Everglades Station Mimeo Report 60-21 April 22, 1960-----.
PRODUCTION AND USE OF LONG VEGETABLE FIBERS 1/ '
By Mills H. Byrom 2/
The fiber from only a few of the great number of fiber yielding
plants throughout the world is made use of by mankind. The fibers from
some are extracted by hand methods for home use only in making crude
textiles for clothing, rugs, mats, twine, rope, and other products. Of
the more than 2000 species, less than 50 are of commercial importance.
Plant fibers may be grouped according to their origin in the plant,
according to their structure or according to use. The following simple
classification will include all vegetable fibers:
(1) Seed and fruit hair fibers, as cotton, kapok, cocoanut
and like fibers.
(2) Structural or leaf fibers, sometimes called hard fibers,
as sisal, abaca, phormium and like fibers.
(3) Bast or stem fibers, frequently referred to as soft fibers,
as jute, flax, ramie and like fibers.
(4) Miscellaneous fibers including those from roots and stems
as zacaton and spanish moss.
(5) Pulp fibers from trees, bamboo and similar sources for
1/ For presentation at the Annual Meeting of State Section of
ASAE, Ormond Beach, Florida, May 5-7, 1960.
2/ Head, Long Fiber Plants Harvesting and Processing Investi-
gations, Harvesting and Farm Processing Research Branch, Agricultural
Engineering Research Division, ARS, USDA.
nAh (~nAT.IMf~TA. TT4PARTANCE
Name of Fiber
flountrv of flriein
Seed Hairs and Fruit Fibers:
Cotton Gossypium spp.
I Attelea funifera
Bast or Soft Fibers:
Jute Corchorus spp.
Flax Linum usitatissimum
Hemp Cannabis sativa
Ramie Boehmeria nivea
Kenaf Hibiscus cannabinus
Sunn Crotalaria juncea
Guaxima Urena lobata
Chingma Abutilon theophrasti
United States, Egypt
East Indies, Mexico
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Research on fibers of Class 2 and 3 and to a lesser extent on
bamboo under Class 5 is being carried on by the Agricultural Engineering
Research Division, U.S.D.A. in cooperation with the Florida Agricultural
Experiment Station and the Field Crops Research Division, U.S.D.A. at
Belle Glade, Florida.
The purpose of this paper is to call attention to some of the
more important fibers of Classes 2 and 3. Some of the growing charac-
teristics, the methods of preparing the fiber for use by the manufacturer,
and some of the more important end uses will be pointed out.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum):
Linen was probably the first prepared fiber of prehistoric times
dating back 6000 years or more. Most of the flax fiber used in the
United States is imported from Belgium and other European countries. It
is used in the manufacture of a variety of clothing, table cloths, napkins
and like products. It is also used in the manufacture of shoe thread,
strong cords of various kinds, webbing and other materials where strength
and durability are required. In some areas its production has been largely
mechanized. Planting is done with an ordinary grain drill. When at the
right stage of maturity the stems are pulled by a machine which ties them
in bundles. The stems are then deseeded and placed in retting tanks for
about 5 days after which they are washed and dried. They are then put
through a breaker and scutcher after which the fiber is ready for the
hackler and for combing, drawing and spinning.
Hemp (Cannabis sativa):
The use of hemp also dates back before the dawn of history. The
Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, taught his people to grow and use it some
4000 years B.C. When water retted and properly prepared the fiber has
been used for towels and for some articles of clothing. However, its
principal use is for making rope twine and strong cords. It was used
extensively during World War II as an extender for sisal in the manu-
facture of rope.
Hemp is an annual whose production in the United States has been
completely mechanized. The seed are planted with an ordinary grain
drill. A special cutter has been developed that spreads the stalks on
the ground for dew getting as they are harvested. After the underside
has retted, they are turned over and when retting is completed a machine
gathers and binds them. After drying, the dew retted stalks are run
through a brake that breaks and loosens the woody core then through a
scutcher which removes the wood and broken fibers, giving long straight
line fiber. Fiber of this kind is not suitable for textiles. Little or
no hemp is grown in the United States at the present time. Russia, Italy
and other European countries account for most of the world production.
Ramie (Boehmeria nivea):
Ramie is said to have been grown and used in the Orient and in
Egypt in prehistoric times. It is used extensively for textiles being
especially suitable for tropical wear. Its properties of strength,
absorbency and others make it useful for a large variety of products.
The plant is perennial and yields 3 to 5 harvests annually. Plantings
are established from root cuttings planted in rows. The young plants
ratoon and cover the entire ground. A modified forage cutter has been
adapted to making the root cuttings and a drop tube planter with
furrow opener and press wheel have given excellent stands. This system
of planting has greatly reduced the cost per acre. The war hemp binder
has been modified to cut and bind the crop. Mechanical loading equip-
ment has been developed commercially. Many small decorticators give
excellent results in extracting the fiber. These have little value
commercially in the United States because of their low capacity. The
raspador type decorticator developed for sisal and henequen gives a
clean ribbon and the machine has a very large capacity, producing as
much as 4000 pounds per hour of clean dry crude fiber (China grass).
Field harvesting-ribboning machines that extract the bast ribbon and
leave the rest of the plant on the ground have been successfully used.
The gums or pectins in the crude fiber are removed by a chemical
process. After this treatment the fiber which has a natural soft white
silky luster of very high strength is ready for carding and spinning.
Jute (Corchorus app.):
Jute is indigenous to Bengal and contiguous sections where it has
been grown and used locally for many, many years. The fiber did not
become really important in commerce until the early years of the 19th
century. Jute came into commercial existence in competition with other
fibers and rapidly gained a position of prominence because of its low
price. Attempts have been made to produce jute in Brazil, Mexico and
other countries in the western hemisphere and it has been grown experi-
mentally in the United States. India and Pakistan have had a virtual
monopoly in its production due to cheap labor and favorable growing
conditions. The fiber is used for the manufacture of hessians, (coarse
textiles), bags, bale coverings, carpet and linoleum backing, twine,
rope and a wide variety of other uses. In world production it is perhaps
next to cotton in the quantity produced and the wide variety of uses made
Planting, cultivating, weeding, harvesting, retting and cleaning
are all done by hand labor in the Orient. Close grading also done by
hand gives a rather wide spread in the quality of fiber available for
the variety of uses made of it.
Jute Substitute Fibers:
The acute fiber shortage during World War II emphasized the need
for a source of both hard and soft fibers in the western hemisphere.
Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus) along with others of the hibiscus
group, Crotalaria juncea and a number of other bast fibers helped meet
the emergency. Many of these can be harvested and treated as described
for kenaf or jute. Kenaf seemed to have better possibility of being
produced in the United States and adjacent countries because of its
growing habits, high acre yield, and the ease with which its production
could be completely mechanized. When grown for fiber, the plant is
treated as an annual whose seed is readily planted with an ordinary grain
drill. Under favorable conditions the young plants grow so fast that no
weed control is needed. The crop matures in 90 to 100 days. Several
methods of harvesting and of extracting the fiber are under investigation.
A field harvester-decorticator or a harvester-ribboner seems to be best
adapted to conditions in the western hemisphere. Several machines of
both types are under consideration. The fiber from either type may be
subsequently water retted and washed in order to produce a fiber equiva-
lent to commercial jute.
Abaca (Musa textilis):
Abaca or manila fiber, long considered the standard for marine
cordage, comes from the plant Musa textiles. It is a close relative
of the banana and is native to the Philippine Islands which continue
to grow most of the world's supply. It is grown on large plantations
that are established from root stocks planted 10 to 15 feet each way.
The fiber comes from the leaf stem or peduncle which forms the trunk
of the plant. The fiber is considered mature when the bloom spike
appears. The entire stalk is cut at the ground and topped at the point
where the leaves emerge. The trunk is separated into its individual
leaf sheaths which are stripped into tuxies or ribbons 3 or 4 inches
wide. The tuxies are then scraped by a crude knife arrangement or by
the Hagotan machine which furnishes power to strip the ribbons or bark
and give a clean fiber extending the full length of the tuxie, usually
10 to 15 feet long.
Large scale production methods were developed on the plantings
established by the United States Government in Central America. The
stalks were cut into junks about 6 feet in length. These were crushed
into a flat blanket about 1" thick and fed through a raspador type
decorticator similar to those developed for sisal and henequen. Such
a machine produces 2000 to 3000 pounds of clean dry fiber per hour
ready to be processed into rope or other high grade cordage products.
There are more than 300 species of agaves growing in arid and
semiarid tropical areas of the western hemisphere. Sisal (Agave
sisalana), henequen (Agave fourcroydes), cantala (Agave cantala) and
the ixtles (Agave lophantha var P. and Agave heteracantha) are the
more important for fiber production.
The ixtle fibers are used primarily in the manufacture of
brushes and will be treated separately.
Sisal and henequen are grown on large plantations which are
established from suckers or kijos. When about 18 inches tall the suckers
are ready to separate from the mother plant and are ready to be planted
in the open field in rows about 10 feet apart with the plants set about
4 feet apart in the row. Sisal has been transplanted to the Dutch East
Indies, East and West Africa and these countries with Haiti and Brazil
supply the greatest amount of the fiber that is used in the United States.
Mexico and Cuba supply most of the henequen which is slightly inferior to
From 3 to 7 years are required from planting to harvest time after
which leaves may be harvested annually or semiannually. The bottom leaves
are cut by hand near the trunk of the plant as they mature. New growth
comes from the center of the plant forcing the oldest leaves to the out-
side. The harvested leaves are hauled to a central plant for decortication,
a process of scraping off the skin and pulp, the fibers being washed
They are then hung in the air to dry or are dried in artificial
dryers after which they are ready to bale and ship to the spinner.
Cantala has been transplanted from the western hemisphere to the
Philippines and other Pacific areas. Most of the fiber used in the
United States comes from the Philippine Islands and from Java. The former
is retted in salt water and is discolored and weakened while the latter
is mechanically decorticated and is white in color and strong.
There are a number of plants in this group whose fiber is important
in the areas where it is produced. Typical of these are mauritius hemp
(Furcraea gigantea) and cabuya (Furcraea cabuya). The fiber is softer and
weaker than sisal or henequen. It is used for bags, twine and small di-
ameter rope. The leaves which grow similar to the agaves are cut by hand
and for the most part, decorticated, or scraped by hand. The raspador
type decorticators as used on abaca, sisal and other fibers give a cleaner
brighter fiber and are used when available.
Sansevieria (sansevieria spp.):
The sansevierias are members of the Liliaceae family indigenous
to Africa and India. Some 35 to 40 species have been secured by the
Cordage Section of the Crops Research Division, U.S.D.A. and are under
observation and test in Palm Beach County, Florida.
The fiber is finer and softer than abaca or sisal. It has about
90 percent of the strength of abaca and is somewhat stronger than sisal.
Tests thus far indicate that it is a good alternate for abaca for marine
cordage. The leaves are soft and fleshy and grow from rhizomes just
under the surface of the ground. Tremendous acre yields of green material
are produced by some varieties. The fiber yield averages 2000 pounds per
acre per year or more on some of the better species. Some hybrids indicate
that they will yield more than 3000 pounds per acre annually. Fiber pro-
ducing stands are established by planting leaf cuttings in rows. Machinery
has been developed for making the cuttings and for setting them in rows
(ARS 42-34). Research is underway to develop a field harvester decorticator
that will harvest the leaves, decorticate them and put the waste back on
the ground as the machine moves over the field. After washing and drying
the fiber is ready for baling and for shipment to the spinner.
The raspador type decorticator has also been adapted to decorti-
cating sansevieria. It gives satisfactory yields and capacities but
requires hauling the leaves to the machine and the waste away from it.
Phormium (Phormium tenax):
Phormium is native to NewZealand where the fiber is produced on a
commercial scale. Its production in North and South America has been
tried and some areas in Argentina and Chile appear promising. Some
experimental plantings along the Pacific in western United States have
made fair growth. The leaves are harvested by hand mostly from wild
growth, tied in bundles and taken to mills where they are put through a
crushing machine after which the fiber is washed and spread on the ground
to bleach and dry. The dry material is then scutched on revolving drums.
The yield of clean dry fiber is 10 to 15 percent of green leaf weight
which is considerably higher than other commercial fibers. The fiber is
used for cordage and coarse textiles. It is softer and is weaker than
A group of fibers generally known as the ixtles come from Mexico.
Tula and Jaumave ixtle come from lecheguilla (Agave lophantha) and
lecheguilla jaumave (Agave heteracantha) respectively. The fiber is
produced by hand scrapping the leaves in the central bud or cogollo of
the plant which grows over a wide area of rocky semiarid mountainous
portions of northern Mexico, west Texas and New Mexico. Pita and Palma
ixtle come from yuccas growing over the same general area and are
produced by steaming the leaves after which they are hand scraped.
The Tula and Jaumave fiber is used extensively in the manufacture
of brushes in the United States and also in Europe. The Palma and Pits
are much softer and are used mostly for making bags, twine, etc. It is
sometimes used as a filler in brushes when better fibers are scarce.
Through the years a great many machines have been devised for
mechanically decorticating the ixtles. Some of these do a passable
job of cleaning the fiber but for economic reasons none have survived
competition with the hand scraping by the Mexican tallador.
Recently it has been found that both the yuccas and the lecheguilla
have a crude chemical from which cortisone and a number of hormones can
be made. Some research is being done toward establishing an industry in
west Texas which would produce fiber mechanically from the entire plant
and chemicals from the waste.
There are a number of palm fibers of some commercial importance
produced mostly in India, Ceylon, and tropical America. They are used
in the manufacture of brushes, brooms, and similar products.
The cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) growing along the coast south
of the Carolinas yields the only long vegetable fiber produced com-
mercially in the United States. At one time, six plants were operating
in Florida. At the present time only one or two are active. The fiber
is produced from the terminal bud of young plants, mostly by hand methods.
The bud is steamed to loosen the non-fibrous material which is cleaned
from the fiber on rotating spiked drums. After drying, hackling, oiling
and tempering, the fiber is ready for the manufacturer.
Dewey, L. H., FIBER PRODUCTION IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE, U. S. Dept. of
Agriculture, Misc. Publ. No. 518, Washington, D. C., 1943.
Mauersberger, H. R., MATTHEW'S TEXTILE FIBERS, New York, 1954.
Weindling, Ludwig, LONG VEGETABLE FIBERS, New York, 1947.
Slack, E. B.,COARSE FIBERS, London, 1957.
American Society for Testing Materials, ASTM, STANDARDS COMMITTEE D-13,
published annually, Philadelphia.
Robinson, B. B. and Johnson, F. L., ABACA' A CORDAGE FIBER, U. S. Dept.
of Agriculture, Monograph No. 21, Washington, D. C., 1953.
Webber, J. M., YUCCAS OF THE SOUTHWEST, U. S. Dept. of Agriculture,
Monograph No. 17, Washington, D. C., 1953.
Mesa, M. and Villanueva, R., LA PRODUCTION DE FIBRAS DURA EN MEXICO.
Monografias Industries del Banco Mexico, Mexico City, 1948.