Leaf fiber is just that: fibers from plant leaves. Leaves are cut from the plant, and then the fiber is removed (cut, pulled, scrapped or split), from the leaf. The commonly used leaf fibers come from abacá, sisal, henequen and piña.
Native to the Philippines and sometimes referred to as “Manilla hemp,” abacá (which is not a hemp), is related to the banana tree (pic). It is a commercial crop grown in Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Philippines. While originally used to make ropes, floor mats, table linens (pic), and even clothes, shoes and handbags, “now most is pulped and used in a variety of specialized paper products including tea bags, filter paper and banknotes” (Wikipedia).
Piña is obtained from leaves of the pineapple plant (pic). While like abacá it is used to make household furnishings, unlike abacá its pale fibers are soft.
Its fiber preparation is laborious: “[T]he leaf has to be cut first from the plant. Then the fiber is pulled or split away from the leaf. Most leaf fibers are long and somewhat stiff. Each strand of the piña fiber is hand scraped and is knotted one by one to form a continuous filament to be handwoven and then made into a piña cloth” (Wikipedia).
Thankfully, weaving with piña was recently revived in the past 20 years in the Philippines. The resultant fabric is sheer and a little stiff. (It can also be combined with other fibers, such as silk.) “Pineapple silk is considered the queen of Philippine fabrics and is considered the fabric of choice of the Philippine elite” (Wikipedia). In the Philippines, these fabrics are embroidered and used for clothing, such as the Barong Tagalog (Tagalog dress) in the picture to the right worn by President Magsaysay and Vice-President Garcia at their inauguration in 1953.
You may have seen rugs made from sisal (such as those sold by Pottery Barn) or sisal in wallpapers. As explained by Natural Fibres, “After harvest, its leaves are cut and crushed in order to separate the pulp from the fibres.” Sisal fiber is coarse and hard, “unsuitable for textiles or fabrics. But it is strong, durable and stretchable, does not absorb moisture easily, resists saltwater deterioration, and has a fine surface texture that accepts a wide range of dyes.” Natural Fibres also notes that “it is used as reinforcement in plastic composite materials,” such as automobile components and furniture and that it has the promise of becoming a substitute for asbestos in brake pads!
While Henequen is, in this post, listed last, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, it is the third most important leaf fiber. “The henequen plant is native to Mexico, where it has been a source of textile fibre since pre-Columbian times. It was introduced to Cuba in the 19th century, becoming the country’s chief fibre crop by the 1920s. The fibre is sometimes referred to as Yucatan, or Cuban, sisal.”
Henequen is in the agave family and is used for brush bristles, rope and twine. Like sisal, it is degraded by salt water, so if you’re a sailor navigating the oceans, you’d be well advised to not use henequen rope. 🙂
Interestingly – and unlike the other leaf fibers discussed here, it is also used to make an alcoholic drink: Mexico’s Licor del henequén.
This ends Part 3 on cellulosic fibers. I am working on future posts that compare the qualities of the various fibers I’ve covered. I hope readers are finding these posts if not useful at least informative!