Deep within the earth womb, below the roots of the cosmic world tree Yggdrasil, the three norns, Urd, Verthandi and Skuld have their dwelling. Also known as 'the fates', they govern the thread of life: Urd (Earth) spins it, Verthandi (Becoming) measures it and Skuld (Fate) cuts it - and no God or power can overrule them. Every soul is handed their thread and is thus equipped to weave a little patch in the tapestry of life.
Spinning and weaving are sacred activities in many traditions. The Kogi Indians of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia have the most intricate philosophy and express this entire cosmology in terms of the symbolic significance of weaving.
Spinning is a contemplative act. To sit down and twist and roll the fibres into a smooth and even thread involves many thoughts and prayers that become entwined with the resulting thread. When a Kogi sits down to spin a thread he symbolically puts his life in order. In Kogi symbolism the spindle represents a 'lingam-yoni' symbol, the male and female aspects of the universe joined in an act of creation. The wooden shaft is the axis mundi, the world-tree, the symbolic center of the world, while the disk at the top, the whorl, is the world itself. In Kogi mythology the Sun is the cosmic weaver, who weaves the tapestry of life on his cosmic loom, which is defined by the four corner points of the year, the equinoxes and solstices. The sun weaves two pieces of material a year, one for himself and one for his wife, the moon.
In traditional cultures all over the world we find patterns and symbols woven into fabrics and clothes that convey very specific coded messages with regards to the social role of an individual, their tribal relations and perhaps their marital status. In other words the clothes they wear are symbolic representations of their position in their universe.
From these ancient myths and symbols we begin to gain a tiny insight into the significance of fibres, not just as a material resource, but as the stuff that literally weaves the web of life. In sacred cosmology we humans become symbolic co-creators of the universe as we spin the thread with which we weave the fabric of our own and our planet's future.
It is not known when mankind first discovered fibres and developed methods to extract and utilize them, but archaeological evidence suggests that weaving and spinning can be traced back at least 5000 years. The Egyptian mummies were already wrapped in linen sheets and the Neolithic lake dwellers of Switzerland are known to have cultivated flax. In China, records dating back just as long, bear witness to the use of hemp, another important fibre plant.
From a plant's perspective, fibre is a vital part of its anatomy. It is analogous to our connective tissue, the stuff that gives them strength, support and resilience against wind, wear and tear.
Every plant contains fibre, but many do not have the right properties to make them suitable to be spun into thread. They may be too short or too inflexible, which lets them break easily. Some are just right, but may be difficult to extract. Most plant fibres used for cordage, thread and ropes must be extracted by a process known as 'retting', - which is basically a method of 'rotting' away the non-fibrous parts of the plants until only the fibres remain. The details of the retting process varies depending on each specific fibre plant. It often involves submerging the stalks in water until the softer tissues have rotted away. Once the fibres have been separated out they must be 'combed' and thoroughly dried before they can be further processed and spun into yarn.
Over the last century, since the discovery of oil, artificial fibres have progressively replaced natural fibres. We hardly spare a thought to all these ingenious processes that once upon a time not only kept us warm, but also affirmed our relationship with the Gods and creation. Yet, in recent times the voices of dissent demand a return to natural fibres, since these are biodegradable and thus less harmful to the environment. They also make for healthier clothing, giving the skin a chance to breathe. Fibres are also important as insulation materials for building and construction, helping to create healthier indoor climates (because they can breathe) and to reduce our energy consumption. As oil is beginning to become scarce and people are becoming more aware of the harmful ecological effects of the petrochemical industries, natural fibres are regaining ground and importance, albeit commercially rather than spiritually:
Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
Flax, or linseed is the source plant of linen, and is one of the earliest known fibre plants. It grows best in a mild, somewhat humid climate. In the days of antiquity it was grown as far north as Scotland and as far south as Egypt, where mummies have been found that were been wrapped in linen shrouds thousands of years ago. The fibres are extracted by retting, which is a lengthy process. Then they must be cleaned and brushed before they can be spun. Flax fibres are very long and do not break easily, their resilience in fact increases when they are wet. The quality of flax yarn varies widely. It can be spun so fine as to create an almost silken texture or, left rough it can be used for canvass and carpet backing. Natural linen is buff-coloured to grey and can be bleached in the sun. It does not take easily to dyes as the fibre is hard and naturally resistant. Bleaching deteriorates its quality, reducing its strength and weight. Linen appears stiffer and harder than cotton and wrinkles more easily, which may be why it has fallen out of fashion. However, linen conducts heat better than cotton, making garments feel 'cooler'. Its smooth texture resists dirt.
Flax also provides us with a wonderful, fine quality oil though the variety grown for the highest yield of oil varies from that grown for fibres. Our ancestors used flax oil to fuel their lamps and of course, for cooking. Today it is mostly used to treat wood or may be added to paints to give them a smooth texture and a lustrous finish. Food grade Flax oil is currently being rediscovered for its nutritional benefits. It is the richest vegetable source of omega 3 fatty acids.
Hemp (Cannabis sativa)
A book could be written about the virtues of this invaluable plant that has served humanity for at least 7000 years. Actually, several excellent books have been written about it, but I will limit myself here to its value as a fibre plant. Hemp has the longest, toughest and most resilient fibres of all fibre plants, making it particularly useful for tough ropes and sails that must withstand great pressures, wear and tear. Like Jute or Flax, Hemp is an annual plant. It is not demanding in terms of growing conditions and actually benefits the soil. In a previous era, not too long ago, it was widely cultivated throughout Europe, the United States, China and India. However, in recent years it has come under fire because of the psychoactive properties of THC, a plant resin produced by Cannabis sativa var. indica,, a subspecies of hemp, which, however, is never used as a source of fibre, since its fibres are too short. Fibre hemp (Cannabis sativa) on the other hand does not produce any noteworthy amounts of THC. Yet, this confusion is used to rationalize the prohibition of hemp and suppress commercial scale hemp production.
The fibres are derived from the stem, which can reach heights of up to 4m if planted with plenty of space around each plant. When planted close together the individual plants don't grow as high, but the fibre produced is of a finer quality, making it suitable for fine yarns that can be woven into textiles for use as garments. Hemp would make an ideal fibre plant, not just for hard wearing rope or clothes, (the first jeans were made from hemp), but also as a source of fibre pulp for paper (the first dollar notes were printed on hemp paper). It is criminal that forests, including old growth forests, continue to be cut down to produce a 'throw-away' commodity such as paper when there are very viable renewable alternative fibre sources available. The only thing that hinders development on a large scale is legislation, which continues to rule in favour of exploitation instead of sustainable growth.
In recent years some few licenses to produce hemp for fibre and oil have been granted in the US and hemp rope, clothes, paper and food products that utilize the oil pressed from the seeds (no THC, but exceptionally well balanced essential fatty acids and amino acids) have again become available on the market. However, its current impact, compared to its potential, is negligible and most hemp is imported.
Nettles (Urtica dioica)
The common stinging nettle is another ancient fibre plant, though most people only know it as a weed. Our ancestors not only extracted their long resilient fibres to make cloth and garments, but also used nettles for food and medicine. Nettles as a source of fibre have gone through several cycles of popularity. The last time they were extensively used as a fibre plant was during the WWII in Germany, when cotton grew scarce. Since then interest has dwindled in favour of cheap artificial fibres. However, in recent years they have started to make a come back yet again (weeds don't die) as people are becoming more discerning about chemical treatments of their textiles and are looking for natural fibre alternatives. While the old favourites, hemp and flax produce a tougher, more hardwearing fibre, nettles produce the finest quality yarn of all natural plant fibres. At present Nettles are again being cultivated in Germany, without the use of fertilizers and chemicals to produce a 'natural fibre alternative'. The plants are resistant enough not to need any chemical treatment. In fact, no chemicals at all are used in the processing and the end product is a very soft, silky textile that is immensely resistant to tearing. Nettles thrive on nitrates and can be used to 'clean' over-fertilized land. However, most people, not least of all farmers, consider nettles a bothersome weed and thus far few are few willing to grow it. Yet, that might change as farmers may 'cotton on' to the fact that under EU regulations it is the only crop permitted on subsidized 'fallow land'. In an effort to increase yields, a team of Italian, Austrian and German researchers have joined forces to breed new, high yield nettle varieties and to find a solution that would make the process of retting less time consuming and more efficient. Famous Italian fashion houses are ready to launch new lines of fine quality designer nettle knickers and other fashionable clothes - all they are waiting for are sufficient supplies of the raw material.
Ramie (Boehmeria nivea)
Another member of the nettle family, Ramie has been termed 'the flax of the east' as it is most common in parts of Russia and East Asia. When woven into fabric its qualities are much like flax in terms of lustre and strength. It also creases easily and has a similarly smooth texture take keeps dirt off. Ramie textiles are particularly renowned for keeping their shape well, but it is not a very flexible fibre, which makes it prone to breaking in highly stressed places, such as crease folds. Unlike flax it takes well to dyes. Fine quality Ramie fabric has a silken appearance. It is usually blended with cotton to create mixed material garments. Ramie has a disadvantage compared to other fibre plants - it needs to undergo a chemical process in order remove a gum substance from the fibres. On the other hand, it can sustain between three and six harvests a year, depending on weather and growing conditions.
Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
It is impossible to say where exactly Coconuts originated, but it is thought that their home can be found somewhere in the West Pacific. Today it is a common species in all hot, tropical regions of the world. Coconuts can travel long distances since they are resistant to saltwater and can float across the sea to far off shores.
Since time immemorial Coconut trees have been revered as a source of food, oil, medicine and fibre. Coconut fibre is derived from the husks of the nuts, which are harvested both green (unripe) and brown (mature). Both types are available throughout the year, since each nut take 12 months to mature and the tree flowers and fruits continuously up to 13 times per year. In Thailand and Malaysia harvesters have trained small monkeys to help them with the task of getting the nuts. The green nuts provide a softer more pliable type of fibre than the brown, fully mature nuts. Brown Coconut fibre is quite coarse and bristly, making it useful as a hard-wearing flooring material, as well as for upholstery, mattresses, brushes, and sacking. White coconut fibre is used for rope and cordage. Coconut fibre is the only natural fibre resistant to sea water.
Sisal (Agave sisalana)
Sisal is a hard wearing fibre derived from a species of Agave native to Central America and Mexico. Agave sisalana is a sterile hybrid, which points to its long established use as a fibre plant in Central America. The exact origin is not clear, though it derived its name from the port town of Sisal in the Yucatan, from which it was first exported. Today it is grown not only in Mexico, but also in China, Brazil and Africa, with Tanzania being the world's largest producer. Agaves are succulent desert plants with long, fleshy, blue green, sword-like leaves which grow in a rosette formation on a short stumpy stem. The fibres are derived from the fibrous sheath surrounding the inner xylem of the leaves. Sisal is not as resilient as other fibres and can deteriorate quickly during processing. The leaves are harvested by hand and are quickly decorticated, while the leaf pulp is washed away. Sisal is ideally adapted to arid growing condition. Its fibre is used for matting, rope, netting, or in mixtures with wool for carpets etc..
Jute (Corchorus capsularis and C. olitorius) and Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)
These two members of the Hibiscus family produce a strong, but coarse fibre. Jute is mostly used for sacking and carpet backing. The fibre is not as strong as hemp or flax and is susceptible to rot. It can not be spun into a fine grade yarn and thus does not find use in the textile industry.
Kenaf, a close relative of Jute is mostly used in the manufacture of paper, though in its native Africa it also supplies fibres for rope and rugs. It is native to hot and humid climates, but is adaptable and will grow as far north as southern Illinois. However, in cooler climates its seeds do not mature. Kenaf is a very viable alternative to Pine for paper production. Considering that each and every American consumes about six 30-year old pines in paper per year and the per-acre yield of Kenaf is 3-5 times higher than that of Pine, Kenaf is the obvious environmentally friendly choice. Kenaf is resistant to most bugs and may be grown organically. It also takes less energy to pulp and does not require chlorine for bleaching. The quality of paper produced from it is very high. http://www.ran.org/ran_campaigns/old_growth/alt_kenaf.html
Cotton (Gossipium hirsutum)
What about cotton, I can hear you asking, and rightly so. At this point in time, cotton is the most important fibre plant of all. I mention it separately because it is a story of its own. Cotton derives from various species of Gossipium, and belongs to the Malva family. Unlike the other fibre plants discussed above, its fibre does not derive from the stem of the plant, but from the seeds, which grow inside a capsule known as a 'boll'. The seed is surrounded by a soft, fluffy material called 'lint', which consists of fibres that can easily be spun into threads.
Cotton is a tropical crop of enormous commercial importance and was of course instrumental in the ugly business of the slave trade and all the pain and misery that it entailed. Cotton used to be a very labour intensive crop - until the invention of the cotton gin made the separation of the fibre from the seed much easer, which in turn has made the whole process far more efficient. Today much of cotton processing is done by machines, including the picking. Cotton has become problematic in other ways though. It is highly susceptible to a great variety of bugs, which has made it subject to intense agrochemical treatment. Today it is one of the most heavily sprayed of all crops (8-10 times per season). In fact, 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides and defoliants.) is sprayed on cotton. At the same time the soil is depleted, calling for vast amounts of fertilizers to compensate.
In the last 5 years disease and bug resistant Gene-manipulated varieties have been created, which are now taking over traditional chemically dependent varieties. In the US, a huge proportion of cotton now derives from GM varieties, which are hailed as environmentally friendly, because they supposedly do not need as much chemical treatment. However, trial plantings of GM cotton in India and Indonesia have failed to prove resistant to insects. Meanwhile consumers are beginning to become aware of these issues and are looking for ecofriendlier alternatives. Organic cotton and fair trade cotton is available, but with the market trend for cheaply produced goods, no matter what the human health or environmental costs may be, they struggle to establish themselves as viable alternatives. Who knows, perhaps nettle will be the eco-fibre of choice for the future.
While this article discusses fibres mostly in terms of textiles, a new and exciting use of natural fibres is emerging, in the automobile industry, of all places. Some of the leading manufacturers of cars are beginning to heed what Ford discovered years ago - natural fibres can make a damn good car. They are not only used for the obvious - upholstery of seats and covers, but also as filling materials and to replace other parts currently made from plastic or glass. A 'bio' plastic is already being produced from Kenaf and Hemp. Natural fibres in such applications have obvious advantages, not just in terms of lower costs, but also in terms of lower environmental impact, since they are generally cheaper to produce and more easily biodegraded once their task has been fulfilled. There are as yet unimagined and exciting possibilities in the world of natural fibres and I for one am certain that they will play a crucial part in readjusting the natural balance for a sustainable future.
For more on the Kogi Indians read Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff: Land of the Elder Brothers: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Colombia,(unfortunately currently unavailable at Amazon) The Sacred Mountain of Colombia's Kogi Indians (Iconography of Religions, Section IX, Vol 2) or see Alan Ereira's documentary, 'From the Heart of the World - The Elder Brothers Warning'
Web page of the Tairona heritage trust has much useful information: http://www.taironatrust.org/
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