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Agave Sisalana

Sisal derives its name from a small port in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico through which the earliest supplies of agave fibres, locally known as Henequen, were exported and it became known to commerce as "Sisal" or "Sisal Hemp". The full possibilities of the Agave fibres, of which sisal is by far the most important, were first realised through the use of henequen produced in Central America.

The sisalana agave plants are characterized by rosettes of fleshy leaves, usually long and narrow, which grow out from a central bud. In the early stages of growth, the leaves are erect but as they mature they gradually spread out until they stretch out horizontally. At this stage, the leaves are from 1m to 1.5m long, 10cm to 15cm wide and about 500g to 700g in weight. The fibres lie embedded longitudinally in the leaves, being most abundant near the leaf surfaces. Sisal grows all the year round, and the first harvest can be 2-2.5 years after planting. Sisal produces throughout its productive period (up to 10-12 years) from 180 to 240 leaves depending on the location, altitude, level of rainfall and variety of plant.

The leaves contain about 90% moisture, but the fleshy pulp is very firm and the leaves are rigid. The fibre must be removed from the leaves as soon as they are cut in order to avoid damaging problems during the cleaning process once they become dry. Fibre removal is accomplished by scraping away the pulpy material, generally by a mechanical decortication process, and by hand stripping.

Up to the first decade of the twentieth century Mexico had practically a monopoly of Agave and production of Agave fibre mainly for cordage use, but by then the demand had stimulated cultivation elsewhere. Plantations appeared in many parts of the world, based on different species of Agave transplanted from its original home.

Agave sisalana (sisal) proved the most successful of these species. It is in East Africa, particularly Tanzania and Kenya, that cultivation of agave sisalana developed into a major industry and hybrid varieties of the plant were developed, which gave extended production life and higher fibre content to the leaves, though over the last 40 years sisal has lost a lot of its previous importance to the economy in Tanzania. During post Second World War years there was a rapid growth in Brazil of sisal output and export and they are nowadays ranked as the world's largest producer and exporter of sisal, followed by China. Sisal in Brazil is produced by smallholders, while sisal in other production countries is commercially produced on medium to large sized plantations.

Major sisal producers once used to be Indonesia and Angola, but because of adverse political developments during the fifties/sixties (Indonesia) and seventies (Angola) of the last century, sisal production discontinued in both countries which were renowned for quality sisal. Sisal production in Mozambique was severely affected by political changes that took place in that country in the mid-seventies.

Over many years the main products made from sisal were binder twines and cordage. With improvements in grain harvesting technology at the end of the 19th century, binder twine sales decreased steadily throughout the early decades of the 20th century. After the Second World War the widespread introduction of the automatic-tie hay baler led to the use of sisal baler twine which peaked in the 1970's.

However, with changing baling technologies, introduced by the agricultural machinery companies over the last 30 years, demand for sisal baler twine declined due to growing competition from synthetic twine made from polypropylene. Nowadays, apart from the ongoing production of agricultural twines and cordage, sisal is increasingly used in the manufacture of weaving yarns for natural carpets, the cores of elevator sisal ropes and as buffing/polishing cloth for a wide range of metal surfaces, such as stainless steel cutlery and car body parts.

In more recent years the end uses of sisal fibre have diversified and it is now used in composite materials, as a replacement for glass fibres and the strengthening of plastics. It is also being used in various components in the automobile industry and in commercial aircraft, in the geotextiles sector for land reclamation schemes and stabilisation of slopes in road construction. There are also other applications in plaster reinforcement in the construction of domestic property in certain parts of the world. Sisal padding for mattresses and domestic furniture.

Sisal has a great future when it comes to not only the new uses of this fibre but also because of the growing awareness of the public that natural fibres, like sisal, are environmentally friendly as demonstrated by the International Year of Natural Fibres.

London Sisal Association Video