Sisal is a plant of the agave family Agave sisalina. The stalk grows to about one metre in height. The fibre is contained in the lance-shaped leaves that grow out from the stalk in a dense rosette. The sisal plant produces approximately three hundred leaves throughout its productive period.
To extract the fibre the leaves are crushed and the pulp scraped from the fibre. This is then washed and dried. The sisal fibre strands are usually creamy white in colour.
When harvested, the sisal fibre is coarse and relatively inflexible. The process of turning these fibres into silky fabric involves a high degree of beating and pulping. The result is a fabric that is light enough to be worn in the hottest weather. It is able to be woven into nearly invisible sheers and is used as a replacement for silk. Because of the amount of work to process the sisal into this sheer fabric its value is very high. Despite these excellent qualities, sisal is most commonly used for more practical products eg for cordage because of its strength, durability, ability to stretch and its resistance to deterioration in salt water. Other common products are sisal twine, mattings, rugs, and brushes.
In recent years, China has maintained approximately 12,000 hectares of sisal production. This area produces around 40,000 tonnes of fibres. This level of production means that China accounts for approximately 11-13 percent of total world production. Sisal products of Chinese origin first entered the world market in the late 1970s.