Fiber Watch: An Ancient Textile Is Making Its Way Back

Ramie was used as a linen-like fabric as far back as the times of Ancient Egyptians.

Ramie is an age-old fiber plant that has been made into yarn and textiles for millennia because of the extremely long fibers contained in it’s stalk. Though very similar to linen, ramie produces a lustrous, silk-like material that is soft to the touch and eight times stronger than cotton.

The first recorded use of ramie fabric dates as far back as 5000-3000 B.C., when it was used for the mummy cloths of the Ancient Egyptians. Considered a useful and versatile fabric by the ancient culture, the Egyptians obviously treasured it since it was used to swathe the bodies of their deceased kings. Historians have also found evidence of the textile’s use in eastern Asia in prehistoric times, from where it eventually spread to Europe in the Middle Ages. Ramie was seen as a cloth for nobility in Asia, whereas its counterpart, hemp, was considered more suitable for the peasantry.

Commonly called “China Grass” ramie is predictably native to China, from where it has been formally exported to the western world since the 18th century. The plant is part of the cellulose bast fiber group and belongs to the nettle family, with Boehmeria Nivea being the species most often cultivated for yarn and textile applications. Primarily grown in Asia and Brazil, nowadays only a fraction of the material is shipped overseas to Europe and the USA, making it practically unknown to much of the western population.

Not only is ramie a natural fiber, it is also similar to other bast fibers like hemp and nettles in that it needs minimal amounts of water and no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, also providing nutrition for the land it is grown on through it’s biomass. The stems of ramie plants can reach 8 feet in height and can be harvested up to 6 times a year. Following harvest, the stalks are peeled to extract the fiber by scraping off the bark from the fiber layers and hanging them to dry. After this, the fibers are split into thin threads and hung to dry again before the spinning process.

Although ramie fabric is very similar to linen in appearance, the properties and behavior of the material can be different. Ramie yarn is naturally white, making bleaching unnecessary and allowing it to take dyes (yes, including natural ones!) very well. Like the other fabrics made from bast fibers, ramie textiles are extremely strong and actually strengthen when wet without shrinking at all.

The downsides of ramie fabric are similar to those of linen, in that it doesn’t take creasing well and wrinkles easily. Although ramie fabric holds dyes very well, heavy use of dyes or strong dyes can cause discoloration of skin or other materials that the dyed ramie is rubbed against, especially if the fabric is wet or damp.  Ramie, however, has the advantage over other natural fibers of being naturally mold, insect and bacteria resistant, storing well and acting as a shelter of sorts when worn.

Unfortunately, Ramie is still often processed chemically on a larger scale, making these manufacturing methods unsustainable. Several textile companies such as Habu Textiles and Telio use hand-processed ramie, and because the fiber is biodegradable, the two combine in making ramie fabrics closed-loop. Ramie stalks are said to contain the longest extractable fibers of any cellulose fiber plant and so when blended with cotton, wool or silk creates a large range of durable and versatile textile types.

Climatex Cradle-to-Cradle certified upholstery  textiles are made out of ramie and wool blends for furniture and interior design applications. Several fashion designers use ramie fabrics or blends in their garments including Donna Karan, Lanvin, Michale Kors, MiH Jeans, Levi’s and Gary Graham, whose ramie dress from S/S 2012 collection is featured above. Textile artist Mackenzie Frere has been experimenting with different dyeing techniques for ramie, creating wonderful renditions that truly showcase the beauty and texture of the material. Hopefully this fiber will continue keep alive the value of versatility in textile fibers and hand-crafting so we can continue to explore the wisdom of natural, sustainable textile solutions.

Image: Mackenzie Frere, Habu Textiles, Gary Graham , Mackenzie Frere