Author – Thirumagal Jayaraman
Fabrics and textiles play a vital role in meeting our basic clothing needs and evidently, they are the dominant sectors in the Indian economy. Fabrics are closely associated with every aspect of our lives right from birth till death. A study of fabrics shows that their earliest use dates back to over 10,000 years. The oldest fibers used by mankind are flax (10000 BC) cotton (5000 BC) and silk (2700 BC), while jute and coir have also been used since ages.
While we are well exposed to manmade fabrics such as nylon, polyester, viscose, etc, natural fibers have been gaining prominence of late. A wide variety of natural fibers are used in traditional handloom/textiles. Over the last few years, with the “go green” and “organic” consciousness taking over in India, we have numerous eco-conscious fashion brands committed to being 100% organic and using natural fibers.
Natural fibers can be defined as substances that are obtained from plants, animals, minerals or from geological processes, which are biodegradable over time. They can be spun into filaments, threads or ropes and can be woven, knitted, matted or bound. Since natural fibers are obtained from natural sources, they do not need any formation or reformation. The commercially important natural fibers are those cellulosic fibers obtained from the seed hairs, stems, and leaves of plants; protein fibers obtained from the hair, fur, or cocoons of animals and the crystalline mineral asbestos.
There are definite advantages in using natural fibers over synthetic ones even though they are slightly more expensive and shrink with time.
Advantages of natural fibers:
- Producing materials from natural fibers are least harmful to our environment
- Natural fibers are resistant to fire
- They don’t cause skin irritations
- They are biodegradable
A few common natural fibers in India and the processes involved in making them are listed below:
Agave belongs to Agavoideae family, which originated from Mexico. The drought hardy plant with sword-shaped leaves is also found in Brazil, Tanzania, Kenya and some regions of Asia. Agavoideae has many species in its family, but Agave Sisalana is most commonly used for fiber production. Commercially called ‘Sisal’, it produces stiff fibers that are traditionally used for producing rope, twine, paper, cloth, wall coverings, carpets and dartboards. These plants live for 7-10 years producing approximately 200-250 leaves. These leaves are the raw materials for producing fibers, which have around 1,000 fibers in them. Fibers are extracted using the decortication process in which leaves are crushed by a rotating wheel. The wheels have knives that cull out the pulp to extract the fibers. Then the fibers are dried and brushed.
Proper drying decides the fiber quality as it depends mainly on the moisture content. Dried fibers are combed using a machine and categorized into different grades. Wastage in the manufacturing process is converted into biofuel. Sisal is used for a number of purposes such as ropes and twines. The fiber is used in handicrafts as well, as strengthening agents replacing asbestos and fiberglass in composite materials. However, the fiber is too coarse for human clothing. Developing an agave fiber industry could save 10% of the cotton required for making fabrics, while increasing the land’s sustainability. Agave fibers show more resistance and even though they absorb water their rate of releasing water is considerably higher than other fibers.
All parts of a banana plant can be used for both edible purposes and biomass creation. However, only 10% of banana wastage is used for producing fibers. Since India is the largest producer of banana, the availability of raw material is high. Banana fiber is obtained from the stem of the plant. Chemical, biological or mechanical methods are used to extract fibers, but the chemical method is usually not preferred as it is not eco-friendly.
The sheath from the banana stem is first peeled off, the inner sheaths are flattened and fibers are stripped off either manually or through machines. These fibers have suitable properties like low density, appropriate stiffness, biodegradability and renewability. Banana fibers are classified as hard fibers, because they contain the whole vascular bundle structure. Their surface is more lignified and coarser than any other fiber. Banana fibers are used handicrafts, in the production of yarns, ropes, backing papers, tea bags and shoes. Recent innovations has enabled banana fiber in the textile industry as well.
Jute is also called as ‘Golden fiber’ because of its color and key role in the fiber industry. The plant belongs to the Tiliaceae family (). Jute is one of the strongest natural fibers and ranks second only to cotton in terms of global production. Jute fibers are around 1-4 meters long and are soft and shiny. Jute is mostly grown in Bangladesh and India. Jute is easily grown, they give high yield per acre of land and the amount of fertilizers used is considerably less, making it eco-friendly. Jute consists of cellulose and lignin, hence it is biodegradable.
Jute fibers have the following properties: high insulating and anti-static; moderate moisture regain; low thermal conductivity; and high tensile strength. There are two types of jute: white jute and ‘tossa’ jute, the later one being the top producer. Fibers are extracted from the stem and outer skin of the plant. Extraction is done by using a process called ‘retting’, where bundles of jute stems are tied together and immersed in slow running water. Then the fibers are pulled out by stripping off the non-fibrous material. Jute fiber is commonly known for its usage in making gunny bags and sacks. Jute is also used for making clothes to wrapping bales of cotton, twine, rope, matting, curtains, chair coverings, carpets, geotextiles and backing for linoleum flooring.
Cotton belongs to the Gossypium family, and it is extensively cultivated in 80 countries around the world. Cotton fiber is known to human kind for almost 5,000 years. It is made up of pure cellulose with softness and breathability. It absorbs moisture readily, provides natural comfort, is eco-friendly and also improves biodiversity and biological cycles. However, the commercial cultivation of cotton uses massive amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which renders it harmful to the environment.
For extracting the fiber from cotton balls, the lint and seeds are separated in a process called ginning. Before this ginning process, the moisture content of cotton is reduced using dryers. In the textile mill, lint is blended together to obtain a uniform fiber. Cotton is commonly used in the textile industry, apart from this they are used in making fishnets, coffee filters, gun powder, cotton paper, and fireproof apparel and gauze bandages.
Techspecs of Natural Fibers in India
Here are a few technical parameters for natural fibers:
|Elastic modulus (GN/m2)||-||8-20||9-16||-|
|Width or diameter(in micrometers)||-||80-250||50-200||12-20|
|Micro fibrillar angle(degrees)||8.1||11||10-22||-|
|Volume resistivity at100 volts (Ωcm * 105)||-||6.5-7||0.4-0.5||-|
Going organic or using natural fibers is not only about saving our planet, but can be developed as a fashion and promoted among the up-market crowd/high end clientele. So next time you go shopping spend a few moments and enquire about the fiber which was used in making the product and buy that made up of natural fibers that you make your own little contribution towards the environment.