Lina in her pina gown, with Barbs - a cool day in Hancock, October, 2009.

Lina in her pina gown, with Barbs – a cool day in Hancock, October, 2009.

CouplePina

Pina gown and barong

T'boli tinalak and cotton

T’boli tinalak and cotton

The dresses and "boleros" worn over the shoulders are made of jusi.

The dresses and “boleros” worn over the shoulders are made of jusi.

As are the men's barongs!  The colored "camisa chino" worn under the sheer barong gives the color.

As are the men’s barongs! The colored “camisa chino” worn under the sheer barong gives the color.

 

Sinamay on a loom in Arevalo, Iloilo City

Sinamay on a loom in Arevalo, Iloilo City

This weaver is weaving the sinamay sashes for the University of the Philippines graduation.

This weaver is weaving the sinamay sashes for the University of the Philippines graduation.

Hablon in Arevalo

Hablon in Arevalo

 

Harakeke, the flax plant of New Zealand and the Maori

Harakeke, the flax plant of New Zealand and the Maori

A weaving from the fiber of harakeke

A weaving from the fiber of harakeke

 

Shifu, from an exhibit in Baguio

Shifu, from an exhibit in Baguio

What do coir, ramie, kenaf and abaca have in common?

These are all plant fibers used for cordage and clothing.  Nature has showed great ingenuity in creating plants from which man, with her own ingenuity, has learned to extract fibers for multiple uses.

In this post I’ll share some observations on plant fibers from our travels in the Philippines, Vietnam and New Zealand, supplemented with research on Wikipedia.

Pineapple:   Lina and I were married in garments of piña fiber, the very finest and sheerest fabric used for traditional Filipino “barongs”. The fiber is extracted from the leaf of the pineapple by scraping or splitting. Each strand is hand scraped and they are knotted together to form the long filament needed for weaving. This fabric is almost transparent and is so delicate that it will degrade in direct sunlight.

Banana:   Musa textilis is the Latin name for the banana that gives us the fiber called abaca or Manila hemp. This “hard” fiber, once twisted into rope, is now pulped and used in paper products like tea bags and filters.

From abaca comes the textile tinalak, woven in the mountains of Mindanao, the large southern island, by the T’boli tribal people. They extract long strands of fiber from the banana leaf, tie them together, die the fibers, and weave three-color (black, red-brown and natural tan) ikat designs.   After our wedding ceremony, Lina changed into T’boli cotton, colorful blue, red , yellow and white, while I put on a tinalak suit, still shiny and stiff from lack of wear. My son-in-law charitably compared me to a tree trunk. Tinalak does become softer with time, but though entirely natural it does have an almost plastic look and feel.

Abaca can be further processed into a cloth almost as fine as piña, called sinamay, hablon and jusi or “banana silk”. Jusi is machine woven, according to Wikipedia, while sinamay and hablon are hand woven. We visited workshops in Iloilo City and saw sinamay weavers at work.   One workshop makes all the graduation sashes for the University of the Philippines.

Xanthorrhoeaceae: That’s a mouthful! Botanical wrangling has led to the placing of two New Zealand plants in this family. Harakeke or flax (Phormium tenax) is one of these and has long been used by the Maori for clothing, cordage, baskets, nets, mats, etc. This plant is a cousin of aloe and the day lilies.   It is not closely related to the flax from which linen is made.   That plant, Linum usitatissimum, originates in the Mediterranean region.

Cannabaceae: Many variants of Cannabis sativa have no effect when smoked; they give us hemp rather than a high. Hemp fiber was made into ropes, sails (“canvas” comes from “cannabis”) and a textile similar to linen. The Hmong of northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand use this bast fiber in their astounding clothing, indigo dyed and then embellished with batik, appliqué, cross-stitch and pleating.   If you attend the Hmong New Year in Fitchburg, MA you will see some of these beautiful garments, though now they often show the garish colors of chemical dyes.

When Linda and I worked in Son La Province in northern Vietnam, the Hmong villagers wore their New Year garments throughout the year, replacing them each year with new. A young woman partner in our projects showed up for a training in store bought Vietnamese clothes. Linda was disappointed and then understanding. Mrs. Li was making a choice to spend her time on education and business rather than in creating a new set of garments for her family – a declaration of freedom.

Nettle: From the skin of a nettle, Boehmeria nivea, comes ramie, an ancient fiber used in the outer wrappings of mummies and (more recently!) for fabric such as the open weave “mechera”.   Ramie originates in eastern Asia.

Mallow: This plant family includes the hollyhock, rose of Sharon, hibiscus and okra. It has also given us cotton and kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus), a bast fiber (taken from the skin of the plant) traditionally used for cordage, coarse cloth and paper and now appearing in automobile bodies!

Palm: The coconut gives us food and drink, lumber, thatching, fuel and coir, the fiber from the husk that surrounds the hard shell. Brown coir from the ripe coconut is made into mat, brushes, mattress stuffing and sacks, while white coir from unripe coconuts becomes finer brushes, string and nets.

Agave: the native peoples of Mexico have used agave plants not only for potent alcohol like tequila but as food, needles and strong fibers such as sisal and henequen for twine and rope.

Sparrmanniaceae: Another mouthful, the family where the jute plant is now placed.   (It once belonged with the mallows or with the basswood and linden trees in the Tiliaceae family, but botanists could not let it alone.) The bast fiber jute is spun into strong, coarse threads used to make burlap.

            Shifu is the Japanese name for cloth made from paper, which in turn is composed of plant fibers. You can read more about this, and see many more photos, at orionblair.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/shifu-or-paper-cloth/

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