What are plant fibers?
Plant fibers are fibers that are extracted from various parts of plants – roots, stem, leaf, petioles, fruits and seeds. Plants are carbon-neutral, renewable resources and the fibers taken from the plants can be made into environmentally friendly fabrics.
Most of the plant fibers are very durable and strong and have other advantages such as breathability, water absorption which makes them great for making clothes.
Plant fibers can be harvested from the wild or from commercial farms that cultivate plants for extracting the fibers (fiber crops).
The most commonly used commercially grown plant fibers are cotton, flax, jute, hemp, coconut coir and ramie. Plant fiber has been isolated and woven or knitted or matted into fabrics for a long long time – there are traces of cotton weaving that has been discovered as early as 2500 BC.
Different categories of Plant fibers
The plant fibers can be classified into different types according to which part of the plant they are taken from. There are seed hair fibers, leaf fibers, husk fibers and stem or bast fibers.
Seed fiber – Cotton
Lead fiber – Pineapple, Sisal
Husk fiber – Coconut
Grass fibers – Bamboo, Elephant grass
Bast fibers – Flax, Hemp, Jute, Kenaf ; They are more durable.
Structural Fibers – Abaca, Manila hemp, sisal, raffia; They are harder, weaker and brittle.
Here are the most popular and most useful of all plant fibers
No doubt the most famous of all plant fibers, the cotton fiber is a seed fiber. The different varietes of cotton plant like Gossypium babadense whoch yields Egyptian cotton fibers, Gossypium hirsutum (upland cotton), Gossypium Herbaceum.
Reference for cotton : nature.com.
Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant (Linum Usitattisimum). Linen was the dominant fiber in Europe until cotton replaced it. Flax is widely grown in Western European countries and Ukraine. The fibers are obtained from the stem of the flax plant by water retting or dew retting. Then the woody parts are removed by scutching and fibers are separated. The short fibers and long fibers are separated before spinning them into yarns.
The hemp is cultivated for its bast fibers and seeds. The stalks are cut and subjected to a series of processes called retting, crushing, drying and shaking to get fibers as long as 5.8 feet. The fiber is strong and durable and is used to make cordages like twine, yarn, string and rope.
Jute is obtained from the bark of the white jute plant (Corchorus capsularis/patsun) or Tossa jute (Corchosus Olitorius Jute mallow or nalta jute). They are widely grown in India and Bangladesh. After harvesting the jute, stems are immersed in water for 10 to 30 days for the bacterial action to work on the stem and separate the fibers. This process is known as retting. After retting, the non-fibrous materials are scraped off and the fibers are stripped from the stem. They are washed, dried, sorted and sent to jute mills to convert into yarns.
The major use of jute is in making sacks and bags. The hessian bags made of jute are widely used to store agricultural products like grains, fruits, vegetables, flour, sugar, animal feeds etc. The jute is also used to make clothes. The tufted, as well as oriental rugs and carpets, use jute fabric for the backing. The jute is also used to make ropes, twines and other rough cordage. Since it is biodegradable, the jute sacks are used to plant trees.
A plant native to China, Ramie (Boehmeria Nivea) is grown for its bast fiber. It is commonly known as China grass. To obtain the fiber, the bark is removed by decortication followed by scraping to remove pulp, gum and pectins. It is then washed and dried to extract fibers that can be spun.
This is a husk fiber – Coir is obtained from the outer shell or husk of the seed of the coconut palm. India and Sri Lanka are the main producers of coir. The fiber is up to 35 cm in length. There are two types of coir. The brown coir obtained from the husk of the mature coconut and white coir obtained from the husk of the immature coconut. The fibers are very strong and can be made fluffy. They are used to make cordage and to stuff mattresses. Coir mats are long lasting.
Bamboo is a fast growing grass found mainly in china. Bamboo fibers are extracted and processed into yarns and this is made into a very absorbent and soft fabric. You can learn more about Bamboo fabric here.
Abaca or Musa textilis belongs to the leaf fiber group and is second in importance. It is native to the Philippines. Widely distributed in the humid tropics, the Dutch cultivates it in Sumatra and the US in Central America. The abaca fibre is obtained from the leaf stalks.
Buntal linen, Tinalak and sinmay are fabrics made from abaca fibers.
Eucalyptus tree pulp
Tencel fabric is made from the wood pulp of the Eucalyptus tree which is processed into fibers.
Fig tree bark (Wood fiber)
This is a wood fiber. Barkcloth is a fabric made from the Mutuba fig (wild fig) found in Africa (Uganda)
The henequen is a close relative of sisal. It’s a plant cultivated for leaf fiber. It is native to Mexico and Guatemala and widely cultivated in Cuba. The leaves are cut, shredded and crushed to make a pulp. The fibers are separated, washed and hung upon rails to sundry. The fibers have a lustrous white or yellow colour. They are strong, durable, resistant to seawater and has the ability to stretch. The fibers are used in the production of twine and rope. The fiber is woven into fabric which is used to make hammocks, soles of shoes and bags.
Ixtle or Tampico fiber
Ixtle is a stiff plant fiber obtained from several plants belonging to agave or yucca family found in American continent. They are widely grown in Mexico. Ixtle is the common name of the plants. The Ixtle is also known by its trade name Tampico fiber.
The fibers are obtained from the leaves. It is easier to separate the fibers of plant species belonging to the agave family. But it is difficult to obtain fibers from the plant species belonging to the yucca family. These leaves need to be steamed before extracting the fibers. The Ixtle fibers are used to make household and industrial brushes, scrubbers, brooms, bath sponges, cords and lariats.
Kapok is a giant tree of the tropical forest and the kapok fibers are obtained from its fruits. It is also called Java cotton. The fruits of the kapok tree bear seeds and cotton-like fibers. The fibers are also called silk cotton. They are lustrous and lightweight. Kapok fibers are obtained by harvesting the fruits. The fruits are opened and the fibers along with the seeds. They are stirred in a basket to free the seeds from the fibers. The kapok fibers are moisture-resistant and buoyant fibers. Therefore the kapok fibers are used in water safety equipment like life preservers. They are also used as stuffing in pillows, mattresses and upholstery.
Kenaf plant (Hibiscus Cannabinus) is native to east-central Africa. It is grown for food and fiber. Kenaf is also cultivated in Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, Philippines, Cuba and United States. The fiber is obtained from the plant stem.
The fibers are separated from the stalks mechanically or by hand. They are pale in colour and lustrous. They are about three feet long. The fibers are mainly used for cordage, sacks and canvases. The kenaf fibers are also suitable for paper and cardboard production.
Pina fabric is made from the fibers extracted from pineapple leaves.Pinatex is a trademarked leather-like fabric made from pineapple fiber.
Sisal is a leaf fiber. It is a native of Central America. The sisal fiber is made from the leaves of Agave sisalana. The leaves are harvested and the fiber is removed mechanically by the decorticating process. In the decorticating process, the leaves are crushed between rollers and made into pulp. This pulp is then scraped off the fibers. Afterwards, the fibers are washed and dried in the sun or by mechanical processes. The resultant fibers are up to 50 inches in length and creamy white in colour.
Straw cloths are made from straw fibers obtained by drying stalks and leaves of plants. Lauhala, Bac Bac, Lampac, Bamboo, buri, buntal, bacbac, bamboo, abaca, raffia, and many others.
They are mostly made from Abaca hemp, Baku made from talipot palm, Buntal straw made from stalks of Buri palm, cabana made from pandanus leaves, Hemp straw from the hemp plant, Jute cloth, Lauhala from the leaves of the Hala trees, Milan made from wheat stalks, Paper straw from viscose made from the pulp of various tree parts, Raffia straw from the raffia palm, Ramie straw from the Ramie plant Sisal straw from the sisal hemp, seagrass straw from seagrass, and Toquilla straw are the most popular straws used in the fashion industry to make hats, bags, sandals, etc
Read more on straw cloths here.
Sunn or Indian hemp belongs to the bast fiber group. It is grown in the Indian subcontinent. The crops are either cut down or pulled out for fiber production. They are retted, stripped, washed and dried to separate fibers. The Sunn fiber is lustrous. It is used to make cordage, fishing nets, ropes, sacks, canvas and rug yarns. It is also used in paper production.
Urena belongs to the bast fiber group. It is grown in tropical and subtropical regions. The fiber is obtained from the stalks. The stalks are cut by hand and undergo a retting process before fibers are separated. The fibers which are about 1 meter long are lustrous and creamy white in color. It can be easily dyed and is soft and flexible. The Urena fibers are used to make cordage, sacks, carpet materials and especially for making burlaps.
Man-made plant fabrics
Man made plant fiber are made of processed cellulose, . Rayon is a fabric made this way. Viscose, Tencel, lyocell are also made this way. Paper straws are made from cellulose which is rolled into a yarn to imitate straw
Updated on October 31, 2022 by Sarina Tariq