As the fashion industry heads towards a future where textile resources are scarce, natural fibres such as cotton, which remains a resource-intensive material, and petroleum-based fibres like acrylic, polyester, nylon and spandex remain high in demand. But as the production of these fibres continues to do irreversible damage to the planet, more and more companies are seeking out sustainable alternative fibres and fabrics. In this new series, FashionUnited explores the sustainable alternatives and textile innovations that are currently being pursued all over the world. In this instalment, FashionUnited explores the potential use of banana fibre.
Banana fibre, also known as musa fibre is one of the world’s strongest natural fibres. Biodegradable, the natural fibre is made from the stem of the banana tree and is incredibly durable. The fibre consists of thick-walled cell tissue, bonded together by natural gums and is mainly composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. Banana fibre is similar to natural bamboo fibre, but its spin ability, fineness and tensile strength are said to be better. Banana fibre can be used to make a number of different textiles with different weights and thicknesses, based on what part of the banana stem the fibre was extracted from. The thicker, sturdier fibres are taken from the banana trees outer sheaths, whereas the inner sheaths result in softer fibres.
Banana fibre – a more sustainable alternative to silk
Although not many people are aware of its existence or use, banana fibre is not a recent innovation. The fibre consists of thick-walled cell tissue, bonded together by natural gums and is mainly composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. consists of thick-walled cell tissue, bonded together by natural gums and is mainly composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin.But using banana trees as a source of fibre to make textiles declined as other fibres such as cotton and silk from China and India became increasingly popular. But now banana fibre is making a comeback in the fashion industry. Recently banana fibre has been making a comeback in numerous industries and is used all over the world for multiple products, ranging from tea bags to car tyres to saris and Japanese yen notes.
Banana fibres can be used to make ropes, mats, woven fabrics as well as handmade papers. One company based on the island of Kosrae, Micronesia, named Green Banana Paper, is using banana fibre to make vegan wallets, purses, beads and paper. Founded by Matt Simpson, the Green Banana Paper produces locally, making its products out of recycled banana stems which grow all around the island. Rather than letting banana trees go to waste, the company purchases banana stems from banana farmers, giving them an extra source of income.
“Our fibre comes from the backyards of subsistence farmers across all the villages of Kosrae,” Simpson explained to FashionUnited. “The tree stems would otherwise be wasted as banana trees fruit only one time per cycle and are removed to make room for new offshoots growing from the same root system. The fibres make for very strong paper, which is suitable to replace non-bio degradable or animal-based materials in certain industrial and fashion applications.” In addition to being naturally water resistant, banana fibre is also very fire-resistant, tear-resistant and recyclable, according to Green Banana Paper. In order to make their products even more durable, the company seals the paper with a thin layer of wax.
Making banana fibre from waste
Over the years the global consumption of banana fruit has quickly outpaced the usage of banana fibres in industrial textile production. On average, one person consumes approximately 11.9 kgs of bananas per year. But more than a billion tonnes of banana tree stems are thrown away each year, as banana plants only fruit once in their lifetime before they die. Research shows it takes 37 kgs of stems to produce a kilo of banana fibres. In addition, the Philippine Textile Research Institute reported that banana plantations in the country alone were able to generate over 300,000 tonnes of fibre in 2012. Since starting out in 2014, Green Banana Paper has recycled 80,000 kgs of discarded banana trees.
However, extracting the banana fibre from the banana stems is not an easy, or simple, process. “It’s a labour intensive process, during which we transport the waste trees from various farmers in our truck, strip apart the pseudostem sheath by sheath, and put each sheath into our extraction machine to remove the fibres,” Simpson said. “After this, the papermaking process begins.” Banana paper is made from the extracted pulp fibres – banana yarn, or cloth is made by a slightly different process. First, the strips of the sheath are boiled in an alkaline solution to soften and separate them. Once the banana skins and fibres have been separated, the fibres are joined together to create long threads which are then spun wet, in order to prevent them from breaking. Afterwards, the threads can be dyed or weaved.
Green Banana Paper uses the banana paper to make wallets and weaves the raw banana fibres to create hand woven items such as purses and laptop bags. While Green Banana Paper avoids using chemicals whenever possible, Simpson is aware of the possibilities of using more natural colourants. “We prefer avoiding the use of chemicals however possible, but natural dyes such as indigo are definitely on our radar for ways we can create variations and intriguing designs.”
Fabrics made from banana fibres are soft and supple, as well as breathable and a natural sorbent. They tend to have a natural shine to them as well and are often compared to silk. In addition, banana fibre is now seen as a sustainable alternative to cotton and silk. Banana fibre, which is said to be nearly carbon neutral, is also often compared to hemp and bamboo, although it is not as durable as the former fibres. At the moment, however, there are certain limitations to what can be made from banana fibres.
“Unfortunately, our papers are not quite strong or stretchy enough to be used in super stressful applications where the item will be subjected to a lifetime of washings in a washing machine,” pointed out Simpson. Which is why the company has refrained from branching out into more common fashion garments, such as t-shirts, trousers or jackets. However this has not stopped other companies, such eco-textile company Offset Warehouse, fabric distributor THIS Co. and Frabjous Fibers from offering artisan fabrics made from banana fibres.
Offset Warehouse previously partnered with an NGO in Nepal and is offering a thick, hand-woven fabric made from banana fibres. THIS Co. features a semi-sheer banana fabric made in the rural Philippines on wooden pedal looms and Frabjous Fibers offers handspun and painted banana silk fabric. However, despite the many potentials offered by banana fibre, the material has yet to make a complete resurgence within the fashion industry. While most companies and brands prefer to stick to more conventional materials, banana fibre offers a sustainable alternative to those looking for a unique and eco-friendly option.
Fibre Extraction and Spinning of Banana fiber waste
Traditional Fiber extraction Process
The traditional process of fibre extraction from the off shoots of Banana plant is laborious and time consuming. The layers separated from the banana stems are processed through various retting techniques generally in the water tanks, local canals for a period of 10 to 15 days. The retted layers of the plant beaten manually to loosen the fibers, washed and cleaned further to leave the waste.
Traditional practice of this kind, yield the best quality of this fiber. The fibers have good luster and are very affordable for the hand spinning and weaving.
Mechanized White Fiber extraction Process
Alternatively, mechanical process using either de-fibering or decorticating equipment process the separated layers of the stems can be separated directly into fibers. The beater in the machine helps to open the fibers. By using revolving drums the course long fibers are separated from the short fleshy parts and the pith. The stronger fibers are washed, cleaned and dried.
Technical Modification in the Machine
The rotating blades available in the machine are sharp and are good to extract coir fiber as the fiber is rough. Banana being a smooth, soft fiber, the sharp blades while extracting the fibers may cause harm to the strength of fibers by beating and cutting them into short lengths.
Few varieties of Brown Fiber extraction Process
The outer bark which is brown green colour is peeled off and the fiber strips are cut through hand extraction machine composed of either serrated or non-serrated knives. The peel is clamped between the wood plank and knife and hand-pulled through, removing the resinous material. The extracted fibers are sun-dried which whitens the fiber. To get a dark brown shade to the fibers we have to keep the bark strips for much longer time.
The sponge like structure behind the strips is to be completely scraped to avoid fungus problems in humid conditions.
There will be a fine fiber strip at the both ends of the bark layers is a very good fiber to explore. It is a smooth, light brown and pure fiber which we use it to make screens.
We dry the processed fibers naturally. Initially we used to extract fiber in our own unit. Now days Kora support people who want to start a unit, train the techniques of extracting fiber and buy it from them.
Process of hand spinning
The usual practice through ages is the hand spinning where the fibre is rolled into short length of 6 to 9 inches, giving a clock-wise twist by hands. When the sufficient quantity of the yarn is made, two of these short lengths are taken in hand together and made into yarn of two plies by giving counter twist, using both hands.
When the counter twist reaches near the end of the striking, further pieces of short lengths kept ready are added one after the other. The counter twist using both hands is continued till it reaches the required length of being a knot, reeled in the form of hank for further usage.
Though this process is very laborious and time consuming, it always have a soft twist and better feel.
Traditional Spinning Ratt (manual & motarised)
To prepare two-ply coir yarn on the spinning wheel, one set of two wheels, one stationary and one movable is required. The stationary wheel usually contains two spindles set in motion through the center of the wheel manually by hand. The movable wheel contains one spindle only. Two persons take the slivers of the coir prepared and kept ready after willowing.
Usually two women keeps the sliver in the arm pits, make a loop with small quantity of fibre which is put into the notch of each spindle set into motion on stationary wheel. Further fibre in the armpits is added to the loop while walking backward forming single stand yarn. The operation is continued till the required length is reached and are passed through the grooved rod. The two strands of yarn spun are tied together into the notch of the spindle on movable wheel which is at the other end. The grooved rod is allowed to move forward and the movable wheel is turned in the opposite direction
The object of the grooved rod is to regulate the twist of the yarn and to prevent entanglement of the strands at the time of doubling. When the grooved rod reaches the stationary wheel, the turning of the spindles of the spinning wheel is stopped and all the ends from that of stationary wheel are cut off and made into hanks.
Depending on the usage the yarn is tested if there is sufficient twist. If ore twist is required, the movable wheel is turned towards its original direction till the required twist is obtained. If the yarn has more twist than required, the movable wheel is turned in the direction contrary to the original twist.
The women of East and West Godavari districts have been practicing the skill of spinning coir ropes for the local vendors since the last 7 decades. We tried to replace the coir fiber with banana that has better commercial value and asked them to make it finer. In few areas where the women are not so skilled we trained them to spin single strand yarn on a ratt.
It took almost two years for the artisans to get comfortable with the new material and spin a good quality of yarn. Slowly standardised three different counts of yarns using two kinds of fine fibers with colour variations of natural white and brown.
• Banana fibre, also known as musa fibre is one of the world’s strongest natural fibres.
• The fibre consists of thick-walled cell tissue, bonded together by natural gums and is mainly composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin.
• Banana fibres can be used to make ropes, mats, woven fabrics as well as handmade papers.
• Offset Warehouse previously partnered with an NGO in Nepal and is offering a thick, hand-woven fabric made from banana fibres.
• The traditional process of fibre extraction from the off shoots of Banana plant is laborious and time consuming.
• The extracted fibers are sun-dried which whitens the fiber.
• The women of East and West Godavari districts have been practicing the skill of spinning coir ropes for the local vendors since the last 7 decades.