Agave sisalana is the plant used to make sisal, sometimes called sisal ‘hemp’, as hemp was for millenia the principle vegetal fibre.
Its natural habitat is in hot, desert-like climates. It grows readily across the globe from central tropical South America, Mexico, the western United States through to Africa, especially Tanzania and Kenya, Asia, China and Java. There is new research into growing agave in the hotter and dryer regions of Europe, an organisation in southern Spain is experimenting with controlled growing and also boasts an agave museum.
Agave’s sword-shaped leaves grow to between 1–2 m (79′) in height from the base of the plant, and will produce 300 such leaves within its productive lifetime of 7–10 years. It requires no chemical feeding and can be grown in otherwise inclement conditions. Fibres are released through the typical vegetal extraction process of decertification.
The harvested fibre is coarse and inflexible, historically it has been used in its natural colour for rope, flooring, matting and brushes. Hand weavers in India and Japan among others are experimenting with Agave, beginning to make the most beautiful, silky fibres that can be woven into almost invisible, translucent textiles , comfortable to wear in the hottest weather, especially for kimono and saris
This softer clothing fibre is produced from a more intensive programme of managed beatings and pulpings, which further softens and separates the fibres, persuading them into the much finer agave fibre.
The fibre’s natural qualities make it an ideal clothing and furnishing material, so we should hopefully start to see more of it. Sisal regulates humidity by absorbing or releasing moisture from the air depending on the need, it doesn’t build up static and repels dry dirt and dust; it’s only drawback is that being highly absorbent it must be treated to repel wet stains and spills.