Fiber Watch: The Bast is Yet to Come

Bast is a fiber group that includes hemp, flax, jute, nettles and the less familiar kenaf. The plants in this fiber group are characterized by an outer bark that contains strong, cellulosic fibers, and kenaf is quickly becoming a sustainable favorite among textile innovators.

Bast fibers have been around since early civilizations as they were the simplest fibers to process before mechanization of fiber and textile production. Kenaf has been documented as a textile plant by the Egyptians as early on as 1,000 B.C. , although it’s believed to have originated in Asia. The plant appears similar to other bast fiber plants, but is actually related to hibiscus and cotton, thus its latin name Hibiscus cannabinus.

Kenaf is claimed to be one of the most sustainable fiber plants in existence, due to its growth rate and excellent ability to replenish the environment it grows in. It can be grown in several places including the U.S., converting more CO2 than 2 acres of tropical rainforest during its growing season whilst also improving soil structure and fixing nutrients into the soil. The plant requires minimal amounts of water, nearly no fertilizers or pesticides and grows extremely rapidly to its full 15 feet in only 150 days. As a natural material, kenaf is completely biodegradable since neither cultivation nor processing require synthetic chemicals.

Kenaf is a superior option for garments, as its extremely long fibers make for very fine yarn when spun. The stalk of the plant contains 30% less lignin (a glue-like substance that fills in the spaces between plant fibers) than other bast fibers, thus making the extraction of long fibers much easier when compared to other similar plants. Nearly 50% of the plant stalk contains fiber that can be extracted for a number of applications, such as knitted or woven textiles. Kenaf has also been found to work exceptionally well blended with cotton, and is also suitable for a number of applications including furniture, shoes and outerwear because of its natural absorbency and fire-retardant properties.

U.S.-based Kenactiv Innovations, Inc. has found very successful and tangible methods for processing kenaf fiber for different uses. The company operates fiber extraction methods with food-safe, natural enzymes and closed-loop processes. The company is currently focusing on solutions for commercial non-wovens, alternatives to petro-chemical plastics, soil composites (kenaf biochar can replenish pesticide-ridden soil), mulch and animal bedding. Although they are not currently producing kenaf yarn in the U.S., plans for fiber extraction and spinning facilities are underway, as are larger plantations in Arizona that will accompany previous growing operations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

While Kenactiv currently produces kenaf yarn in India, where it is used for apparel and accessories. The process in India involves a bath soaking of the plant stalks, after which the long fibers are stripped and dried. The company doesn’t currently work with designers or apparel companies within the U.S., as their production facilities in the U.S. don’t yet have the proper equipment for extracting and processing long fibers. However the company continues to develop new technologies for processing and diversifying the use of kenaf fibers, with the aim to create a viable market for kenaf textiles in the U.S. by bringing the first bast fiber production and spinning plant to the country. Although the company is proprietary in regard to their processing methods, hopefully they will be open to collaboration and share their knowledge about sustainable and intelligent methods for processing bast fibers.

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