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Fibres and dyes

Paper, ropes, cords and textiles are all made from plant fibres. These are elongated cells with very thick cell walls found in plant stems, leaves, bark and seeds.

For thousands of years, a variety of plants including cotton, flax and hemp have been grown to provide fibre, for items such as clothes, ropes and paper.

Photo of Gossypium herbaceum (cotton plant)

Cotton plant (Gossypium herbaceum)

All plant fibres are flexible, have very little elasticity, have good resistance to damage by abrasion and can withstand both heat and sunlight. 

Gossypium herbaceum is one of the plants from which we obtain cotton.

Fibre textures

Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is one of the most important plant fibres. The cells from the stems are fine and white and are used to make linen - a soft, lustrous and very water-absorbent textile present in towels and fabrics.

In contrast the fibres from jute (Corchorus species) stems are coarse and brown and used to make sackcloth, hessian and twine. Fibre cells in sisal (Agave sisalana) and yucca (Yucca elata) come from the leaves. These are used to make string and rope.

Textiles

The most important textile worldwide is cotton (Gossypium species). This is produced from the many fine hairs that grow on the seed surface. Each cotton boll (the rounded seed pod) contains over 300 miles of hairs! These are twisted into strong threads, spun from billions of hairs. 

Paper

Paper used to be made from a range of fibre sources, including Papyrus stems and the bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera). Nowadays, paper is mainly made from wood pulp.

Dyes

The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources. These can come from the roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood. Examples of plants that produce natural dyes include nettles (Urtica species), saffron (Crocus sativus) and madder (Rubia species) that has been used since ancient times as a vegetable red dye for leather, wool, cotton and silk.

Dyes can also come from fungi and lichens.