People look to the plant world first for food and drink, and then for materials to clothe and shelter them and to form twine and cord for binding and baskets for holding. These materials were sometimes whole leaves, stems or roots, laid like thatch, or plaited; and sometime fibres taken out of plants and then spun and woven. People also found ways to turn parts of animals into fabrics - silk from insect cocoons, wool from sheep.
Today, many of us take for granted things like denim jeans, a silk top, a woolen jute-backed carpet. But the use of natural fibres has a long and tortuous history. Here, we look at the natural, mainly plant, fibres and the industries based on them. And as for other crops, lack of home production and reliance on imports become main themes.
[Last update: 26 May 2012; page under construction]
The fibres panel shows examples of raw and processed plant and animal fibres: the four images to the left, from top left - wool cast off by North Ronaldsay sheep, section of African grass mat, sisal rope, jute fibre; vertical strip - part of rug woven from North Ronaldsay sheep's wool; top right, silk dress fabric from Laos; bottom right, jute cloth. All photographs Living Field collection.
- main points
- the past - fibres in the maritime croplands
- the present
- sources, references, links
Types of plant and animal fibre. The use of natural fibre. History of fibre in the croplands.
Many plants have stems and roots which are strong enough and pliable enough to be bent and twisted into various shapes without breaking too easily and without having to be altered or processed. Of this type are roofing thatch made from whole stems and leaves, baskets made from plaited stems and leaf blades, and twine and rope made from stems. Hunters and wild harvesters in the neolithic, much earlier than 5000 years ago, used such materials every day. The cloak worn by the man in the ice when he died is made of plaited grass.
Even today, unprocessed plant material is used throughout the world to make thatch, shelters, baskets, clothing, rope and twine. Photographs to the right show two small baskets made from plaited grass and stems and a strip of under-bark used as binding or strapping for baskets (Origin, central Africa and south-east Asia: photographs Living Field.)
Once settled agriculture began to feed people, its next most important task was to clothe and protect them and their property. Unprocessed leaf and stem had their limitations, so people discovered plants containing fibres that could be extracted and made into objects that looked nothing like the original plant parts. These processed fibres give rise to materials of two broad types: those made by joining the fibres together into yarn which is woven to make textiles, notably from cotton, jute, hemp, flax, manila and nettle; and those made more simply by pulping the fibres and compressing them into felt, an advanced form of which is rayon made from certain types of wood, but which can be made from many types of fibre.
In addition to fibres from plants there are fibres spun from the hair of animals: sheep, camelids such as the alpaca and lama and oxen such as the yak. The silkworm, the larva of a moth, nurtured on leaves of the mulberry (Morus species), encloses itself in a cocoon from which the silk is spun.
Fibres have a long history in the agriculture of the north east atlantic region. Sheep’s wool is the best known. The plant fibres from flax and hemp have both featured in agriculture at various times over the last few thousand years. The one most important in recent industry has been jute, but its influence has been through manufacturing, not cultivation. In this part of 5000 years, we deal mainly with plant fibres growing wild or cultivated, or imported.
Images above show wool (right) and rug made from wool of the seaweed-eating sheep on the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay. The breed is considered to be one of the ancient sheep breeds of Europe. (Photographs: Squire/Living Field)
- The fibrous parts of plants, mostly in the leaves, stems and roots, were used unprocessed as thatch, clothing and twine before agriculture began here.
- Agriculture provided bulk sources of fibre with which the early farming people were able to make cloth for clothing and for carrying things.
- Flax has been the only major fibre crop here, grown to produce linen, but is no longer farmed commercially. Hemp and nettle have also been grown occasionally for craft-work and minor commercial production.
- The main fibre products produced locally now come, not from crops, but from plantation forestry and animals, notably sheep and camellids.
- Most of the world’s plant fibre crops are grown in warmer places than the north east Atlantic.
- Plant fibres are now imported as raw or finished product for wide use in home and industry as clothing (e.g. cotton, denim, linen, silk, wool), floorcovering (carpet, matting, lino), insulation, particle board, sacking, canvas, rope and twine.
- The greatest effect of plant fibres on industry here has been through the import and processing of cotton and jute, around which huge industries developed in central and eastern Scotland in the 1700s and 1800s.
- Plant fibres such as jute are making a comeback in a range of innovative products, made locally from imported raw materials.
- Fibre crops have had only small lasting effects on the plants and ecology of the croplands - relic plants of the flax industry are very rare, and while nettles are still very common, it is not because they were once used for cloth-making.
Notes on the main plant fibres species, home-grown and imported.
Some of the toughest and most widely used plant fibres run vertically in the stem, as bast surrounding and protecting the phloem cells (the ones transport ‘food’ up and down the stem) and giving strength to the stem as a whole. Among this type are jute, hemp, nettle and flax. In contrast, cotton – the fibre most widely grown and used in the world today - comes from a protective covering around the plant’s seeds.
Flax Linum usitatissimum is an ancient crop, grown in many parts of the world. Of the fibre plants, it has been the most widely cultivated in Britain. The crop varieties are distinct from several Linum species native to Britain - the tall, unbranched ones are grown for fibre, while shorter, branched ones yield seeds from which linseed-oil is extracted.
Nettle Urtica dioica has been (and still is) harvested from the wild and cultivated as a source of fibre throughout its range in North America, Europe and Asia. It is the one fibre plant in our region that has been grown and harvested since early settlement for domestic and local use. It is relatively easy to extract and spin and can be dyed and woven to make cloth and felt, in some cases of high quality, not at all prickly.
Hemp Cannabis sativa is another species with a global distribution, grown widely for craft and commercial uses throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is not thought to be a native of Britain but has turned up widely at prehistoric sites here. The fibre crops are the same species, though different varieties from those that yield the narcotic. As a fibre, it is used to make a range of cloth, sacking and rope.
Jute Corchorus capsularis and Corchorus olitorius has not been grown commercially here, but imported jute fibre took over from flax in the 1800s as the raw material for major industries based in and around Dundee. It is used in many products, second in global volume to cotton, such as a backing for carpet and linoleum, as rope and cord, and as cloth with a range of applications. Hessian is a name commonly given to coarse jute cloth.
Cotton Gossypium species, mainly G. hirsutum, G. barbadense, is grown in many warm regions of the world including the Mediterranean, Africa, and north America and makes up the largest volume of manufactured plant fibres. The plants produce cotton fibres as protection around the seeds. The fibre is mostly cellulose and best for fine fabrics rather than rope or cord. Large cotton-processing industries based on imported material developed in parts of Britain, notably in north-west England and central and south Scotland. Apart from sheets and cloth we know as ‘cotton’, the material also goes to make fabrics with the names calico, denim, muslin, gauze and cheesecloth.
Other plants Among fibres and fibrous material that are still commonly seen and used are coir from the fruits of the coconut Cocos nucifera, which is grown in warm places around the world and may take the accolade of the most useful plant for the range of products that it yields. Coir is still used widely in floorcoverings. Sisal is extracted from the long, tough but fleshy, leaf blades of Agave sisalana grown in various tropical countries, and used in floorcoverings and as coarse twine and string, including baler twine for securing bales of straw or hay, until sisal was replaced by plastic. From the plant abaca Musa textilis, grown in south east Asia and certain other tropical climates, come the products named manila, which include rope and strong paper and envelopes. And from kapok Ceiba pentandra comes the soft material of the same name that goes into mattresses and pillows. Of plants grown in northern Europe, cereal straw, mainly from oat has been used to make cords, known as simmans in Scotland for securing thatch or lining the roofs of houses (see references for more on simmans).
Silk Leaves of the mulberry tree, mostly the species Morus alba, feed the ‘caterpillars’ or larvae of the silkmoth Bombyx mori, a domesticated insect that does not occur in the wild. The larvae spin cocoons, in which they lie during their transformation to adults. The cocoons consist of fibre that is unravelled to make silk thread. The unravelling process is the crux – cultivated forms of the moth produce cocoons that are relatively easy to unravel compared to wild species whose cocoon-threads are more tightly cemented together. Silk production is at least 5000 years old in China. Attempts within the last few hundred years at small-scale silk production in southern England mostly failed because of the difficulty of growing the mulberry as a food source for the cultivated silkworm (see Thirsk for details).
Wool and hair Domesticated animals rather than plants have been the main sources of natural fibre in Atlantic maritime agriculture. Wool, a large part of which is imported, continues to be in wide usage as a raw material for clothing and carpets and now home insulation. Horse hair – for example in blankets and as a binder in lime plaster – still has some commercial uses.
Images above are (left) a portion of a cocoon spun by a silk moth larva, showing the threadwork of silk fibres, and a length of hand-woven silk dress fabric, both from craft-scale production in Laos (Squire/Living Field).
Fibres since agriculture began. Craft-work to industrial process. Decline due to imports. A climate unsuitable for fibre crops.
Of the fibre plants grown in our region, and used at least on a small industrial scale, the main ones have been flax and hemp. It is difficult to establish whether nettle was ever grown here on an industrial scale.
Large-scale methods of growing of flax and hemp were in place well before the industrial revolution began around 1750. In England, plants introduced from the continent were recorded on monastic estates in Norfolk, at least since 1304 (Thirsk). Industrialisation increased from the 1500s, mainly to reduce dependence on imports in times of inter-nation war and strife. In Henry VIII’s reign, hemp and flax were grown in England in a four course rotation that included also barley and wheat or rye. By the 1780s, large areas of flax were grown mainly in south west England, Lincolnshire and West Yorkshire.
In Scotland, flax growing for industrial processing and weaving into linen, using both home-grown and imported material, extends back to the 1500s. Areas cropped with flax increased in the early 1700s, for example in the Carse of Gowrie, between Dundee and Perth. By the 1820s, however, home-grown flax began to be replaced with superior raw material imported from the Baltic region. Flax was the last major field crop to be grown here in recent centuries that is absent from the landscape today. Its end as a home-grown product made local textile industries entirely dependent on imported raw material.
The Lawson list of 1850
In their list of vegetable products of Scotland, the seedsmen Peter Lawson & Son write that flax is the main plant fibre still grown, the best seed of which is imported from the Baltic. Their description of how the fibre is separated from the wood and glutinous matter of the plant, both at a craft scale and industrial scale, show how seriously the plant was taken at that time, how improvements in the final product were the result of synergies between agricultural and industrial innovation and how these improvements led to returning plant matter to the soil as part-processed waste. Such lessons from that time are valuable still today, but must have gone unheeded, given that soil carbon content has declined to dangerously low levels in many agricultural soils.
Of the other species, hemp is said to be cultivable in some sheltered areas, but to be too tender to be grown in a large commercial venture in Scotland. And they also list the stinging nettle, but say that its cultivation for cloth making ‘has never been fairly attempted’. And then, ‘Like those of many other common plants, the superior merits of this generally accounted troublesome weed have hitherto been much overlooked’. Well put!
Cotton The economic potential of cotton can be gauged by the construction in 1786 of Stanley Mills in Perthshire – a set of factories, employing many people, built for the manufacture of cotton goods. The raw cotton fibre, imported mostly from north America, landed at ports in the west of Scotland, then came by road to the mills in Perthshire. The fortunes of the mills were driven by external events. For example, the mills closed during the cotton famine of the 1860s – caused when cotton exports from the southern parts of what is now the USA ceased, because the northern forces blockaded the southern ports in the America Civil War. The resulting closure of the mills, here and in other places such as Lancashire, brought mass unemployment, and in some places starvation, especially where a large workforce had become both wage-dependent and divorced from agriculture. Fortune returned for a time to the industry: by 1876, a major output of the Stanley Mills was cotton belting used in machinery throughout the world. By the mid-1900s, competing manufacturers in other countries brought the end of cotton production here.
Fibres as crops and imports. Their little contribution to the ecology of the croplands.
Fibres as crops
No major crops in our maritime agriculture are now grown for their fibres. Some very small-scale craft industries still use local nettle and flax. The main use of locally grown plant fibrous material is in the wood-based fibreboard industries, the raw material for which is produced in the uplands or else overseas. Apart from wood, the main source of natural fibre still harvested and processed is wool from sheep, but the profit to sheep farming of selling fleece dropped in the 1980s and remains low. Some breeds or landraces of sheep give distinctive wool yarn that can be woven, into carpets, rugs and clothing material for niche markets.
Various attempts have been made from the 1980s to increase the growing of flax and hemp. Some, such as hemp for paper making, were successful on a small scale. The largest visible change to the countryside, the more so in England, came not from a fibre crop, but from the blue-flowering, oilseed varieties of flax known as linseed.
In contrast, imported plant fibres – sometimes in a raw state - are still wildly used in a range of traditional and innovative industries. Among these are jute from India or Bangladesh, made into string, rope, sacking, lino, underlay and canvas. Jute is making a comeback as a multi-purpose, biodegradable alternative to polypropylene, which being made from the oil industries, is finite in supply and not biodegradable. (See prospects for recent uses of jute.) Linen from Baltic flax is made into clothing and cloth. Even craft-scale manufacturers that use nettle fibre tend to rely on imports of the nettle family that produce longer fibres.
However, the plant fibres that we use, touch, smell and see are imported as finished or nearly finished products whose base is variously cotton, silk, hemp, flax and jute. If Scotland was suddenly forced to clothe itself from local products, it would have to rely on wool and hide. It would have difficulty growing the required plant fibres, just as it would the required plant carbohydrates for food.
Contribution to the ecology
Fibre plants that have been cultivated or harvested from the wild in our region now make only a small contribution to the global energy budget, flora and food webs (unlike some of the cultivated brassica family, for example, that are now common as weeds and ferals). Nettle of course is everywhere, not because it was grown as a broad-scale fibre crop, but because it is naturally widespread, long lasting and opportunistic. However, its presence around most derelict crofts and farm buildings may be local relic from previous usage both as food, dye and fibre, as well as a weed taking advantage of urine-enriched soil.
Flax, or linseed, the oilseed form of the species, is still widespread, occasionally as relic of previous cultivation, but more commonly as a part of sown game and wild bird habitat in strips and corners of fields, where its pale blue flowers sometimes mingle with the yellow and white of sown radish and mustard. Hemp occurs as a relic but less so in the north than flax.
Images above of jute and its products are from the Verdant Works, Dundee (lower right anticlockwise) jute fibre, coarse jute fabric showing the weave, a chair back made from coarse jute fabric and clothing and accessories made from fine jute; all but the fibre taken from the 'carriers to coffins' exhibition of 2011 (Living Field).
New uses for imported plant fibres. The likely continued absence of fibre crops.
Prospects for plant fibres seem mainly in the processing and manufacturing rather than the growing industries. As the 2011 exhibition of jute products in the Verdant Works, Dundee, shows, there are new uses of imported jute to make bags and clothing, covers for chairs and sofas, geotextiles for stabilising slopes and, as compressed fibre pulp, biodegradable coffins for people and their pets. It looks like jute imported from India and Bangladesh will continue to a line of tradition in local industry, albeit in much reduced volumes.
And as indicated under Present, the largest volumes of fibrous materials available for development into possible new uses are from sheep and trees. The use of wool as home insulation and tree pulp in various fibreboard manufactures are examples. The fabric, rayon, made from wood fibres may find new uses. Specialist cloth and rugs will continue to be iconic products – Harris tweed, and products from rare sheep breeds such as the North Ronaldsay, the Jacobs and the Herdwick from Cumbria.
Flax and hemp seem to have been in competition with cereals at various times in the last 1000 years and have usually lost, and seem to be still losing. The landscape may continue to be devoid of main fibre crops for the forseeable future. Nettle will remain in many habitats but, as the Lawsons noted in 1850, viewed mainly as a troublesome weed, its potential unrealised.
Museums and online resources relevant to fibres concentrate on industrial manufacture and uses. Information on the growing of fibre crops and craft-scale manufacture is much harder to find. Visitors to the region are unlikely to see fibre crops, but will meet the fibre plant, stinging nettle, growing wild in many places. Best not to touch!
How to begin? View the wildfibres web site at the link below, visit a museum or exhibition on textiles or weaving, and to see what people wore a long time ago, dip into the books or web sites on the Tarim mummies and the man in the ice. For a project - collect fibres and things made from them and find out what the source materials look like and where they grow. You could easily find 20 different fibres in shops and through web sales.
To continue with a more detailed study of fibres and textiles, try growing flax from seed. Several web sites show how to harvest last year's nettle stems and extract the fibres. For a more academic study, read Thirsk for the historical development of industries in the UK based on fibres such as flax, hemp and silk (yes, growing silkworms). Dixon and Dixon discuss the occurrence of flax and hemp at archaeological sites in Scotland.The artlcle by DJ Currie has an extensive list of references and places to visit; see also the Scottish Textile Heritage Online web site.
Museums and other places to visit (plant fibre products)
Verdant Works, Dundee www.verdantworks.com - an excellent museum with ‘interactive exhibits, dramatic working machinery, film shows, gift shop and cafe’. The museum shows the huge impact of the industry built around imported jute fibre on Dundee and its surrounds. A must see for anyone with an interest in plant fibres and textiles.
Angus Weavers Ltd at the House of Dun, Montrose are Scotland’s last hand loom linen weavers, and have quality cloths, in damask and double damask for sale, made from flax imported from the Baltic region (web site not accessible, November 2011).
Scottish Crannog Centre Loch Tay www.crannog.co.uk has standing and special exhibitions that include craft work with plant products such as fibres. Their 'nettle day' earlier in 2011 showed extraction, dying, spinning and both woven and felt products.
Stanley Mills at Stanley, a few miles north of Perth, describes industrial production from the late 1700s onwards based on another imported plant fibre, cotton. The Mills has a visitor centre, exhibitions and demonstrations based on "a unique complex of water-powered cotton mills situated on a majestic bend of the River Tay". Open April to October. Check the Historic Scotland Stanley Mills web page. (Useful for Living Field resources on 5000 years - fibres and Waters.)
New Lanark World Heritage Site is a restored cotton mill complex 25 miles south east of Glasgow and 35 miles south west of Edinburgh. The mill worked from 1786 to 1968. It has since been restored as a centre of architectural, industrial and social heritage. Open all year - check for times at the New Lanark web site.
Books and articles
Barber EW. 1999. The mummies of Urumchi. Norton and Company, New York.
Burkhill IH. 1935. A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsular. Reprinted 1966, published on behalf of the Governments of Malaysia and Singapore by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Two volumes, 2444 pages. (A resource of information on many tropical crops, not just those in Malaysia, but not for the casual browser.)
Crowfoot E, Pritchard F, Staniland K. 1992. Textiles and clothing 1150-1450. Museum of London (new edition 2001). ISBN 0 85115 840 4.
Currie DJ. Accessed December 2011. Weaving in Scotland. Scottish Textile Heritage Online. (Gives extensive list of references and places to visit.)
Darwin T. 2008. The Scots herbal. Published by Berlinn, Edinburgh. (First edition, 1996). (Useful also for a section of dyeing of natural fibres.)
Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire. 320 pages. ISBN 0 7524 1905 6.
Lawson P and Son.1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Peter Lawson and Son. (Prepared for the Great Industrial Exhibition of all Nations - this privately printed book is an invaluable document of the plant species and varieties grown or tested in Scotland for agricultural use in the middle of the 1800s.)
Mallory JP, Mair VH. 2000. The Tarim Mummies. Paperback edition 2008. Thames and Hudson, London. 352 pages. ISBN 978-0-500-28372-1.
Spindler K. 1994. The man in the ice. Translated from the German by Ewald Osers. Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London (German edition 1993).
Thirsk J. 1997. Alternative agriculture. A history from the Black Death to the present day. Oxford University Press. 365 pages. ISBN 0-19-820662-3
Web links for fibres in industry and heritage
Scottish Textile Heritage Online is a web resource dedicated to plant- and animal- based textiles. The Scottish Textiles Heritage Online has a page on the University of Dundee Archive which contains records of the jute and flax industries.
IENICA Interactive European Network for Industrial Crops and their Applications has a web site funded by the European Commission - includes a searchable database for information on uses of the cereals and other crops.
Web sites for plant fibre products
Wildfibres is a great source of practical info and products used in craft manufacturing and gives an extensive reference list on fibres.
There are several web sites that now offer yard, rope and textiles made from natural fibres. Just search for the name of the fibre or product. For uses of jute, for example, see J funerals for natural fibre coffins, Nutscene for twine, the Natural Bag Company and Geojute for biodegradable geotextiles
Contact at the James Hutton Institute for this page: Geoff Squire