the flowers come into bloom.  The fibers are 5-10 ft. long and are usually extracted by retting.  Kenaf seed yields up to 20 percent of edible oil on being refined.


          Roselle or Rama (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is cultivated in India, Southeastern Asia and some Pacific islands as a substitute for jute and for its edible fruit.  The light-brown fibers are silky, soft and lustrous.  Roselle is adapted to well-drained fertile soil where there is a 20-in. rainfall.  It grows fast and can be harvested 90 days after planting.  Retting is accomplished in 10-12 days, and the fibers are easily slipped from the bark.  The red fleshy calices and involucels surrounding the young fruits are acid and provide a sour relish.  The juice is used for flavoring and in making jellies, jams and wine.


          Aramina or Cadillo (Urena lobata) occurs as a weed in most tropical countries.  It provides a yellowish-white fiber that is more durable than jute and is used as a substitute in some industries.  It has been grown commercially in Cuba, Madagascar, Nigeria, the Congo and Brazil where it is made into coffee sacks.


          Other malvaceous species that yield fibers but which are of minor importance include Okra, Hibiscus esculentus, Majagua, Hibiscus tiliaceus, and several species of the genus Sida.  Sida acuta is an extremely easy plant to harvest and prepare and the fibers are twice as strong as jute.


         The Amerindians used the bast fibers of different plant for their bowstrings, nets, etc.  Colorado River Hemp, Sesbania exaltata, was widely used by the western groups, while Indian Hemp, Apocynum cannabinum, and Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, yielded important fibers for eastern groups of Amerindians.


Hard Structural Fibers


Abacá or Manila Hemp


          This is a premier cordage material that is obtained from several species of wild plantain or banana.  Musa textilis is the principal source.  It resembles the true banana but has narrow more tufted leaves and inedible fruits.  The plant forms a clump of 12-30 sheathing leafstalks 10-20 ft. high with a crown of spreading leaf blades 3-6 ft long.  The fiber is secured from the outer portion of the leafstalks.  Mature stalks are cut at the roots and split open lengthwise.  The pulp and the fiber strands are removed, and the strands are washed and dried.


          Individual fibers are 6-12 ft. long, lustrous and variable in color from white to light ocher.  They are light, elastic, stiff and very strong, durable and resistant to both fresh and salt water.  Therefore, the main use of abacá has been in the manufacture of high-grade cordage, especially marine cables.  Plastic cables are frequently substituted but they are not as easy to manage on ships as true abacá.  Other products made from this kind of hemp are binder twine, bagging, strong tissue paper, papier-mâché, wrapping paper and Manila paper for sacks.  In Japan Manila hemp was used in making movable partitions in houses.  The individual fibers cannot be spun, but strands of fibers are used to make the lustrous cloth known as Sinamay.


          Musa textilis has been of commercial importance only in the Philippines although it grows in other Asian countries as well.  The plant was known and used by the inhabitants of the region centuries before the arrival of the first European explorers early in the 16th Century.  The first shipment was made to North America in 1818.  From then until 1918 it was the main export of the Philippines, amounting to over 300-thousand pounds annually (Hill 1952).  More recently sugar and sometimes copra have exceeded it in production.


          Manila help requires a warm climate, fertile soil, shade, good drainage, abundant moisture and an elevation lower than 3,000 ft.  Suckers and rootstalks propagate it.  The crop is grown in small fields or on large plantations and matures in 18-36 months.


          After several failures, Abacá was successfully introduced into the Western Hemisphere in 1925 in Panama, but did not develop into a commercial item.  However, with World War II the serious shortages of Manila hemp became a serious threat to the war effort and the United States government financed a project in several Central American countries.  Machines for cleaning the leaves were devised and installed, and soon some 26,000 acres were being cultivated that produced 3-million pounds of fiber.  At the end of the war the industry was soundly established in Costa Rica.


Agave Fibers


          By the middle of the 20th Century agave fibers were next to cotton in importance in America.  By 1952 their value sometimes amounted to over 36 million dollars per year. But due to labor costs and the availability of synthetic alternatives their production declined thereafter.  These plants are stemless perennials with basal rosettes of erect fleshy leaves.  The leaves contain fibers that are removed either by hand or machine.  There are numerous species of local occurrence.  They are very drought tolerant and flourish in dry sterile soils.  Several kinds of commercial importance are discussed as follows:


     Henequén or Mexican Sisal (Agave fourcroydes)


          Amerindian groups have used this native Mexican species since ancient times.  By the mid 20th Century Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula produced most of the crop.  The leaves bear spines that make them difficult to handle.  The light straw colored fiber is scraped out from the leaf tissue.  It is hard, elastic and wiry, measuring 2-5 ft. in length.  It was used mainly for binder twine, lariats and durable mats.  It is not suited for marine or hoisting cables, as it is heavy and weak.  Tablemats constructed from this fiber have a beautiful luster and are resistant to stains.  Agave letonae from El Salvador is a related species.  Production declined dramatically by the 21st Century.


     Sisal (Agave sisalana)


          This is very similar in appearance to henequén but the leaves bear few spines.  Native to Mexico and Central America it was cultivated in Hawaii, the East and West Indies and in several parts of Africa.  The plant is very drought resistant and will grow where other species fail.  Little cultivation is required.  The coarse, stiff, light yellow to white fibers are removed, cleaned, dried and packed in bales for shipment.  Synthetic fibers also largely replaced sisal by the 21st Century.




          In ancient times there were several fibers used in Mexico under the names of Istle, Ixtle or Tampico Fiber.  Three species of most importance are Jaumaveistle, Agave funkiana, Tula Istle, A. lecheguilla, and Palma Istle, Samuela carnerosana.  Several species of Yucca were also grouped under the category of Istle.  The fibers are obtained from immature leaves of wild plants.  Although these fibers are shorter than those of sisal and henequén, they are very strong and durable.  They were formerly used for brushes and as a cheap substitute for sisal and Abacá to make bagging, twine and rope.




          Manila Maguey or Cantala, Agave cantala, is a species from Mexico that was introduced into India and Southeastern Asia.  It was grown commercially in the Philippines, Java and elsewhere as a substitute for sisal.  Mexican Maguey is obtained from different species of Agave and the fibers are valued only locally by the inhabitants of the region in which it grows.  It was nevertheless a highly valued plant by Amerindians who used it to make the fermented beverages of Pulque and Mescal.


Mauritius Hemp


          Leaves of the Green aloe, Furcraea gigantea, are the source of Mauritius hemp.  The plant is native to tropical America but is grown worldwide, where local inhabitants use its fiber.  It has been grown commercially in Mauritius, Madagascar, St. Helena and South Africa, India, Venezuela and Brazil, where it is know as Piteira.  The plant resembles an agave but has larger, less rigid leaves and a very long peduncle or flower stalk that can reach of height of 20-40 ft.  The fibers are very long, 4-7 ft., and they are white, soft, very flexible and elastic.  They are not as strong as sisal and are used either alone or in a mixture for making bags, hammocks, coarse twine and other cordage.


          Several other species of Furcraea yield fibers of local importance in tropical America.  Included are Fique, Furcraea macrophylla, of Colombia; Cabuya, F. cabuya, of Central America; and Pitre, F. hexapetala, of the West Indies and sometimes called Cuban Hemp.


New Zealand Hemp


          Also called New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax is from the leaves of an iris like plant.  It is native to wet areas of New Zealand but has been transported throughout the tropics and temperate regions of the world.  In North America it serves as an ornamental.  The fibers are very long, 3-7 ft. in length, and have a high luster.  They are softer and more flexible than abacá and are used mainly for towlines, twine and other forms of cordage and mattings, and sometimes for cloth.


Bowstring Hemp


          Many species of the genus Sansevieria occur as wild plants in parts of tropical Asia and Africa.  These bowstring hemps are herbaceous perennials with basal rosettes of sword like leaves that arise from a creeping rootstalk.  The leaves contain a strong white elastic fiber that has been used since ancient times for mats, hammocks, bowstrings and other types of cordage.  Wild plants are generally utilized but some species have been cultivated.  The fibers are removed by hand or mechanically.  Important species include Sansevieria thyrsiflora of tropical Africa, S. roxburghiana of India and S. zeylanica of Sri Lanka.  Several species were introduced into North America among which is the Florida Bowstring Hemp, S. longifolia.




          This is a term applied to the short, coarse and rough fibers that make up a large part of the husk of coconut fruits, Cocos nucifera. It is the only prominent fiber that is obtained from fruits.  Unripe coconuts are soaked in salt water for several months to loosen the fibers.  They are then beaten to separate the fibers that are then washed and dried.  The product has varied uses.  In tropical Asia and Pacific Islands it is the source of Sennit Braid that is used for cables, small cordage and hawsers.  Coconut fibers are superior to all others for this purpose because they re very light and elastic and resistant to water.  Coir has also been used for brush bristles, doormats, sacks, floor coverings, some textiles, upholstery, and stuffing for the bearings of railroad cars and as a substitute for oakum.  Sri Lanka has been the center for commercial production.  In Puerto Rico Coir was used in horticulture as a substitute for peat.




          Pineapple, Ananas comosus, is the source of fibers of great strength and fine qualities.  They are shiny white, very durable and flexible and are not harmed by water.  When grown for the fiber pineapples are planted closer together and develop longer leaves.  The best fibers are gathered from leaves that have not attained their maximum length.  Two-year old leaves are usually harvested and the fibers scraped out by hand, which is an expensive process.  After drying and combing, the fibers are tied end to end and can be woven.  In the Philippines Piña Cloth is one of the most delicate and expensive of fabrics made from these fibers.


Pita Floja


          Aechmea magdalenae is a plant that resembles pineapple.  It is native to the dry alluvial soils from southern Mexico to Ecuador.  The long leaves have a fiber of high quality known as Pita Floja or Pita.  These fibers are the basis of one of the most ancient and most important native industries in Oaxaca and have also been used in Central America and Colombia.  The fibers are 5-8 ft. long, white or light cream colored, lustrous, finer and more flexible than other hard fibers and with a high tensile strength.  They are very resistant to salt water so they are used to make fish lines and nets.  They are also used for sewing leather.




            This fiber is a substitute for jute.  It is from Neoglaziovia variegata a bromeliad of the dry, hot arid areas of northeastern Brazil.  The leaves yield a soft, flexible, white elastic fiber three times as strong as jute.  Caroá is used for rugs, sacks, textiles, cordage, twine and paper.


Brush Fibers


          Brushes, brooms and whisks are made from various vegetable fibers.  These fibers need to be strong, stiff and elastic with a high flexibility.  Sometimes whole twigs, fine stems or roots are used, or the fibers are secured from leafstalks.  Several important brush fibers are as follows:




          A few species of palms that grow in tropical America and Africa are the source of brush fibers called commercially Piassava, Piassaba or Bass Fiber.  These trees have leaf stalks or leaf sheaths that yield the stiff, coarse, brown or black fibers in making brushes for sweeping large areas such as sidewalks and streets


          West African Piassava is obtained from a wine palm, Raphia vinifera that grows in profusion in the tidal bayous and creeks of Liberia and other parts of West Africa.  The leafstalks are retted and the bundles beaten.  The long fibers are used to make mats and brushes.  A wine is fermented from the palm tree sap.


          Brazilian Piassava is from two species of palm found in profusion in the lowlands of the Amazon and Orinoco regions.  Attalea funifera is the source of Bahia Piassava.  The fibers are wiry, stiff and brown and almost like bristles.  They are removed from the swollen bases of the leafstalks with an ax.  They have been used primarily for street-cleaning machine brushes because the fibers are very durable and retain their resiliency even when wet.  Para Piassava fibers are formed on the margins of the leaf petioles of Leopoldinia piassaba.  They are used not only for brushes and brooms but also for hats, baskets and ropes.


          Some other coarse fibers such as Palmyra and Kittul Fiber are classed as piassava in commerce.  Palmyra Fiber is from the Palmyra palm, Borassus flabellifer, of the East Indies.  This palm is one of the most useful as all parts of the plant are used for some purpose.  The fibers are made into twine, paper, rope and machine brushes.  Kittul Fiber is finer, softer and more pliable. It is obtained from the leaf sheaths of the Toddy palm, Caryota urens, of Sri Lanka and the East Indies.  The black bristles are made into strong ropes or into soft brushes.  They also are substitutes for horsehair and oakum.


          Cabbage palm, Sabal palmetto, of coastal southeastern North America yields a valuable fiber called Palmetto Fiber.  The highest-grade fiber is obtained from young leaf stalks that are still in the bud.  Coarser fibers come from mature leaves or the bases of old leaf stalks surrounding the bud.  There was one an industry in Florida that processed this fiber for use as a substitute for palmyra in brushes.  Palmetto fibers are reddish tan in color and 8-20 in. long.  The bud of the palm is edible and the roots contain tannin.




          The sorghum, Sorghum vulgare var. technicum, differs from other sorghums by having a panicle with long straight branches.  This inflorescence or seed head is the “brush” that is made into brooms.  A dwarf variety exists that furnishes fiber for whiskbrooms, while the normal sized variety is used for carpet brooms.  Harvest is before the end of flowering season by cutting the stems a few inches below the head.  The heads are sorted, threshed and dried.  Another species, Spartina spartinae, is a native grass of the southern Coastal Plain from Florida to Mexico that has been used in combination with the sorghum.  Brooms often consist of as much as 50 percent Spartina surrounded by broomcorn.




         Broomroot or Zacaton, Muhlenbergia macroura, is used to manufacture cheaper brushes.  The plant is a grass found from Texas to Central America, especially in the mountainous regions of Mexico.  It is a perennial with tufted wiry culms and coarse roots.  The roots are the plant part utilized.  They are harvested year-round, washed, cleaned and dried.  They are then cut from the tops, graded according to quality, length and color and baled for export.


Rough Weaving & Plaiting Fibers


          There are relatively few materials that are manufactured for plaited or coarsely woven articles.  The raw materials include the rushes, stems of reeds, willows, bamboo, grasses, rattan and leaves and roots.  They are used entirely or split.  They are woven or twisted together in a simple manner and made into sandals, mats, hats, matting, screens, chair seats, baskets, etc.


Hat Fibers


          In many parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, rice, barley, wheat and rye are grown for the purpose of making braids or straw plaits for hats.  The plants are grown close together so that they will have few leaves, and they are harvested before they mature.  The stems are split lengthwise before plaiting.  The Leghorn Hats and Tuscan Hats of Italy are some of the best of the straw hats.


          Panama Hats are made from the leaves of Toquilla, Carludovica palmata, a stem less, palm like plant that grows wild in the forests from southern Mexico to Peru.  It has been cultivated in Ecuador and parts of Colombia.  The Panama hat industry is concentrated in Ecuador.  Young leaves are collected while they are still folded in the bud and treated with hot water.  The coarse veins are removed and the plaits are separated and split lengthwise into slender strips that are slowly dried and bleached.  They gradually roll inward forming fine cylindrical strands known as Jipijapa.  The hats are woven by hand from these strands.  About six leaves are necessary to make one hat.  The best quality Panama hats are uniform and have a fine texture, are strong, durable and elastic and resistant to water.  The Puerto Rican Hats are made from the leaves of the Hat palm, Sabal causiarum.


Mats and Matting


          In the Eastern Hemisphere commercial mattings have been made from several rushes, grasses and sedges.  Usually the stalks or leaves are used alone, but they may be combined with cotton of hemp.  Some of the species utilized are Chinese Mat Grass, Cyperus tegetiformis, and Japanese Mat Rush, Juncus effusus.


          The Screw Pines, Pandanus tectorius and P. utilis are important in Southeastern Asia and Oceania for making mats.  The leaves of these species are also used for sugar bags, cordage, hats and thatching.




          Baskets have been and are continuously being made from an array of plant species worldwide.  Roots, stems, leaves and even woody splints have been used.  Commercial baskets are usually made from rushes, cereal straw, osiers or willows, and ash or white oak splints.  Sweet grass baskets are made from Hierochloe odorata, a common species in lowlands along the coast and Great Lakes.  Another important source of basket fiber is the Raffia palm, Raffia pedunculata, native to Madagascar.  Strips of the lower epidermis of the leaves are the raffia of commerce.  The fiber is so soft and silk like that it can be woven.  It is especially useful as a tie material for nurseries and gardens.




          This includes chair seats, chairs, infant carriages, hampers and other light articles of furniture.  Willows, rattan and bamboo are the main plants used.


          Rattan is obtained from several species of climbing palms, Calamus spp., that grow in the humid forests of the East Indies and other parts of tropical Asia.  The stems of these plants are long, strong, flexible and uniform.  They are used either entirely or as splits in Asia for furniture, canes, baskets and other items.  A considerable quantity of rattan is exported for making furniture.


          Bamboos occur in most tropical areas, but they are especially abundant in the monsoon regions of Eastern Asia.  They are the largest of the grasses with woody stems that sometimes reach one foot in diameter and a height of over 10 feet.  There are many species in the families Arundinaria, Bambusa, Dendrocalamus, Gigantochloa, Phyllostachys, and other genera.  The stems are used for all kinds of construction in areas where these plants grow.  Exported bamboo is used in the manufacture of furniture, fishing rods and implements of various kinds.  Bamboo splits are made into baskets and brushes.


          In the Western Hemisphere bamboos have not been extensively utilized.  Guadua angustifolia is a species with very strong culms and has been used in Ecuador to make furniture and in house construction.


Filling Fibers


          Many plant fibers have been used to stuff pillows, cushions, furniture, mattresses, etc.  They are also used to caulk the seams of vessels, in the making of staff for buildings, as stiffening for plaster, packing for bulkheads and machine bearings, and for the protection of delicate objects during shipment.  Synthetic materials frequently take the place of these long used products, but in some ways they retain some superiority.  Surface fibers are commonly used for stuffing because their staples are too short to be spun and thus are not valued in the textile industry.  Bast fibers are too costly, and hard fibers are frequently too stiff and coarse.  The silk cottons are the most important source for stuffing.




          This is the most popular silk cotton and most valuable of all the stuffing substances.  Kapok is the floss produced in the pods of the Kapok tree, Ceiba pentandra.  Originally confined to the American tropics, it is now found worldwide.  It is an irregular tree, 50-100 ft. tall, with a buttressed base and peculiar growth habit.  It grows rapidly and begins to bare when only 15 ft. tall.  A mature tree can produce more than 600 pods and from 6-10 lbs. of the cottony fibers.  Pods are clipped from the branches and opened.  The floss is removed and the seeds separated by centrifugal force.  The floss is 1/2-1 1/2 in. long and whitish, yellowish or brownish in color.  It is very fluffy, light and elastic and is thus an ideal stuffing material for mattresses and pillows.  The fibers have a low specific gravity.  They are five times more buoyant than cork and are impervious to water.  Therefore, kapok is valuable as a filling for life preservers, cushions, portable pontoons, etc.  Its low thermal conductivity and its high ability to absorb sound make kapok an excellent material for insulating small refrigerators and for soundproofing rooms.  It has also been used for the linings of sleeping bags, gloves for handling dry ice and in the tropics as surgical dressings.  Kapok seeds have 45 percent fatty oil that is extracted and used for soap and food.


Kapok Substitutes


          There are a number of other plants with seed hairs or floss that can be used as a substitute for kapok.  The Red Silk Cotton Tree or  Simal, Salmalia malabarica, is a very large ornamental tree.  It supplies reddish floss known as Indian Kapok that has been important as a stuffing in India for centuries.  The White Silk Cotton Tree, Cochlospermum religiosum, yields a fiber of some importance.  This handsome tree is native to India but is now widespread in the world tropics.  It is also one source of Kadaya Gum.


          Madar, Calotropis gigantea, and the related Akund, Calotropis procera, are shrubs native to Southern Asia and Africa that produce a silk of some importance.  Although inferior to kapok, this substance is often used in mixtures with kapok.


          The Pochotes of Mexico, Ceiba aesculifolia, C. acuminata, etc., yield a silk cotton almost equal to kapok in buoyancy and resiliency.  Palo Borracho, Chorisia insignis, and Samohu, Chorisia speciosa, of South America yield large amounts of a glossy, white silk cotton with properties similar to kapok.


     <bot183>  Pink-flowering Floss Silk Tree [Chorisia speciosa], Concordia, Argentina


          All of the milkweeds have silky hairs on their seeds and several species are a source of stuffing materials.  Milkweed floss is one of the lightest materials.  it is very buoyant and a perfect insulator.  It was used during World War II as a substitute for kapok.  The pods contain oil and a wax that may have future applications.  Some species yield textile fibers.  In North America, Asclepias syriaca and A. incarnata produce abundant floss.  In the Neotropics, A. curassavica has some value.


Misc. Filling Fibers


          There are innumerable plants and fibers that have use as filling materials.  Included are cereal straw, cornhusks, Spanish Moss and Crin Végétal.


          Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides, is a conspicuous tree epiphyte in Southeastern North America.  This is an excellent substitute for horsehair after it is processed.  The plant is pulled from the trees with rakes or hooks, or it is collected from the ground or water.  It is then fermented in order to rot off the gray outer covering and ginned to remove impurities.  The prepared fiber is brown or black, lustrous and very resilient.  It has been used in upholstery and for automobile cushions.


          Crin Végétal. Chamaerop humilis a dwarf fan palm of Northern Africa and the Mediterranean region in which the leaves have shredded and twisted fibers.  These have been used as stuffing material.


Natural Fabrics


          Some trees have basts with tough interlacing fibers that can be extracted from the bark in layers or sheets and can then be pounded into rough substitutes for cloth.  Tapa Cloth is one of these as it once constituted the main clothing in Polynesia and parts of Eastern Asia.  The material is obtained from the bark of the Paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera.  Strips of bark are peeled from the trunk and the outer coating is scraped away.  After soaking in water and cleaning these strips are placed on a hardwood log and pounded with a mallet.  Overlapping the edges and beating them together unite the individual strips.  The finished product varies according to thickness from muslin like material to one of leather.  Tapa cloth is frequently dyed.


          Similar bark cloths have been manufactured from different sources since antiquity.  In South America the Amerindians used the Tauary, Couratari tauari, and other species of the same genus.  In Mozambique the Wild fig, Ficus nekbudu, was used as a source of Mutshu Cloth.  The Upas Tree, Antiaris toxicaria, of Sri Lanka furnishes a bark cloth.  it is also the source of an important poison used with arrows. 


          Lace Bark is the product of Lagetta lintearia, a small tree of Jamaica.  The inner bark is removed in sheets and can be stretched into a lacelike material with pentagonal meshes.  It is suitable as a textile and ornament.


          Cuba Bast is from Hibiscus elatus, a small bushy tree of the West Indies.  The inner bark is removed in long ribbon-like strips that have been used in millinery and for tying cigars.


          The vegetable sponges, Luffa cylindrica and L. acutangula, yield a unique fiber.  These are climbing cucumbers of the tropics that bear edible fruits containing a lacy network of stiff curled fibers.  This material is extracted by retting in water.  After cleaning it is used for making hats, for washing and scouring machinery, in certain types of oil filters and as a substitute for bath sponges.  A large amount of this material used to be exported by Japan.


Papermaking Fibers


          The manufacture of paper requires the use of cellulose present in plant fibers.  This subject is discussed under Forest Products


Artificial Fibers


          The artificial fibers in use in the textile industry are mostly organic in nature, with synthetic glass fibers being the exception.  The organic materials utilized are cellulose, plant and animal proteins, and synthetic resins, such as nylon that is made from soft coal, water and air.  The cellulose fibers are discussed under Forest Products, while the protein fibers are of only minor importance.  Although they have many of the general properties of wool, their low strength when wet is a serious detriment.  Soybeans, corn and peanuts are the main plant sources of protein fibers.