Why Bast Fibers Are Awesome
Ask anyone what the best towels are made of, and most people would say cotton, with perhaps a few adding bamboo. For sure, cotton is the main choice for towel production around the world, but it’s by no means the only one. In fact, if you’re looking for sustainable and eco-friendly fibers, even organic cotton won’t top the list, as cotton needs a lot of water as well as treatment against pests for mass cultivation.
Enter natural bast fibers, which predate cotton for use in textiles, and can be produced in a more eco-friendly way. Bast fibers only make up a small amount of the fibers used in towel production, but bast fiber towels are worth looking out for if you’re concerned about your environmental footprint.
What are bast fibers?
The first thing you’re probably wondering is, what are bast fibers anyway? Let’s start with a quick definition:
A bast fiber is a plant fiber that’s collected from the bark or “skin” on the inside of a plant’s stem. These fibers naturally grow in bundles inside the plant stalks. They’re removed in a process called retting, where the bast fiber is carefully separated from the rest of the stem material. Bast fibers are different from materials like cotton, whose fiber comes from the seed of the plant.
Some of the more common plants we extract bast fibers from are flax, hemp, kenaf, jute, ramie, and isora. All these plants can be grown in your backyard, and they each provide unique benefits to the textiles they become.
A short history of bast fibers
Close-up of modern flax cordage — Image by S. Deryck
People have been using bast fibers for thousands of years. It’s been argued that flax is the oldest fiber used by mankind, and there’s evidence of flax use from as far back as 34,000 years ago! Ramie is native to Asia and has been used in China for many centuries. Farmers there originally used the fiber to weave clothing.
The rise of cotton
The first challenger to bast fibers was cotton, with cotton spinning dating back to at least the 6th century CE. With its soft and silky texture, easy processing, and ability to grow in many different climates, cotton has grown to be the most widely used natural fiber. Today it accounts for around 25% of the global fiber market.
The oil takeover
In the late 1930s, a new challenger emerged with the invention of nylon, which opened up the floodgates to the rise of synthetic fibers. Large chemical and oil companies pushed the benefits of these man-made fibers, and synthetics now dominate the market, with almost 65% of all fibers coming from oil-based sources.
Can we return to using natural fibers?
Yes! The organic textiles market is thriving. While oil companies have been relentlessly advocating the use of synthetics, we’ve left behind some amazing natural fibers that were used for thousands of years for their incredible properties. Non-oil-based fiber alternatives definitely have a future as oil prices rise and global oil reserves dwindle.
A closer look at bast fibers
Bast fibers are a great sustainable alternative to the synthetic materials we commonly use today. Here are three bast varieties that can make great eco-friendly towels and textiles.
Flax: The original performance fiber
Flax fibers, which are used to weave linen, are the most common bast fibers used in towel making. The fibers offer great performance, as their naturally smooth and straight stalks provide two to three times the strength of cotton. This extra strength helps linen towels last longer than cotton ones.
Linen towels and cotton-linen blends are a great choice for the kitchen for several reasons:
- Flax threads are thick and are woven in a way that’s more breathable than cotton, allowing them to dry quickly after use.
- The thicker thread also leads to a more open weave, so linen towels are lightweight and easy to hang on your hip as you move around the kitchen.
- Linen is super durable and has a soft feel that just gets better the more you wash it, meaning a linen blend towel is great as a heavy-duty kitchen partner.
Linen’s open weave also shrugs off dirt easily, which is a good reason to take a linen towel to the beach. Give your towel a shake and the debris shouldn’t stick to the smooth threads.
Ramie: The secretly strong underdog
Ramie plant — Image by Kenraiz
Although it’s not well known, Ramie is one of the strongest natural fibers, and gets even stronger when wet. This makes it a great fiber for towels that need to soak up a lot of liquid. Ramie is also known for its anti-wrinkling properties, its ability to retain its shape, and the silky look it gives to fabric.
Ramie is grown principally in eastern Asia and can be cultivated without pesticides or herbicides. It’s normally harvested two to three times a year, but under good growing conditions, it can be harvested up to six times a year. This compares well with cotton, which is generally harvested only once a year and is often treated with pesticides and fertilizers.
While it’s a great fiber for efficient and sustainable production, ramie on its own is not as durable as other fibers. For commercial uses it’s usually combined with other fibers such as cotton: look out for flat weave kitchen towels and lightweight fingertip towels with a ramie and cotton blend.
Hemp: The comeback kid
Hemp stem showing fibers — Image: Natrij (public domain)
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant which is grown specifically for industrial use. While it’s been used in textiles for centuries and doesn’t offer any of the medicinal properties generally associated with cannabis, it’s just now becoming more popular as the US has loosened commercial growing laws, making it easier to farm.
Hemp is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, and has been used in textiles for centuries. It’s a regenerative crop that helps revitalize the soil, uses very little water, and doesn’t require pesticides. Again this compares well to cotton, which needs a significant amount of water, insecticides, and pesticides for mass cultivation.
Hemp fibers have a relatively large surface area, which is what makes them so absorbent, though hemp is rougher than its bast fiber cousins. Hemp’s good absorbency, rugged texture, and natural antibacterial properties make it a great fiber for cleaning towels.
Hemp is also very sustainable, as all the parts of the plant can be used after harvesting. While the stalks make fiber for textiles, the seeds are edible and the woody inner core (hurd) can be used in construction.
Sounds awesome! Sign me up!
Bast fibers are amazing sustainable fibers that we’ve been using for thousands of years. It’s time to embrace the many possibilities they offer and stop relying on synthetics.
As with many eco-friendly alternatives, the buying options for bast fiber towels are limited. For bath towels, in particular, bast fibers are generally mixed with cotton to keep the towels soft. If you’d like to support bast fiber towels and textiles, look for smaller suppliers of eco-friendly towels or search for linen towels in larger stores.
Do you own any products that contain bast fibers? Let us know your thoughts and experience in the comments!
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