Ramie is a plant belonging to the nettle family (a non-stinging variety!) with heart-shaped leaves and a silvery appearance. The main species is Boehmeria nivea but there are several varieties and many closely related species. Native to eastern Asia,
Ramie is a perennial plant that may live for several years. It looks similar to European nettle but it does not have prickles. It grows as a shrub up to 1.8 metres tall, with dark green, heart-shaped, crinkly leaves. The underside of the leaves is covered with white hairs, giving it a silvery appearance and the stems are about 1.2 cm thick. the plant’s bark has been harvested for fabric production for thousands of years; it is even known to have been used in mummy bindings in Ancient Egypt.
Ramie production has expanded since then, and the fabric is now valued world-wide for its strength, its ability to hold its shape and not wrinkle, and the silky lustre that it presents, along with its antibacterial properties, which means it does not absorb smells easily. Ramie clothing is ideal for working, travelling, gardening (nothing sticks to it easily). Initially clothing of ramie will feel slightly stiff, but within a day of wearing already the weave will loosen up and the fabric look more 'relaxed'.
The plant is typically harvested twice a year, and then undergoes several stages of processing to transform it into a usable fabric. First, the stem is decorticated (stripped of its cortex, the outermost section of the plant), and then this cortex is scraped to remove the bark. What is left is washed, dried, and de-gummed, making it a spinnable fibre.
We use ramie for clothing, but its uses are varied. The versatile and durable plant is also harvested for sewing thread, fishing nets, upholstery, paper, and even food. In the 1980s, improvements in processing technology and a renewed interest in natural fibres for clothing brought ramie into wider use. Ramie is still not used much by the textile industry largely because it is a high cost fibre due to its complex processing requirements. Ramie is a premium plant fibre with several useful characteristics and improvements in processing methods may well result in ramie becoming a more popular fibre in the near future.
Linen is another of the world’s oldest fabrics. Due to the high attention required by the flax plant from which it is derived, and the difficulty of working the non-elastic thread, linen was traditionally worn only by the wealthy, and as such became a symbol of class. Now, of course, it is a more widespread fabric, used in clothing, bedclothes, tablecloths and more. It has been made more accessible by the fact that linen is often now used in blends with other fibres such as cotton.
Cultivated flax (Linum usitatissimum) is an annual of temperate climates, especially of northern Europe. Separate varieties are grown either for the fibre or for the seeds that are used in linseed oil production.The plant grows to about 1 metre in height in 3-4 months and has attractive pale blue flowers at the tips of the stems. After flowering, the whole plant is pulled to obtain the maximum length of fibre.
Linen is highly valued for its breathable, absorbent nature. It is cool to the touch and gets softer the more it is worn and washed. The fibres in linen (produced by drying out the flax stalks and separating them) do not stretch, which is why folding and ironing in the same place repeatedly can cause damage. However, this property also means that linen is a strong fabric, relatively resistant to abrasion and staining.
flax plant in bloom
flax dried and gathered
Bamboo textiles were originally used for several purposes, building structures for houses, making ladders, baskets or the broad rims of bamboo hats that became so associated with rural Chinese life.
It has also been used to create the ribs of corsets and other such hard-wearing clothes.
Production techniques have become more refined over time, however, allowing the bamboo to be made finer and more pliable. This means that the plant can now be used to create soft, cotton-like clothing.
Bamboo fibre is made from the pulp of bamboo plants, meaning that the leaves and soft inner pith of the plant are extracted and crushed. This pulp is then reconstituted and becomes a spinnable fibre. Bamboo is often combined with other textiles such as cotton or hemp.
As a grass, bamboo grows very quickly (up to 1 metre per day) and regenerates once cut. This means it does not need replanting, and in fact regular harvesting is beneficial to the plant’s health as it encourages this re-growth.
Bamboo is cheap, sustainable, and highly efficient, and its uses vary from textiles to food and shelter. As such, it is often touted as an incredibly environmentally friendly plant; it can reduce deforestation by providing alternative, more easily replenished, materials.
100% bamboo fabric
Cotton fibre is produced from cotton bolls, a fluffy substance that encloses the seeds of the cotton plant as they grow. These are picked off, either by hand or machine, without damaging the cotton plant and are harvested yearly. The processed cotton fibre consists of nearly pure cellulose and is produced from plants of the genus Gossypium of the mallow family, Malvacae.
There are about 43 species of Gossypium but only 4 are important for cultivation, that is, two species of Old World Cottons from Africa and Asia and two New World Cottons of the Americas. Both groups have been cultivated for a long time and cotton has been used to make fine lightweight textiles in areas with tropical climates for thousands of years.
Cotton received its global boost during Britain’s Industrial Revolution; textiles were one of the primary exports of this age, increasing demand for cotton production.
The cotton plant needs a great deal of water to grow successfully, and is liable to pests, so high maintenance and high costs to humans and the environment.
The material is soft, and has a high colour retention ability – this means it can be dyed and printed easily and durably. Because of this, cotton is the most commonly natural fibre in clothing production, with terrycloth, denim, and corduroy all being cotton textiles.
Hemp (from Old English hænep) is the common name for plants of the genus Cannabis, but it is usually used to refer to Cannabis strains cultivated for hemp fibre and for other non-drug uses. Cannabis sativa sativa is the variety grown for hemp fibre in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, whilst C. sativa indica is used for drug production.The principal difference between the two types is the large amount of cannabinol produced by indica and the poor fibre quality of that variety, in contrast to the insignificant amounts of cannabinol in sativa and its high fibre quality.
Common hemp is an annual flowering herb and wild hemp can reach heights of up to 20 feet (6 m) tall in warm places, but in colder climates it can be as short as 30 cm in height.
During harvesting, the plants are cut near to ground level, gathered up, and left to dry in swathes. Once dry, steam is used to separate the stem into many thinner fibres. It is an incredibly strong material, and as such has been traditionally used for industrial purposes – sacks, sails, and rope, for instance.
In more modern production, it has become possible to de-gum hemp fibre before spinning, softening the resultant fabric without compromising its strength. Since then, hemp has found another use in clothing manufacture. Its porous nature (allowing it to be both breathable and insulating) and strength make it a fabric to be worn year-round without it becoming misshapen, faded, or worn out.