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A roster of natural fibers

Overview of natural fibers.

Roster of natural fibers

By Erin Volheim



In 2004, Phyllostachys pubescens, Moso bamboo was specifically planted in China for market as a textile fiber. It’s a woody grass that is easy to grow organically. It already has so many human and wildlife uses, yet makes a wonderful fabric as well. Bamboo has anti-bacterial properties and provides around 98 percent UV protection. It is highly breathable in hot weather and also keeps you significantly warmer in the cold. Bamboo is crushed and pulped and then its natural cellulose, which contains the bamboo “kun”, is extracted to make fiber. Some feel that it is a more sustainable replacement for cotton in the future.


It is a soft, strong and versatile fabric made from wood pulp. It’s biodegradable, simulates silk or suede, and is wrinkle resistant. While the process of Lyocell production consumes few other resources, it appears to be energy intensive. It was first commercially produced in 1993.


Archaeologists searching caves in Mexico found bits of cotton bolls and pieces of cotton cloth that proved to be at least 7,000 years old. They also found that the cotton itself was much like that grown in America today. In the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, cotton was being grown, spun and woven into cloth around 3,000 years BC. By 1500, cotton was known generally throughout the world. Cotton was first spun by machinery in England in 1730. The industrial revolution in England and the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S. paved the way for the important place cotton holds in the world today. Eli Whitney secured a patent on the cotton gin in 1793. The gin (short for engine) could do the work 10 times faster than hand, and made it possible to supply large quantities of cotton fiber to the textile industry.


Like human civilizations, the story of wool begins in Asia Minor during the Stone Age about 10,000 years ago. Primitive folks living in Mesopotamia used sheep for three basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. Later on they learned to spin and weave, and woolen items became part of the riches of Babylon. The warmth of wool clothing, and the mobility of sheep, allowed people to migrate far beyond the warm climate of Mesopotamia.

Sheep thrive in most nations of the world, often in rough, barren ranges or high altitudes where other animals cannot survive because of lack of vegetation. Sheep fill our food and fiber needs today just as they have for centuries.


The use of Cannabis sativa as a textile goes back more than 6,000 years. China has an unbroken history of hemp textile production dating from 4,500 B.C. with the spread to Asia around 1,000 B.C. and reaching Europe around 800 BC. Up to the 1920’s, 80 percent of domestic clothing was made from hemp textiles. During the 1930’s, propaganda created by companies with vested interest in petroleum-based synthetic textile and powerful lumber barons saw hemp as a threat to their business. During WWII, supplies of hemp from the East were being cut off, so American farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for military use under the banner “Hemp For Victory.” Licenses were subsequently revoked after the war.

In the 1990’s, new agricultural initiatives were put forward in Europe towards sustainable alternative crops to alleviate the massive surpluses of food being produced. Hemp is a prolific and sustainable crop growing at any latitude from Norway to the Equator, and can be grown easily in the U.K. with no pesticides or herbicides. Currently most raw materials are imported from China and Hungary.


For at least five millennia, flax has been cultivated for its remarkable fiber, linen. The spinning and weaving of linen is depicted on wall paintings of ancient Egypt. As early as 3,000 B.C., the fiber was processed into fine white fabric (540 threads to the inch—finer than anything woven today) and wrapped around the mummies of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Ancient Greeks and Romans greatly valued it as a commodity.

Before the industrial revolution, sturdy homemade clothing was woven from linen that was cultivated, processed, spun, dyed, woven and sewn by hand. It may be argued that until the 18th century, linen was the most important textile in the world.

Flax remains under cultivation for linen fiber in a number of countries. However, the grade of fiber the plants yield in different parts of the world varies. Many believe that Belgium grows the finest-quality flax fibers in the world, with Scottish and Irish linen not far behind. There is no commercial production of linen fabric in any significant quantity in the United States except, perhaps, by individual hand spinners and hand weavers. Thus, the linen fabrics Americans use and wear are nearly all imported into the country from one of these flax-growing and weaving countries.


Jute is a long, soft, shiny vegetable fiber spun into coarse, strong threads. It is produced from plants in the Mallow family, like cotton. Jute is one of the cheapest natural fibers and is second only to cotton in amount produced and variety of uses. It is a ligno-cellulosic fiber that is partially a textile fiber and partially wood. It falls into the bast fiber category (collected from bast or skin of the plant) along with kenaf, industrial hemp, flax (linen).

Until the 1860’s, only hand-woven jute goods found their way into world markets. Starting in the 1830’s, the spinners of Dundee, Scotland learned how to spin jute yarn by modifying their power-driven flax machinery. Before long, they were producing jute goods in large quantities. The rise of the jute industry in Dundee saw a corresponding increase in the production and export of raw jute from the Indian sub-continent which was then, as it is now, virtually the sole supplier of this primary commodity.


Chinese legend gives the title Goddess of Silk to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, said to have ruled China in about 3000 B.C. She is credited with the introduction of silkworm rearing and the invention of the loom. The blind, flightless moth, Bombyx mori, lays 500 or more eggs in four to six days and dies soon after. The eggs are like pinpoints – one hundred of them weigh only one gram. From one ounce of eggs come about 30,000 worms which eat a ton of mulberry leaves and produce twelve pounds of raw silk. Silk worms are fed mainly mulberry leaves and are easily affected by agrochemicals -  although there isn’t any certified organic silk at present, it is in essense organic. However, the process of degumming silk has traditionally used detergent and hot water which have implications for the environment.

Erin Volheim is writes about organics and sustainabilitiy issues from Southern Oregon.
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