These Are The Natural Fibers from Plants - Cotton, Flax/Linen, Hemp and Ramie
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Cellulose Fibers are the natural fibers from plants, and are categorized by the part of the plant used - seed, stem or leaf. Cotton is a seed fiber, a fiber that grows within a pod or boll from developing seeds. Flax, hemp and ramie are bast fibers, from the stem of the plant. Leaf fibers are removed from the veins or ribs of a leaf. Sisal, a type of agave plant, is an example, as well as pina (pineapple leaves) and abaca (banana tree family). The leaf fibers are not very commonly found as yarn or spinning fiber.
All the cellulose fibers share some desirable qualities - they are good heat conductors making them cooler than protein fibers for summer clothing; they can withstand high temperatures; they do not build up static and have good absorbency. They are resistant to moths although may be damaged by crickets or silverfish and prone to mildew.
These natural fibers are not as light weight as wool and silk but because they have less loft and they compact well, thread can be used for high-count fabrics as well as wind-resistant fabrics. It can also feel very heavy when wet, especially as a yarn, and doesn't hold the same shape as wool. Cellulose fibers will also wrinkle more than wool and silk unless specially treated.
By far, cotton is the most well-known plant-based natural fiber. Cotton grows on bushes 3-6 feet high and the fibers grow from 7-8 seeds inside a seed pod. When ripe, the seed pod splits open and the white fibers emerge.
One seed may have as many as 20,000 fibers. Fibers range in length from 1/2 to 2 inches. Processing includes having to remove the fiber from the seed - a very tedious process before the invention of the cotton gin. The fibers need to be carded before they can be spun into thread or yarn.
One controversial aspect of cotton is the environmental impact of the heavy use of insecticides. Organic cotton is becoming increasingly available as fiber, yarn and finished fabric. A common term is 'mercerized' cotton, named for its 1844 originator John Mercer. Fibers are treated with sodium hydroxide and results in greater strength, dye affinity, mildew resistance and luster - which is why it is also sometimes called pearl cotton. It is available as both thread and yarn for crochet and knitting.
Cotton is available for handspinning simply as loose cotton fiber or cotton top. Cotton fibers are relatively short and more challenging so beginning spinners are advised to try the top first. Loose cotton fiber needs to be carded first. There are hand carders available specifically for cotton fiber - the teeth are closer together to prevent cotton from compacting between the teeth.
Flax, a bast fiber coming from the stem of the plant, is one of the oldest textile fibers. Fabric made from flax is referred to as linen although the term is more loosely applied now to any fabric - tablecloths, bedsheets, etc. - that used to be made from flax. In Europe this industry flourished until the 18th century when cotton, with the invention of power spinning, became the more widely used fiber. Flax today is a prestige fiber due to its limited production and higher cost.
It is stronger than cotton, has good abrasion resistance and has a high, natural luster. Also, because the fiber strands are never totally separated in processing, fiber 'bundles' give it a characteristic irregular appearance. Linen fabric also has a characteristic wrinkled look since crease-resistant finishes decrease its strength and abrasion.
Like cotton, flax is highly absorbent and conducts heat well so it makes good summer wear. It is resistant to alkalis, organic solvents and high temperatures so no special washing care is required. But it should be stored dry – like cotton, it is prone to mildew.
Flax and other bast fibers can be handspun either wet or dry. Wet spinning activates the pectin that holds the fibers together resulting in a very strong and smoother yarn than dry spun yarn, which is weaker, softer and fuzzier. These fibers are generally used as single spun.
A distaff was designed to hold fiber, most commonly flax, to keep the fibers from tangling while spinning. The fibers are wrapped around the staff and loosely tied with string or ribbon. It can be held under the arm for spindling or mounted as an attachment to a spinning wheel.
Hemp is growing in popularity, particularity as clothing, but also as yarn and spinning fiber (and food, building materials and more). It has actually been around as long as flax and while some varieties of hemp are difficult to distinguish from flax, most could not compete in fineness of flax. Historically it was used as rope, twine and thread. Today it is considered one of the eco-friendly natural fibers because it requires little to no pesticides and herbicides. It is also very fast growing so can produce a lot of fiber. It is still somewhat expensive to produce and is often blended with cotton, flax or silk. See flax above for spinning tips.
Ramie is another ancient natural fiber, used for thousands of years in China. It comes from a perennial shrub from the nettle family, a very fast growing plant. It is a long, lustrous fiber and naturally white but can be somewhat stiff and brittle. It is often blended with other fibers. It is available as a spinning fiber but seems to be more difficult to find than the other fibers. Spin as for flax.
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