Museum of the Islands

Preserving the past for the future on Pine Island, Florida

So What is Sisal Hemp

It is amusing to have a discussion with a local resident of Pine Island and mention the era of the Sisal Hemp and Development Company, and the individual mentions that his/her (insert old relative here) told them that it was a little secret at the time that the company was planting the hemp for applications other than rope production (hint, hint).  So what is sisal hemp exactly?

Sisal (picture at bottom of page) is an agave that yields a stiff fiber traditionally used in making twine, rope and also dartboards. The term may refer either to the plant or the fiber, depending on context.  During the Sisal Hemp Company era it was referred to as sisal hemp because hemp was for centuries a major source for fiber, so other fibers were sometimes named after it.

The plant’s origin is uncertain; while traditionally it was deemed to be a native of Yucatan, there are no records of botanical collections from there. H.S. Gentry hypothesized a Chiapas origin, on the strength of traditional local usage. In the 19th century, sisal cultivation spread to Florida, the Caribbean islands and Brazil, as well as to countries in Africa, notably Tanzania and Kenya, and Asia. The first commercial plantings in Brazil were made in the late 1930s and the first sisal fiber exports from there were made in 1948. It was not until the 1960s that Brazilian production accelerated and the first of many spinning mills was established. Today Brazil is the major world producer of sisal. Traditionally used for rope and twine, sisal has many uses, including paper, cloth, wall coverings and carpets.

Sisal plants consist of a rosette of sword-shaped leaves about four to six feet tall.  Young leaves may have a few minute teeth along their margins, but lose them as they mature. Sisals are sterile hybrids of uncertain origin; although shipped from the port of Sisal in Yucatán (thus the name), they do not actually grow in Yucatán, the plantations there cultivate henequen (Agave fourcroydes) instead. Evidence of an indigenous cottage industry in Chiapas suggests it as the original location, possibly as a cross of Agave angustifolia and Agave kewensis.

The sisal plant has a 7–10 year life-span and typically produces 200–250 commercially usable leaves. Each leaf contains an average of around 1000 fibers.  The fibers account for only about 4% of the plant by weight. Sisal is considered a plant of the tropics and subtropics, since production benefits from temperatures above 77 degrees and sunshine, something that is abundant on Pine Island.

Back in the Sisal Hemp Company era, sisal was the leading material for agricultural twine (binder twine and baler twine) because of its strength, durability, ability to stretch, affinity for certain dyestuffs, and resistance to deterioration in saltwater, but the importance of this traditional use is diminishing with competition from polypropylene and the development of other haymaking  techniques, while new higher-valued sisal products have been developed.  Apart from ropes, twines, and general cordage, sisal is used in low-cost and specialty paper, dartboards, buffing cloth, filters, mattresses, carpets, handicrafts, wire rope cores, and Macrame.  The lower-grade fiber is processed by the paper industry because of its high content of cellulose and hemicelluloses. The medium-grade fiber is used in the cordage industry for making ropes, baler and binder twine.  Ropes and twines are widely employed for marine, agricultural, and general industrial use. The higher-grade fiber after treatment is converted into yarns and used by the carpet industry.  Other products developed from sisal fiber include spa products, cat scratching posts, lumbar support belts, rugs, slippers, cloths, and disc buffers.

Sisal is a valuable forage for honey bees because of its long flowering period. It is particularly attractive to them during pollen shortage. The honey produced is however dark and has a strong and unpleasant flavor, compared to orange blossom honey.  Wikipedia.

Sisal Plants.


Credit this photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Photographer Small, John Kunkel, 1869-1938.

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