History of Natural Fibres

Natural plant and animal fibres have provided the raw materials to meet our fibre needs. No matter which climatic zone humans settled they were able to utilise the fibres of native species to make products such as clothes, cloths, buildings and cordage. The first composite material known was made with clay and straw to build walls in Egypt 3,000 years ago. Many of the ancient plant fibres are no longer in use. Fibres such as jute, sisal, coir and kapok only started to be imported into Europe from the nineteenth century.

The common nettle has a long history as a source of fibre. Archaeological remains in Denmark and Britain show that it was used for string and cloth in Neolithic times. In post-medieval times drag nets for fishing were made of nettle fibre. Nettle cloth was manufactured in Scandinavia and Scotland from early times until the 19th century and was known as Scotch cloth in Britain. Shortages of cotton during the First World War forced the Germans to use nettles to make fabric.

The bast from the inner fibrous bark of the lime tree has been used for fibre for cordage and halters in England in the past. The word 'bast' has now been applied to the fibrous layer of many kinds of plants.

Hemp and linen are amongst the oldest plants used for fabric products. Hemp was cultivated in China in 2,800 BC. In the Indo-European languages that led to English 'hemp' is related to the Greek and Latin cannabis from which we get both its botanical name and the name for the drug extracted from some cannabis species. Cannabis also gave rise to the term canvas, because hemp was commonly used to make sails. Sails were also woven from linen at times.

Cotton has been produced in India for millennia and was introduced into Europe in the 1300s.

Some of the more recently introduced natural plant fibres reflect their origins and distribution. Jute originated in India and its name is Bengali meaning 'braid of hair'. The name 'ramie' comes from the Malay and has been variously known as grass linen, China linen and grass cloth. Another Malay word that has given itself to a fibre is 'kapok'. Kapok is a silky fibre from the east Indian tree which is sometimes called silk cotton or Java cotton.

Phormium is the mane of the fibre from an evergreen tree native to New Zealand - also known as New Zealand flax.