Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/The Textile Plants of the World


DR. HERMANN GROTHE, of Berlin, has published a work on the textile fibers furnished by the world of plants, embodying the fruits of studies pursued among the yarn and cloth materials of all nations at the great Industrial Exhibitions that have been held at the European capitals and in Philadelphia. The subject is one of much interest, in an economical sense, and in the relation it bears to the development of early civilization. Men's first steps in civilization may be traced almost directly in their efforts to clothe themselves; and their first essays in skilled labor are made in the adaptation of the materials which nature has furnished them to use for dress. On the banks of the White Nile are tribes who content themselves with simple aprons of leaves, or less; and Sir Samuel Baker noticed that a great advance in general civilization had taken place when, after having spent several months among peoples of that grade, he came into Unyoro, where the people wore garments fashioned out of the bark of a fig-tree, which they had to prepare by soaking and beating with a mallet. Thrift seemed to follow naturally upon the acquisition of the taste for clothing, for the fig-trees have to be cultivated to secure a sufficient supply. Accordingly we are told, when a man takes a wife, he plants a certain number of the trees in his garden, as a provision for the wants of the family he has in prospect. A grade above the naked races are the Papuans of New Guinea, with their loin-girdles of grass or palm-leaves; and above these are the Maoris of New Zealand, with their cloaks of the leaves of an agave-like plant laid upon each other like scales. The South-Sea Islanders have in the paper-mulberry a plant which serves the same purpose to them as the fig-tree to the people of Unyoro, from the bark of which they prepare the tapa by soaking and beating. They illustrate another development of industry in the adornment of their clothes, for which they have invented an endless number of designs, many of them of considerable merit. This stage of civilization is also often marked by a corresponding development of the potter's art, and of skill in ornamenting vessels. From the method of using the whole stuff of the bark to the art of separating its fibers and spinning and weaving them into a cloth is a great step. The processes of spinning and weaving are as varied as are the people who carry them on, and are largely determined by the nature of the material to which they have to be applied.

Dr. David August Rosenthal, in his "Synopsis Plantarum Diaphorecarum" (1862, Erlangen), counts, among twelve hundred useful plants, three hundred and sixty species which are fit for weaving, spinning, basket-work, cordage, etc.—species which are distributed over the whole earth, and of which nearly every country has some which may be cultivated with profit.

Dr. Grothe divides the textile fibers into seed, bark, stalk, and leaf fibers. Those of the first, class, the seed-fibers, are derived principally from the species of cotton, concerning all of which we have as yet no comprehensive treatise. Several other families of very diversified character afford seed-fibers, for which no method of application has yet been found which would permit them to be compared with the cotton. The plants affording valuable bark, or bark-fibers, are far more numerous. Dr. Grothe enumerates thirty-one families, of which seventeen are dicotyledonous, twelve monocotyledonous, one is a gymnosperm, and one is a fern. Among the dicotyledonous plants are species of flax, linden, birch, mallows, sterculiacæ (or silk-cottons), thymelaceæ (Daphne, leatherwood), asclepiads, apocynaceæ (dogbanes), nettle-plants, leguminous plants, mimosæ, spurge, willow, myrtle, bread-fruit, composite, and byttneriaceæ. The cultivation of the flax-plant has extended to the antipodes. Near to it in importance are the plants of the linden family, which afford numerous species suitable for basket-work and for woven fabrics. At their head stands the corchorus (not the so-called Corchorus japonicus, or Japan rose of the gardens, which is a spiræa), of which the species olitorius and capsularis are the plants of the jute-fiber, and have recently attained an extraordinary value. The cultivation of these plants, which was formerly carried on only in India and the Sunda Islands, has spread to the Southern United States, Brazil, Australia, New Caledonia, Mauritius, Guiana, and Algeria, and the production of the fiber, according to Dr. Grothe, already equals half that of cotton. Other lindens worthy of notice for their textile value are the aubletia petoumo, of Guiana, and several species of triumphetta. The mallow family, to which the cotton-plant belongs, affords a great many textile plants of the genera abutilon, hibiscus, sida, lavatera, malva, althea, abelmoschus, etc.

Passing by the hemp, the value of which is generally recognized, we come to the nettle family, to some of the members of which an increasing degree of attention has been directed at all the great exhibitions since 1851. The common stinging-nettle has been used in Europe for a long time in making the nettle-cloth; the fibers of other species have recently been made into a handsome hair for dolls' heads, and might be put to more practical uses. Some twenty-four species of Urtica, Böhmeria, Puya, and Wood-nettle are enumerated as more or less valuable, besides the Nerandia melastomæfolia, which is used in the Sandwich Islands. Of the whole number, Urtica nivea stands in the highest estimation as the plant from which the well-known China-grass or grass-cloth is made. It is cultivated extensively in the provinces of China south of the Yang-tse-kiang, the export from which had reached about thirty-five hundred tons in 1872, and is now estimated at about eleven thousand tons. The fiber is used in Japan for the finest threads and cloths, and an active manufacture has been carried on since 1660, hemp and jute having been used before that time. The Puya and the Neilgherry nettle (Urtica heterophylla) are also highly valued for their fibers. Another family, allied to the nettle, the Antidesmeæ, is represented in the Malabar flax (Antidesma alexiterium), which is employed for spinning and in ropes. Among the monocotyledonous families that afford useful fibers are the lilies, irises, amaryllises, bromeliaceæ (or pineapple family), palms, pandanus (or screw-pine), rushes, grasses, reeds, and sedges. Of the plants of these orders most famous for their fibers are several species of agave and fourcroya, which afford the strong pito hemp, several species of anana (bromeliaceæ), and the bananas, one of which, the Musa textilis of the Philippine Islands, produces the Manila hemp, one of the handsomest and most valuable of all the fibers.