Friday, April 18, 2008

Bast fibers.

Before we start, a more general discussion of plant fibers can be found in my epic article at Knitty. This is deliberately about the weird stuff. So no leaving "that's weird" comments, I already know that. Of course it's weird. We live for weird around here.

I strongly suspect that the reason a lot of these... odd... fibers were developed/used, is because weaving is a direct offshoot of basket making, and many of these same fibers were probably VERY useful in basketry and someone probably figured, why not weave them, then?

Okeydokey. Quick botany/biology lesson before we go further. Bast fibers are made from the vascular tissues of assorted plants. Think circulatory system. Remember the xylem and phloem in bio class in ninth grade? Those. Check it out:

That's a cross-section of plant stem. (I am so not getting into dicots and monocots and primary and secondary growth and angiosperms. It's 'plant' from here on out. You want gory details, let me know. I will subject you to taxonomy and microbiology and chemistry and you will beg for mercy.) See the solid green bits in a ring, near the outer edge? Those are the phloem. They run the entire length of the stem/branch/root/leaf. You know those ungodly strings in celery? Bingo. Bast fibers.

Linen is the most common bast fiber these days, and the way it is processed is, generally, the way they're all dealt with; the plant is harvested, the stems half-broken (bent to break the outer 'husk' but not pulling the pieces apart). Then they're left to rot, with some kind of moisture, usually running water but sometimes morning dew gets the job done. Once the outer bits of stem are rotted off, the long fibers are collected, cleaned, and spun. You can do this with a kajillion other plants besides flax. Hemp and ramie are two more that are used commercially and most people have heard of. But there are as many others as there are people to process them.

Another of the more common bast fibers in history - though not in commercial production - is nettles. Yes, the stinging weeds. Same deal as linen, above. Let the plant rot, take out the fibers, spin and weave. I could only find one photo of a nettle shirt, and it's from Tibet:

Looks a lot like linen, because it IS a lot like linen, both in processing and in a molecular sense. Nettle shirts were also very popular in Northern Europe, and many shirts labeled as linen in museums are probably nettle. I assume they used nettle instead of linen because, hey, why waste valuable farmland growing something when you can get it from weeds?

Another family of plants that are used widely are the agaves. Yucca, agave, sisal, jute. All related, all used the same way. These fibers are more coarse than those previously mentioned:

These days they're mostly used for floor mats, bags for shipping produce, and shoes. But back in the day they were occasionally used for fabric. I'm unable to find any photos, but I know the Native Americans used Yucca fibers. And Agave fibers are becoming a popular textile for washcloths in high-end bath stores:

If you've ever heard of Azores Lace, they are doilies, knit (yay, knitting!) with fiber from some member of the Agave family:

Trees were also harvested for their fibers, which grew under the bark. The Haida of the Pacific NW and the ancient Japanese were known to use them. This kimono is woven from Japanese elm fiber:

And this one was woven from banana, though the fibers were from the leaves, not the trunk:

Banana fiber was popular all through SE Asia, and is still used, though not commercially. Or at least, not much.

I could go on for days. But basically, ancient people used anything they could get their hands on to weave fabric with, until the trade routes opened up and specific, specialized fibers could be traded across continents. Africans made textiles from raffia, the stripped bark of a palm tree. The Hawaiians used several members of the hibiscus family. The reason we're down to only four or five commonly used bast fibers is because they're the most useful; why kill trees for pitifully short fibers that are hard to process, when you can get nice, long, easily processed fibers from a plant grown specifically for the purpose? It's kind of sad, though, there are a lot of interesting textiles that aren't being made any more, because they're inconvenient.

And while we're discussing freaky fibers, here's the bonus round:

A fisherman's work glove, knit with, get this, the spun-together beards from shellfish. The fibery little bit on the bottom of oysters and clams, that hold them to the rocks? That part. A kajillion of them, gathered and spun and knit. Supposedly, they had to be kept in a bucket of salt water when not in use, to stay flexible. And they were so tough that men left them to their sons and grandsons.

We really will knit anything, won't we?


Anonymous said...

here are instructions on how to spin your own "shellfish beard" fiber!! but with Mussel beard

cloth of gold???

very interesting stuff - when will you be selling it in your ebay store?

this quote might be helpful

"You can sometimes make arrangement with
your local fishmonger to get extra filaments, but it will require a bit of
flirtation, and maybe even a bribe of cookies."


Anonymous said...

so cool


Anonymous said...

so could I make fiber out of celery????

Trish, who finds all this very interesting

Bells said...

i swear when I first opened the page and laid eyes on the cross section of fibre, I thought it was a shawl!

Roxie said...

Why would you want a mussel-beard glove? I would think the thing would be more abrasive on the hand than anything you might be holding with it. And it has to be kept in a bucket of salt-water? So it has to be worn cold and wet? Man, those old fishermen were TOUGH old salts!

Love your instructive essays! May I add that linen and cotton deplete the soil terribly.Farmers must either practice intensive crop rotation, or use huge ammounts of synthtetic fertilizers. Maybe we should wear our cotton and linen things longer. Any advice on how to get salad-oil stains out of a skirt? Or should I just grab a toothbrush and a bottle of olive oil and spatter the whole thing?

Louiz said...

I thought ramie was the fibre from nettles... and sad fool that I am I do intend at some point to gather enough nettles, "process" them, and spin and knit the resulting yarn. Maybe even weave it into a skirt too (shades of The Good Life and their nettle suits though!)

Donna Lee said...

None of it sounded weird until you got to the shellfish beards. Once again, human ingenuity is amazing.

Amy Lane said...

That is SOOO cool--in fact, it totally answers that whole 'twelve geese' fairie tale--I always wondered how that poor princess could spin and weave shirts from nettles--turns out, they did that all the time!

Alwen said...

Around here we have dogbane (or Indian - as in Native American - hemp), Apocynum cannabinum. Milkweed and dogbane are both in the Apocynaceae family.

I made a couple of little bits of cord out of it, and it's great stuff straight off the plant.

A lot of grasses weaken when they dry up and then they crack, but two or three year old dogbane cords are still flexible.

RobynR said...

shellfish beards eh?? Too cool. I knew about the nettles thanks to a fairy tale read many years ago. Damned if I can remember which it was but it seems to me that the heroine was required to crush nettles with her hands or feet in order to spin it for something or other. Poor thing was a walking blister.

RobynR said...

should have read before commenting! Thanks AmyLane!