This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Ramie. A fiber-producing plant native to China, Japan and the Malay islands, but can be, and is, grown in any moderate climate, especially in the Southern United States and as far north as New Jersey and Kentucky, as demonstrated by recent experiments. It has long been cultivated in the East Indies to supply fiber for fish-nets and cloths, and in China and Japan fabrics of great beauty are made from this material. Ramie fiber partakes somewhat of the nature of flax or hemp. The inner fiber is unsurpassed in strength, and in fineness it rivals flax, and possesses a silky luster shared only by jute. The plant is cultivated after the manner of hops, about 3,000 being set out to the acre. The roots take a ready hold in soil of a rich or damp nature, which in all cases must be deep, as the fine roots descend, to reach moisture, sometimes as far as 10 or 12 feet. The plants are put in the ground in April and with proper cultivation yield two crops the first year. Four crops can be gathered after the first year. The stalks when ready for cutting are from 6 to 8 feet high, and as large as a man's little finger. When ready to harvest, the stalks turn yellow around the base, and if then cut new sprouts immediately spring up, being in this respect similar to alfalfa. One of the objections which Southern planters have raised to the cultivation of ramie is the fact that the process of removing the fiber necessitates an expensive machine, or else the shipment of the stalks as soon they are cut to some point where such a machine is in operation, and as the freight on the waste of the stalk is 90 per cent., it eats up a considerable portion of the profit. In Europe ramie fiber is used for a great variety of textile fabrics, and it is said that 50,000,000 pounds of ramie are annually shipped to France and England from China, at an average price of $18 per ton. It is also spun in larger quantities in Saxony, at Baden, which city claims the credit of being the cradle of the ramie industry. The successful spinning of the fiber requires machinery as delicate as for silk, the great difficulty being that while nearly as fine as silk, ramie is too strong and when it becomes entangled in the machinery, is the last to break.
It is a well-known fact among silk-buyers that in many of the foreign silks imported to this country that ramie is used as a mixture. The fact was not discovered for a long time, but little doubt now exists as to its reality. The material is being used in the manner indicated to a much larger extent than is generally supposed. The appearance of the union goods thus formed deceives even experts, so great have been the advances made in connection with the preparation in spinning, weaving and dyeing the ramie fiber, which takes color very well, and presents an elegant appearance when properly finished. It is generally admitted that ramie can be employed for many of the purposes to which silk is now put, and if there is to be any competition at all by ramie cloth, it will be with silk. That is what it most resembles. It does not, however, impart so much warmth as the latter, but is exceedingly strong, stronger indeed, as has already been noted, than silk itself. Its rich and glossy appearance, combined with its valuable coloring properties, appear to have attracted greater attention in France and Germany than in this country, though all through the South experiments under the direction of the Department of Agriculture are still proceeding with a view to improving the processes employed in preparing the fiber. In different countries the plant is known under different names : The Malays call it ramie; in China it is known as China grass and silk grass; the French know it as cambric, while the botanical name for it is rhea.