One of the most promising vegetable fibers used for centuries in India and China is just coming into use in this country. Ramie or China grass, from the stem of a stingless nettle, is a lustrous, strong fiber, and should hold a high place among vegetable fibers. The development of the ramie industry has been retarded in this country because of the difficulty of separating the fiber from the woody portion of the stem. It is not possible to destroy the gum which binds the fibers together by as simple a process as the retting of flax, that is, by allowing it to decay in water.
In India and China, where large quantities of the fiber are manufactured into grass linens, the decortication is carried out by hand. A mechanical process has been perfected in this country for effecting this separation, and ramie is now more commonly used. Up to the present time, however, its use is largely for adulteration of linen or silk, a fact to be deplored, since it has such valuable characteristics of its own.
In strength, ramie stands among the first of vegetable fibers; in luster and fineness it approaches silk, and it is very slightly affected by moisture.
Two to three crops of ramie may be produced in one year, and the yield of fiber per acre is very large.
Fig. 16. Ramie Fibers.
Fig. 17. Jute Fibers.
Attempts are being made by the Department of Agriculture to increase the production in this country, but up to the present time it has been grown only in an experimental way. Climate and soil seem to be favorable; the difficulty apparently is to arouse interest in the culture and manufacture of the fiber.
Jute is the bast fiber of a plant growing largely in India and the East Indies. The stalk, which contains the fiber, grows from five to ten feet in height. It is freed from leaves, steeped in water to rot the stems, and the woody tissue is removed. The fiber thus obtained is long, yellowish in color, and has considerable luster. There are several uses to which jute is put, but it is mostly used for coarse bagging or for the back of carpets and rugs. Although jute is strong, takes dyes readily, and may be divided into very fine fibers, its use is limited because of the fact that when wet it rapidly deteriorates. Because of its cheapness it is frequently used to adulterate other fibers, or is woven with cotton or linen to produce effective, inexpensive upholstery materials.
Hemp is another bast fiber, obtained in much the same way as flax or jute. There are many varieties, most of which are used for twine, although fine Manila hemp is used in the Philippines for clothing material. Large amounts of Manila hemp, a leaf stalk fiber, are imported into this country for the manufacture of rope. This fiber is much more valuable than jute, as it withstands the action of water and is very strong. Other varieties of hemp, although not as strong as Manila, are also used for cordage.