Sustainable Fibres: What is Abaca?

Natural fibres, as opposed to synthetic or man-made fibres, have a long history, and come in many types.[i],[ii] Typically, these include animal fibres or plant fibres.[iii],[iv]


Animal fibres can be things like alpaca wool, angora wool, camel hair, cashmere, mohair, silk, and wool. Animal fibres come from hair, secretions, or wool.[v] Plant fibres can be things like abaca, coir, cotton, flax, hemp, jute, ramie, and sisal. Plant fibres are come from seed hairs, stem or bast fibres, leaf fibres, and husk fibres.[vi]

Let’s zoom in a little on one of them, say a plant natural fibre like Abaca.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is this:

Abaca (Musa textilis), plant of the family Musaceae, and its fibre, which is second in importance among the leaf fibre group. Abaca fibre, unlike most other leaf fibres, is obtained from the plant leaf stalks (petioles). Although sometimes known as Manila hemp, Cebu hemp, or Davao hemp, the abaca plant is not related to true hemp.[vii]


Abaca (1)

So it’s a leaf fibre, a kind of hemp without being real hemp. I like that definition by association. Where did it come from?

It’s native to the Philippines since at least the 19th century, and around 1925 there was cultivation by the Dutch in Sumatra.[viii],[ix] Following this, the United States of America’s Department of Agriculture began to establish plantations in Central America along with the smaller operations, commercial ones, in British-run North Borneo, which is now Sabah or a part of modern Malaysia.[x]

What does it look like?

It’s a bit like a banana. Its rootstock produces about 25 fleshy, fibreless stalks in a circular cluster.[xi] Even cooler, every “stalk is about 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter and produces about 12 to 25 leaves with overlapping leaf stalks, or petioles, sheathing the plant stalk to form an herbaceous (nonwoody) false trunk about 30 to 40 cm in diameter.”[xii]

Where do they grow?

They grow in puffy, open, and “loamy soils” with decent ability to drain. Mature rootstock planted in the earliest moments of the rainy season constitute its common means of growth. It takes a 1.5 to 2 years for its plant stalk from each mat to be harvested, and the cut on the plant for the separation for that further growing is at the or to the ground of it – “at the time of blossoming.”[xiii] They’re replaced within 10 years as well.

Finally, what are its uses, and benefits?

For one, it’s environmentally friendly. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Abaca can be utilized for “[e]rosion control and biodiversity rehabilitation” for things such as “by intercropping abaca in former monoculture plantations and rainforest areas” in addition to “minimize erosion and sedimentation problems in coastal areas.”[xiv]

Erosion control is important because without it crop yields can be reduced because of the soil loss due to the water erosion.[xv] Monocultures can have benefits, but necessarily at every given instant of agricultural production and harvesting, and even in most cases there could be downsides.[xvi] So, in general, the facilitation of biodiversity is a net good, and abaca helps with it. Good stuff!

Biodiversity is the opposite of monoculture; it’s lots of cultures, that is, a plethora of biological plant life, for instance; or it “encompasses all living species on Earth and their relationships to each other. This includes the differences in genes, species and ecosystems.[xvii]

Biodiversity rehabilitation relates to monocultures and the assistive properties of planned agricultural activities through abaca, which means it, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity, can be used towards the purpose of “rehabilitate and restore degraded ecosystems and promote the recovery of threatened species through the development and implementation of plans or other management strategies.”

So it can even help with saving the lives of endangered species, or those animals on the brink of extinction, gasp!

Secondly, it’s used for a vast number of things within or associated with the textile industry including Cordage products – e.g. ropes, twines, marine cordage, binders, cord, Pulp and paper manufactures – e.g.  tea bags, filter paper, mimeograph stencil, Handmade paper – e.g. paper sheets, stationeries, all-purpose cards, lamp shades, balls, dividers, placemats, bags, photo frames and albums, flowers, table clock, even fibercrafts, handwoven fabrics, and furniture.[xviii] And even with all of these uses, he darn things are being beat out by synthetic fabrics in cordage products, for example.[xix]

Photo Credit

Photo Credit

And now? The Philippines continues to dominate the cultivation of Abaca to this day.[xx] And its’ widely used as a fertilizer. That’s all for now, folks!

[i] natural fibre. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica[ii] man-made fibre. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica.[iii] Wild Fibres. (2016, February 15). Animal Fibres.[iv] Wild Fibres. (2016, February 15). Plant Fibres.[v] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2009). Natural Fibres. Retrieved from Natural Fibres.[vi] Ibid.[vii] abaca. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica.[viii] Philippines. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica.[ix] Sumatra. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica[x] abaca. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica.[xi] Ibid.[xii] Ibid.[xiii] Ibid.[xiv] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2016). Future Fibres: Abaca.[xv] Government of Alberta: Agriculture and Forestry. (2016). An Introduction to Water Erosion Control.[xvi] agricultural technology. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica.  [xvii] Biodiv Canada. (2014, July 3). What is Biodiversity?.[xviii] Textile Learner. (2014). Abaca Fiber (Manila Hemp) | Uses/Application of Abaca Fiber.[xix] Ibid.[xx] abaca. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from Britannica.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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