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Plant fiber still vital to clothing production

Posted on November 27, 2004

In the millennia before polyester and spandex, people wore plants. In fact, you may be wearing plant material right now! While many of our modern clothes are fabricated with synthetic, pliable and durable fabrics, some ancient standbys just can’t be replaced. Perhaps you’ve grown the lovely flax plant in your garden. Did you know this easy-to-grow annual is used to make linen? The simple, short-lived intense blue flowers grab the passers-by attention are reward enough for the gardener. But the fiber from the plant is much more durable and long-lived than the plant’s delicate floral ornaments.

Flax has been cultivated since about 3000 B.C. Linen was fabricated by the ancient Egyptians for use in clothing and for preparing mummies. In ancient Greece, flax was used medicinally for relief of abdominal ailments and as a remedy for chronic coughing.

In early America, colonists grew small fields of flax for fiber use, but with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, flax production declined steadily. Today the fiber is grown on a large, commercial scale in Russia, Poland and France. Linen is used for everything from table clothes to draperies, wall coverings to insulation. Yet, the fabric is still often used for high-end clothing and has come to be known as an elegant and practical staple fiber.

After harvesting, the stems of the flax plant are thrashed and softened before the fiber is woven into linen. Some of the straw stems from the plant are used to produce paper products. The seeds are rich in linseed oil, which is used as a component in paints, varnishes and printing ink. The oil and meal from the seed is high in protein and is used in livestock feed. Not only do cattle enjoy the benefits of this reliable plant: we do too! You may have noticed flax seed in your local health food store or you may have heard the seed’s high polyunsaturated (the “good”) fatty acids touted by the media.

As you’d likely guess, being from the stem of a plant, flax is made up primarily of cellulose. When made into fabric, it is very resistant to wear. An article of clothing made from flax can become wet many times without loosing its shape. It becomes softer with use and washing, but having a low elasticity potential, doesn’t lose its form over time.

Where retaining shape is concerned, cotton is a different story. Cotton enjoys a long and rich history as a plant humans have relied on heavily. While the Egyptians were busily thrashing flax for linen in 3000 B.C., across the Asian continent the Pakistani were growing, spinning and weaving cotton.

Cotton has been grown in the states since the earliest American colonists established farms here. Today, our southern states collectively represent major producers in the global cotton market. Uzbekistan, China, India, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey also are major producers of the fiber.

Today, the world uses more cotton than any other fiber. It has hundreds of uses, from sheets to jeans to shoe stings to mattress padding. And like flax, more than just the fiber is useful. Cottonseed oil is used for shortening, cooking oil and salad dressing. The seed meal and hulls are used for livestock feed and the stalks and leaves of the plant are used as organic matter to amend soil.

In addition to flax and cotton, hemp, ramie and jute are also used to make fabrics.

Like flax, hemp is fabricated from the stems of the otherwise illegal Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp fabric withstands water better than any other textile product but tends to wrinkle easily. A fiber that was used for hundreds of years before taking the backburner to cotton and synthetics, it is currently experiencing a rebound of sorts and is being used by designers in clothing more and more frequently today. The finest hemp for fabric is produced in Italy, which has the look and feel very similar to linen.

Ramie is another inexpensive fiber from an east Asian plant that is spun or woven into a fabric. It is natural white in color and has a high luster. It is extremely absorbent and dries quickly. Ramie is extremely rugged. It is up to five times stronger than cotton and twice as strong as flax.

Finally, jute is another glossy fiber from a plant. It is seen most often in twine, sacks, rope and as backing on carpeting.

Throughout history, the lives of humans have revolved so closely and completely around plants. As a gardener, it’s good to be a part of that richness. While it’s perhaps a lot easier to grow plants for their nutritional and ornamental qualities, it is interesting to know that we could also “grow our own clothes.”

Copyright © 2004, Bangor Daily News. All rights reserved.

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