What to Call a Plant Fiber

When it comes to talking about plant fibers, we throw a lot of terminology around.  For a number of us, wool was our first fiber, and plant fibers are a world away.  (Mind you, there’s not a “best” starting point.   It isn’t “better” to start with wool over plant fibers.  Start where you’re at.  I started with polyfil stuffing.)  So, when breaking into the world of plant fibers, where do you start to understand what the heck is going on?

Today, let’s talk about a distinction between types of plant fibers.  What is the difference between bast and seed hair fibers? 

Bast fiber is a cellulose fiber collected from the phloem, the inner bark of the plant.  These fibers create strength in the stem and help hold the plant upright.  Flax, hemp, and jute are examples of bast fibers.  In most cases, it takes special processing to separate the fibers from the boon (woody pith of the plant).   To give a simplified explanation, the plant is retted (rotted) which begins to break down the woody part of the stem, then a tool called a brake is used to  physically break the boon into small pieces which fall away from the fiber.  Ultimately, a comb is used to separate the fibers and remove any remaining boon or weak fibers.  The resulting fiber is long (the full length of the plant stem) and often a little stiff.  It softens as it is used and abused.  Flax is where linen comes from, for example.

Plant seed fiber is the second big classification you’re likely to see when talking about plant fibers. Cotton and Kapok are examples of plant seed fibers.  Like a dandelion, the seeds are covered with a fine fuzz which is made almost entirely of cellulose.  Most of these fibers are under an inch long and are used by the plant as a means to natural seed distribution (again, like the dandelion).  Once the seed pod opens the boll, or the soft fluffy clump of cotton, can be picked directly from the plant.  Each boll contains several seeds.  While some handspinners will spin cotton on the seed, it is usually taken through a delinting process where the seed fibers are removed from the seeds, either by hand or by use of a mechanical cotton gin.  Some spinners will make punis, a small, tightly rolled fiber preparation similar to rolags.

A third classification of plant fibers that you’ll hear less often about is the hard fibers.  Hard fibers are those fibers collected from the leaves, fruit, or fruit husk.  Banana leaf fiber is a great example.  While you may find some of these fibers available to spin, it is unlikely you’ll be processing them on your own.  Many hard fibers require heavy processes that involve manual scraping or complex chemical or enzyme processes.

Keep in mind that what I’ve provided in this post are very simplified and vague explanations of the processes involved.  If you’re planning to process plant fibers, dig a little deeper!


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