Banana fibres have, in recent years, been touted as one of the most sustainable options, but what exactly are they, how are they produced and what can you use them for?
What is abaca (banana)?
The non-fruit bearing species of banana, abaca (Musa Textilis), has been grown for centuries for use as a textile fibre. The leaf sheath around the base of this herbaceous flowering plant is where you find the hidden fibre resource. It is a relatively slow cultivation process, with abaca stalks taking between 18 and 24 months to grow from the first shoots. Yet, when mature, an abaca plant can provide around 12-30 leaf stalks, each an astonishing 12-20 feet in height. That’s a pretty big leaf sheath! Once the tree has grown to this size, farmers can harvest every few months for further stalks, which makes abaca a cash crop after the initial growing period.
How is abaca fibre produced?
The methods of cultivation, fibre extraction, fibre processing and sorting are laborious. From this comes a tough but fine and lustrous fibre that when woven is a supple yet versatile textile. Generally woven in small communities on electric-free looms, abaca fibre is low impact, low (mechanical) energy and requires no chemicals to grow or process. As the tree is grown locally, it is also low in transportation impact. In order to create this plant fibre, the trunk of the tree is soaked in nearby rivers for softening, making it more manageable to separate the fibres, then knotted into yarn. Around a billion tonnes of banana plant stems are wasted each year, despite research (Handbook of Fiber Chemistry) indicating that it would only take 37kg of stems to produce a kilogram of fibre. It seems that a significant amount of banana leaves are wasted each year because the demand for this unusual textile just isn’t high enough yet.
Woven by women on electric-free looms in a co-operative in the Southern Philippines, this fibre is also low impact, low (mechanical) energy, low transport and requires no chemicals. It is washed for processing in nearby rivers, is hung to dry in the sun and uses human power to create.
What are the uses of abaca textile?
Abaca is believed to have evolved in the Philippines region, where global production of the fibre mainly comes from. It is now also grown as a commercial crop in other parts of the world, including Ecuador and Costa Rica. Abaca fibre was once referred to as Manila hemp, because it’s such a strong and versatile fibre, growing quite readily. The main exports are as twine and speciality paper (including tea bags, filter paper and banknotes!), but now, abaca is becoming known in the textile world too.
Depending on whether you have a 100% abaca composition, or a blend, like Offset Warehouse’s selection with organic cotton or pineapple fibre and raw silk, the textile can have many unique characteristics. Generally, the hand feel is structured but will soften over time, to be used in embroidery, millinery, couture finishings (binding, ribbons) and avant-garde fashion. It could also be used in making luxe accessories if you line/back the fabric to further strengthen, decorative tableware and even interior blinds.
How do I look after these fabrics?
Abaca fibres are great when merely steamed. This is a low energy solution to freshen up your textiles anyway, but steaming any products made in this textile in your shower room or with a gentle iron, will help relieve any wrinkling or creases. You can wash by hand or even in your machine on a cold delicate wash. When blended with cotton and silk, you can usually care for abaca and pineapple textiles in a similar way.
Are these ethical textiles?
Offset Warehouse only chooses fabrics that are good for people and planet. Ethically and environmentally, the resurgence of both abaca and pineapple for textile use encourages regeneration: both of traditional artisanal skills to employ communities, and of renewable hardy plant fibres. These are incredibly labour-intensive textiles to produce, requiring both hard graft and skill, though once in place, there can be a continual harvest. Unlike cotton, which requires tilling to re-fertilise the soil, abaca and pineapple plants will regrow in the same place. The plants also don’t need any additional land, water or fertilisers to grow.
These textiles are both minimal impact due to their low water consumption (local rivers and tropical climate), low energy (generally only using people power, though differs between makers), and as they require no chemicals in growing or fibre production. They also do not need or use genetically modified crops (ensuring the sustainability of farmers’ livelihoods) and are azo-free because dyes are not used, as well as ensuring no chemicals re-enter the local water supply. Grown close to or even within the small weaving communities means that transportation is minimal. In regards to the pineapple fibre, this can also be considered a textile to minimise waste due to the leaves being a ‘by-product’ of pineapple fruit cultivation.
The Offset Warehouse selection of abaca and pineapple textiles are woven within small weaving communities on an island in the Southern Philippines. The abaca and pineapple are grown locally, though to increase versatility, strength, durability and purpose, these fibres are blended with organic cotton grown in the US, raw silk cultivated in the Philippines and mulberry silk from Canada.