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A Weaver's Garden
Growing Plants for Natural Dyes and Fibers
By Rita Buchanan, Steve Buchanan
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1987 Rita Buchanan
All rights reserved.
PLANT FIBERS FOR SPINNING AND STUFFING
If you associate plant fiber with bran muffins and breakfast cereal, stop now and take a look around. At the very least, you're probably within reach of some cotton fabrics, and you may see coir doormats, jute burlap, sisal twine, ramie-blend sweaters, or fine table linens. Those are just a few common uses of plant fibers.
Handweavers and fiber artists are people who enjoy experimenting with a variety of raw materials, and they continually seek out natural plant fibers. Many appreciate the range of textures available: fluffy or scratchy, yielding or stiff, delicate or sturdy. Plant fiber products bridge the categories of basketry and fabric. They can be coarse or delicate, rigid or flexible, humble or refined.
My personal interest in fiber plants has several facets. I enjoy looking for useful plants as I travel, and raising them at home in my garden to see how they grow and what they look like. Identifying, collecting, and studying fiber plants is part of my work as a botanist. Meanwhile, it's fun to experiment with the fibers, too, and somehow they seem to be more than just raw materials. Gathering, spinning and weaving them is an invitation to feel close to countless unknown women from long ago and far away, to be inspired by their achievements, and to practice the ancient techniques as they did. So working with plant fibers draws different parts of my life together, and at the same time, links me to a rich human tradition.
THE HISTORY AND USES OF PLANT FIBERS
Learning to twist plant fibers into cordage or yarn was among mankind's earliest accomplishments. Archeologists have found bits of fabrics estimated to be ten thousand years old in both the Old and New Worlds; primitive civilizations mastered the arts of spinning and weaving long before they began to refine metals or shape pottery vessels. The history of spinning began when the first spinners rolled strands of fibers between their hands and realized that twisting gave strength to the yarn. Many historians believe that these first yarns were spun from the long fibers of plant stems and that spinning short fibers, like cotton or wool, came later. With the early invention of the spindle and whorl, techniques of handspinning were developed that endure even today in parts of the world. People everywhere have used the fibers from local native plants to make a variety of everyday and ceremonial fabrics: fishnets and bowstrings, thatched roofs and floor mats, sheets and blankets, stuffed cushions, carrying bags and storage sacks, humble garments and elaborate robes, wrappings for babies and shrouds for the dead.
As societies became more complex, the need for certain kinds of fabrics greatly increased. Outfitting boats, for example, required tremendous yardages of sailcloth and rope rigging which had to be replaced every few years as they wore out. In post-Renaissance Europe, first the wheel-driven spinning wheel and then mechanical spinning devices were invented to accelerate the spinning process, supply more yarn to be woven, and free human hands for other work. Making cloth had always been so time-consuming and important that spinning and weaving were the first tasks to be mechanized during the Industrial Revolution. Textile production became more and more standardized and centralized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A few fiber crops began to dominate the world market because they had desirable qualities and could be produced in sufficient quantities. Today cotton is truly king, but flax, hemp, jute, sisal, abacá and others have also played important roles.
Until recently, plant fibers were the primary raw materials for clothing and underwear, bedding and towels, carpets and curtains and upholstery, flour and sugar bags, feed sacks, binder twine, tarpaulins and awnings, ropes and belts and hoses, army uniforms and tents, coffee bags and cotton bale covers. Now, many of these products are woven from man-made fibers. Since the 1950s, the replacement of natural fibers with synthetic fibers has been extremely rapid. It results from several factors. As a product, synthetics are sometimes more durable and longer-lasting than natural fibers. Natural fibers are biodegradable and are weakened by decay, but synthetic fibers are quite slow to deteriorate. Fiber plants themselves are an agricultural crop and may not be as valuable as food crops like wheat, corn, peanuts, sugar or bananas. The traditional methods of processing plant fibers have always used hand labor rather than machinery. The manufacturing processes for synthetic fibers are completely automated, so modern factories can produce them much more quickly and cheaply than old-fashioned village workshops could produce natural fibers. Still, synthetics have not completely overtaken the textile world.
THE OCCURRENCE AND PROPERTIES OF PLANT FIBERS
Botanists have estimated that over two thousand species of plants produce fibers, including at least a thousand kinds of plants in North America alone. Few have reached commercial importance, and some have never been utilized at all, but many have been used locally for one purpose or another. Fibers can be grouped by reference to the plant parts in which they grow. Seed fibers, including cotton and kapok, grow as appendages to seeds or inside seedpods. Most make good stuffing or padding if they can be collected in sufficient quantity, but cotton is the only seed fiber that can be spun into a serviceable yarn. Stem or bast fibers, such as flax, jute, ramie and hemp, form long strands in the inner bark of dicot stems. Also called soft fibers, bast fibers are noted for flexibility, ease of spinning, and durability. Leaf fibers, such as sisal, form parallel bundles that extend lengthwise in the thick leaves of monocots. Leaf fibers are called hard fibers because they are stiffer and more brittle than bast fibers; they are used more for cordage than for woven fabrics. Wood fibers, extracted from trees and coarse plants, are used in papermaking and as a raw material for making rayon. Miscellaneous fibers, mostly from parts of various palm plants, are used to make baskets, hats and brushes.
Individual fiber cells are very thin, usually less than one-thousandth of an inch in diameter. The average length of fiber cells depends on the plant: jute cells are about one-quarter inch long, cotton and flax cells are about one inch long, and ramie cells can be as much as six to twelve inches long. Only cotton is normally handled in the form of single cells. The strands or bundles of fibers that grow in stems and leaves, such as jute or sisal fibers, are usually ten to fifty cells thick in cross section; hundreds or thousands of overlapped cells run lengthwise to make a fiber. Sometimes other fibers are "cottonized", or broken down into individual cells (by a chemical treatment), so that they can be spun on machines designed for cotton, but mostly they are spun in the form that comes from the plant.
In photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose, a simple sugar. Glucose is then converted into a variety of other chemical compounds, including cellulose. Cotton is almost pure cellulose with few impurities; other plant fibers are made of more or less cellulose. Cellulose molecules are very long chains of glucose building blocks joined end to end. The cellulose chains can be loosely arranged or densely packed into a crystalline structure. Parallel bundles of cellulose molecules form tiny fibrils, and as a plant grows, the fibrils are laid down in successive layers to form the cell walls of fiber cells. The patterning of these layers is not random. Each layer of fibrils traces a spiral inside the cell. Thus, plant fibers seem predisposed for spinning. An inherent twist is built into their very structure, and the direction of the twist is constant for any plant species. This twist potential is easily observed: moistened fibers slowly turn in one direction or the other as they dry. Twisted fibers or yarns have diagonal lines that correspond with the crossbars in the letters S or Z. Flax, ramie, milkweed and Indian hemp fibers always show a natural S twist; and hemp, jute, sisal and yucca fibers always show a natural Z twist. Some historians have suggested that the observation of the natural twisting of plant fibers led prehistoric people to the discovery of spinning. Many fiber specialists think that if fibers are spun in the direction of their natural twist, the yarn will be smoother and stronger.
In addition to cellulose, many plant fibers contain pectins and lignins. Pectins, or pectic compounds, are the glue that holds cells together into fiber bundles and binds the different layers of plant stems together. In the kitchen, you might have used pectins to make jam or jelly thicken up. When bast fibers such as flax or jute are retted, bacteria break the pectins down into acetic and butyric acids (these compounds cause the bad odors of the retting process). In the initial stages of decay, the bundles of fibers are loosened from the rest of the stem. That's when the retting process should be stopped. If not, the bacteria will proceed to decompose the pectins that hold the fiber strands together, and the result will be useless loose cells and slime. Pectins also can be removed by boiling the fibers in an alkaline solution; a controlled chemical process now can be substituted for the traditional retting methods.
Lignins are chemical compounds that accumulate between the strands of cellulose in cell walls and give strength and rigidity to plant stems; lignins make stems tough and woody. Lignins are very resistant to decay and decomposition and are not removed by the retting process. Fibers with a high lignin content are stiff and hard and cannot be softened. In stem fibers, the lignin content is low at first but increases after the plants flower and go to seed; overmature flax or jute, for example, is more brittle and rigid than normal. Lignified stem fibers are graded inferior. Strands of leaf fibers normally include some heavily lignified cells, so they are always stiffer than stem fibers, but the percentage of lignin in leaf fiber bundles does not change much over time. Leaves of sisal or abacá, for example, can be harvested when they first expand from the bud or left on the plant for years, with little change in quality.
Stem fibers grow in a layer between the outer skin, or epidermis, of the plant and the woody core of the stem. They are common in both soft-stemmed herbaceous plants, like flax, ramie or hemp, and in woody plants, like basswood and cedar trees. Stem fibers are associated with the phloem system, which circulates the plant's sap. (The woody core of a stem is the xylem system, which transports water up from the roots.) Stem fibers run vertically in the stem, but they are not separate parallel bundles. Rather, they are interconnected into a sort of lattice, or net, and form a flexible cylinder that gives support to the stem. The cylinder of stem fibers is as long as the stem is tall, but when separated into thin strands by combing, the processed fibers vary in length.
Leaf fibers grow as distinct strands embedded in the pulp of fleshy or leathery leaves of monocot plants. Deep inside the leaves are fibrovascular bundles which include both fibers, for strength and flexibility, and phloem and xylem elements, for vascular transport. In the outermost tissue, just under the epidermis, are bundles of structural fibers that serve primarily to support and give shape to leaves. In most leaf fiber crops, the structural fibers are more abundant and stronger than the fibers associated with the vascular tissue. Leaf fibers are separate and parallel in the leaf, as tidy as a package of uncooked spaghetti. In processing, they are extracted in a uniform hank. Individual bundles cannot be split into thinner strands.
Any particular type of fiber can vary in fineness, strength, flexibility, color and other properties. The variation within a species can be considerable; as commercial commodities, fibers are graded into several quality categories and priced accordingly. The relative fineness of different fibers, such as jute and sisal, is sometimes compared by using the Tex system. A Tex count is the weight in grams of one thousand meters of yarn. Thicker yarn weighs more and has a higher Tex count than thin yarn. If two different kinds of fiber are spun into yarns as thin as possible, the Tex counts will compare the relative fineness of the fibers themselves. Cotton, line flax and ramie can be spun into much finer yarns than sisal, abacá or coir. Fine fibers are generally more desirable and expensive than coarser fibers.
The quality of leaf fibers is determined primarily by genetic factors, but for stem fibers, growing conditions and processing methods are also influential. For example, soil fertility, moisture supply, light and temperature, and density of spacing affect the quality of flax, and the timing of harvest is important. The temperature and purity of the retting water, the duration of retting, and the care taken in breaking and scutching and hackling also affect flax quality. On a home production scale, there can be difficulties with obtaining seeds for the best varieties or with providing the optimum growing conditions for different kinds of plants. Without the guidance of experience, processing may be inefficient or inferior. But even if the fibers aren't up to top-quality standards, growing and processing fibers yourself can be worthwhile.
I remember the first time I saw cotton plants. It was during the winter term of my senior year in college. I was on a botany field trip to Florida for some first-hand experience with tropical plants. We hadn't seen much during the first two days of driving until, somewhere in Georgia, we stopped to stare at a field that was dotted with white puffs. It looked like someone had spilled giant popcorn out of an airplane! We stopped the car and ran over to collect and examine this curious plant, wondering what it could be. Yankees all, we hadn't recognized cotton. The second time I saw cotton, I was in Peace Corps training in the Virgin Islands. Our camp was on a barren, rocky, overgrazed mountainside, but there were some interesting little trees there, with balls of tan fluff on the branches. What could it be? Cotton fooled me again. The third time I saw cotton, I was in Texas. The dirt was black, and the fields were flat. From where I stood to the horizon stretched rows of lush green plants dotted with yellow and pink flowers like hollyhocks. Curious, I asked my hosts about them. Their answer: Cotton, of course. Now, years later, I usually know cotton when I see it.
The cotton genus (Gossypium), in the mallow family, includes over three dozen species of wild and cultivated plants, native to both the Old and New Worlds. All wild cottons are perennials that grow into shrubs or small trees in tropical regions. Most grow in regions that have distinct wet and dry seasons. They tend to grow new foliage during the wet season and to bear flowers and fruit during the dry season. Some wild cottons don't bear any fibers on their seeds at all, but others do have fuzzy or hairy seeds. Biologists, who are always wondering why organisms have evolved in certain ways, have enjoyed speculating on the adaptive advantage of seed fibers. Some propose that lint provided a means of dispersal for cotton seeds, beginning way back in the Cretaceous period, perhaps as reptiles and birds gathered the seeds to line their nests. Others mention the possibility that lint-covered seeds could float on sea water, and point out that wild cottons commonly grow near shorelines and along coasts.
The process of domesticating cotton began long ago when people first began to gather the lint from wild cotton seeds, perhaps to use as a stuffing or wadding material. In the Old World, spinners were already adept at working with flax and wool before they began to use the short fibers of cotton. The oldest specimens of cotton textiles found by archeologists, at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, were woven about 3000 B.C. In the New World too, it seems that cotton spinning followed the earlier use of stem and leaf fibers and perhaps alpaca wool. Archeologists working in Peru have found cotton fabrics that date from 2500 B.C. Those specimens were apparently made with fibers from cultivated cottons; the use of fibers gathered from wild cottons may date back much earlier. In the early stages of domestication, selection favored plants with longer seed fibers, fibers easily removed from the seeds, or increased yield of fibers. Most cultivated cotton has white fibers, but some primitive forms (particularly of G. hirsutum) have lint colored in shades of rust, tan, gold, brown, pink, gray or green. The naturally colored forms of cotton are relatively rare, but were used to good effect by Peruvian weavers, and are popular among handspinners today.
Excerpted from A Weaver's Garden by Rita Buchanan, Steve Buchanan. Copyright © 1987 Rita Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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