In a world of increasing mass production, where nearly all raw material is shipped to be processed in other countries, the most sustainable option may well be already growing in your own back yard. Or, at least be possible to grow in your own back yard or garden.
While keeping clothing in circulation and good repair may be the easiest way to increase it’s sustainability, the funnest way to increase sustainability and build valuable skills will be to grow it yourself. Even if just as an experiment to see if you can! Remember, winter is the perfect time to plan what will end up in the next spring’s garden.
Plants for Fiber:
What plants you can grow for fiber depend on your growing zone. Warm climates, a zone 5 or 6 and higher, can grow cotton. Cooler zones can grow linen. Cotton and linen are the two prime plant fibers, and the most valued in the history of plant-based fiber.
Another often recommended fiber plant is Hemp. Now, in Canada, you can’t grow hemp without government permits. So, for most home gardeners this plant’s fiber will be out of reach.
Finally, the craziest fiber plant may be the one you try to eradicate the most. Stinging Nettle is a fairly good fiber producer. Nettle produces 2 inch long fibers from its stalk when processed in a manner similar to linen. The fibers are course, and cannot be worked the same as linen due to their length. However, in certain situations creating nettle fiber clothing may well be feasible.
Looking at Sustainable Plant Fiber: Linen
Linen, produced from flax, is my personal favorite. The length of fiber is amazing, up to 12 inches long from oil-seed flax, and over 40 inches long from prime fiber flax. It is linen’s length of fiber that enable it to be the longest lasting, and most amazing fiber ever. The length of fiber is why old fashioned linen just gets more beautiful and softer with every washing, and is super slow to wear out.
Modern linen is different from ancient linen. In historical times, linen was divided into two grades, the “tow” and the “line.” Now, tow was anything under 16 inches in length, while line was anything above 18 inches in length. Line was the primest of the prime linen, used for the fanciest and most expensive items. The shirts and garments for weddings for example, the family’s sheets, or the Sunday-best table cloth. Tow, shorter and having plenty of ends, was used for all other uses. Basic shirts, sheets for hired hands, rope, and sailcloth were all spun and woven from tow linen.
Now, in today’s processing, linen is chopped as short as cotton so that it can be blended with cotton and other fibers. Since linen’s longevity was based on its length, today’s linen products are basically designed to wear out. Ouch!
The only way to get long-line linen today is by growing and processing it yourself. Which is perfectly possible, and not that complicated. If you want an excellent resource on growing and processing linen I highly recommend getting “Linen from Flax Seed to Woven Cloth” by Linda Heinrich, it is an exceptional book.
Looking at Sustainable Plant Fiber: Cotton
The vast majority of cotton seed currently available is for BT cotton, a genetically modified cotton which produces a substance that is supposed to be toxic to insects. However, you can get brown, green, and even red cotton from “wild” cotton, aka someone who is already growing organic cotton. Foxfiber cotton is one place that sells naturally colored cotton fibers. However, I have never looked into seed as it cannot be grown in my region.
One note: In the past I was able to get cotton bolls which still had the seeds. Whether these would have sprouted or not, I am not sure. But, if you can get cotton bolls from someone growing organic cotton, you should be able to sprout the seeds and grow your own. If you save the seeds from what you grow, and grow it out every few years, you will always have the ability to grow cotton.
Looking at Sustainable Plant Fiber: Hemp
Hemp has a courser, and sometimes longer, fiber than linen. Historically, hemp was used for the ropes and other heavy duty equipment required by sailing vessels, merchant navy, and was even used to supply the ropes and such for the Canadian navy during WWII. Hemp’s popularity dissolved after WWII until the increased interest in eco-friendly clothing sparked a revival.
Many people are aware that marijuana is in the same family as hemp. What most people do not know is that the plant was actually developed by people searching for longer and finer hemp fiber. Due to the plant’s similarities, and active content, Hemp requires a permit to grow in Canada and the US. Hence, it is not recommended for back yard gardens or permaculture practices, even if it would be an interesting addition.
Looking at Sustainable Plant Fiber: Stinging Nettle
Now, you may be thinking, “What? that nasty little weedy plant that I can’t eradicate has fiber?” Yep, it does. And thanks to Nettle’s own propensity for sticking around and being a deterrent to intruders, it could be a very useful fiber.
The fiber in stinging nettle is similar to linen in two ways. First, it is found in the outer sheath of the plant, and second it requires a bit of decomposition to get at it. To harvest nettle fiber, you simply need tough adult stalks. Cut them down, don’t take all from a single clump or it won’t come back, and dry them thoroughly. Then lay them out on the lawn or somewhere else where they can get damp from the dew. After a day or two, you should see fibers when you flex the stalks and the fibers should flake away from the stalks without difficulty. Dry the nettle stalks again, and then break in your hands to free the fiber.
As nettle fiber is not as long as linen fiber, the breaking technique employed with linen will not work very successfully.
Once the fiber is freed, you can comb it, card it, spin it, and use it for clothing, rope, or just to say you did it.
Looking Back on Local Plant Fibers:
These plant fibers could well be part of your local fibershed already. Or, you can add some of them to your plant fibershed. If you live on the prairies, the unwanted bales of flax are burned in the fields because when the flax is ploughed under the fibers get caught in the equipment the next year. Some areas of the prairie also have hemp farmers, while Nettle can be found nearly anywhere in North America. If you’re in the south, cotton may well be within your local area.
Back To You:
Which of these fibers have you worked with? Is there a fiber here you don’t know how to use or process?
Leave a comment, I enjoy hearing from you!