Fiber Watch: Fabric from Bananas?

banana fiber

The stalk of a banana plant contains fibrous strands that can be processed into anything from paper to kimono-grade silk.

Fabric from bananas, from the stalk of a banana plant to be more precise, has been utilized by cultures in Japan and Southeast Asia since the 13th century. The fiber from the stalk of banana plants is incredibly durable and is actually a waste product of the bananas grown for the food industry. Spun into silk yarns, woven into fabrics for interior decoration and even used as paper and packaging materials, the fibrous stalks of this large, fruit-bearing plant offer numerous possibilities as a natural and sustainable textile and fiber material.

banana tree

Originating from the tropical areas of Southeast Asia and first cultivated in the area we now know as Papua New Guinea, bananas have grown to become an essential part of life for several cultures. Many of us are dependant on bananas as a daily source of creamy, sweet and vegan nutrition, even in Western countries where bananas rarely grow. But who would have thought that you could wear and decorate your house with parts of the banana plant?

Much like the fibrous stalks of other fast-growing flora, the banana plant contains long and strong fibers in its sturdy stems. The outermost layers of the stalk contain the coarsest fibers, while the inner layers contain fine fibers that can be spun into luxurious fabrics such as silks. After a banana harvest, the cut stalks are stripped of their fibers by a decortication method, whereby the stalks are crushed by a roller and then the fibers are scraped by machines that have sharp, revolving wheels on them. Stripping can also be done by hand, which involves removing narrow strips of the stalk with a serrated knife. A banana fiber separator machine has been developed in India, which takes the agricultural waste of local banana harvests and efficiently and quickly extracts strands of the fiber.

banana processing

Fiber extraction is followed by boiling the strips in an alkaline solution to soften and separate them. After boiling and washing the strips, the skins and fibers are separated from one another, after which the fibers are joined through a tedious and time consuming method to create long, continuous threads. The threads are then ready for spinning, during which they must be kept wet in order to prevent snapping or breaking. Dyeing and weaving the yarns are the final parts of the process, producing a high quality material that can be used for various applications. The fineness of the fiber determines the thickness of the yarn, as finer yarn is used for clothing, medium grade yarn is used for table cloths, curtains and cushion covers, while thicker, coarser yarn is used for basket weaving, floor mats and bags.

banana fiber basket

Processed banana fiber resembles bamboo and ramie fiber, but the high grade fiber is actually much finer and easier to spin. Despite its fineness, this high grade banana fiber is extremely durable, and has a natural luster that gives it a satin-like appearance. Spun banana yarn and woven banana textiles are very moisture-absorbent and since their processing does not involve chemicals, they are completely biodegradable.

banana fabric

Since the Japanese have been processing banana fibers for nearly 800 years, they have perfected the art of creating banana cloth. The finest fibers of the banana stalk are reserved for kimono dresses and kamishimo, a formal garment worn by the samurai. Nepalese artisans have also been creating beautiful and lavish rugs out of banana fibers, as their moisture-wicking properties make them the ideal floor coverings for tropical climates. Alongside these traditional uses, banana fibers are also used for interior purposes such as cushion covers, curtains, tablecloths, bags and even paper and journals. The International Institute for Environment and Development has even launched a program to educate women in Rwanda in making low cost and environmentally friendly sanitary pads out of banana fiber.

The time and skill required to efficiently make strong and evenly spun yarns can take a lifetime to learn, however, the process of banana fiber production is nonetheless a sustainable one. Banana plants do not require pesticides or fertilizers when grown in the tropics, and are often cultivated by small farmers who own their land. The fibers are spun, dyed and woven by small artisan communities that continue to pass down their trades to younger generations, keeping age-old traditions alive. These communities often thrive as a whole on the work they accomplish, sharing the benefits equally among one another.

banana silk

Products made from banana fabric are difficult to find unless visiting a country where the material is currently produced, such as the Philippines, Japan, Nepal, India or Kenya. Some items such as bags, coasters, pillows and clutches can be found online at Fair Trade marketplaces like Handcrafting Justice, Harkiss Designs and Nkuku Fairtrade. For the craftier type, beautifully dyed banana silk yarns can be found from Frabjous Fibers. These skeins are handspun by women in Nepal, and kettle dyed or hand painted into an array of  brilliant colors. THIS Co., a fabric distributor that has worked with the likes of Comme des Garcons, offers woven, semi-sheer banana fabric at $47 per yard.

Images: SQUAREROOT, THIS Co., kamsky, Nkuku Fairtrade, Frabjous Fibers