Better than bamboo: Kenaf

kenaf_hibiscus_cannabinusHave you ever heard of kenaf? I’ve been eagerly awaiting its commercial development into textiles for years and it seems we’re a bit closer to that goal.

If you don’t know what kenaf is it can be briefly summarized as a tall, fast growing plant (hibiscus cannabinus; related to cotton and hibiscus) that requires less energy and chemicals both in growing and processing. It can be made into paper that is superior to wood pulp and it can be grown in less than ideal fields -like tobacco. Kenaf has also been used in plastics, both to strengthen and to make plastic more biodegradable. But that’s not all, it could be a solution to global warming in that it absorbs more CO2 than any other plant. It is claimed that one acre of kenaf absorbs as much CO2 as 8 acres of pine forest or more CO2 absorption that 2 -3 acres of rain forest. In areas that don’t freeze, kenaf can be grown year round (3 crops).  Research from Purdue says that over 20 years, one acre of kenaf can produce ten to twenty times more usable fiber than an acre of pine.

The fabric developed from kenaf is similar to linen but it is still hard to find. [I did find drapes sold by Pottery Barn made of 100% kenaf but they’re out of them now.] Research (pdf) shows that kenaf retted with bacteria rather than chemicals, produces the smoothest fabrics -another plus.

kenaf_looks_like_potLike I said, I’ve been interested in this for a long time. In the mid nineties, I tried to get seeds to plant some but those were tough to find -but not anymore. I have a whole acre and nothing to put on it…although law enforcement might get a little excited if I planted a crop because some varieties look like marijuana. Kenaf is just the greatest stuff, it can be used for so many things. We might have to get a chipper-shredder yet.

Today’s post was brought to you by Kenactiv Innovations, producers of “bio-based textile components and yarns that can help manufacturers and retailers meet consumer demand”. Okay, not really. Kenactive had nothing to do with this. Their PR firm sent me a press release about it. I don’t often get excited by press releases but I saved this one to share with you.

But I digress. Keep kenaf fabric on your radar and you’ll be the coolest kid on the block. It is much much better than bamboo because bamboo is very chemical intensive -it’s rayon. Kenaf is much cleaner and more sustainable. Now we have to find a way to make it cool. What we lack is a substitute for a cute panda bear to sell it to consumers. I vote for chinchilla bunny puff-balls. What those would have to do with an African plant is beyond me. Say, maybe we could show cheetah kittens romping amid a field of kenaf?

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35 comments

  1. Steph A says:

    Thanks for highlighting this, it sounds really an amazing plant. I thought bamboo was the grand eco-fiber, but I didn’t know anything about it’s production. I’d love to learn more about Kenaf, thanks for the links.

  2. Sarah_H. says:

    Has anyone researched kenaf as a source of biofuel?

    I will keep my eye out for this. I love to see new plants in use, new fibers. I have always wanted to see more use of wool from other animals than sheep. Reindeer and musk ox are both supposed to have exceptionally warm coats and shed their fur naturally.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

  3. Kathleen says:

    I would urge everyone to read this article I linked to in my entry carefully. The first part is legal stuff, scroll down for the straight dope on whether bamboo is the panacea earth healer everyone thinks it is. It’s closer to s a case of “successful” green washing and quite detrimental as compared to alternatives.

  4. Re: planting acreage
    Preemptive strike (press releases) to make sure your local law enforcement knows exactly what you’re growing and why.

    To make linen, the flax stalks are immersed in water and the veggie bits rotted out (with the help of that friendly bacteria), leaving the long fibers. Rayon processing (i.e. wood fibers/bamboo) grinds up the cellulose base, treats it (icky chemicals), and extrudes it.

    So, a chipper/shredder would be for the other direction, using it for biofuel as Sarah_H. ponders.

    Linen goes as far back as ancient Egypt, so although the process may be labor-intensive, it’s got to be pan-culturally accessible. The Ravelry crowd would know what’s involved in spinning linen.

    Interesting that the fiber in rice stalks isn’t rotted out, but woven or braided directly after the grain is thrashed out. It must be far more woody. Obviously its fibers are not as long as flax (much less kenaf), though the best cotton staple is, what, 6″? Wool a bit more.

    Updates as you get them, please?

  5. Louisa says:

    Cotton staple is less than 2″ and some varieties are a *lot* less than that. It’s also a seed fibre, not a bast (stem) fibre like linen, hemp or kenaf. Bamboo fibre can also be produced like linen rather than like rayon but it has much different qualities. I am always interested in seeing real commercial alternatives to cotton but fear that the Big Boys of the huge cotton industry are not going to like any of them! (Note what happened to the hemp industry, especially in the US.) China has been able to make a little dent in cotton industry with bamboo rayon but only because they are Big Boys too. Profit trumps logic it seems. Don’t want to give up hope however!

  6. Traci Akierman says:

    Thanks for this Kathleen. It’s so frustrating when one is trying to become more environmentally responsible by choosing “eco” options only to find out they are not what they were represented to be. I have experienced this frustration MANY times, particularly with personal care products for my kids.

    I vote for the house hippo as the Kenaf mascot. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBfi8OEz0rA

    Or the Pygmy Hippopotamus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy_hippopotamus. While not cuddly, I think hippos are cute. Particularly diminutive ones.

  7. Sabine says:

    it sounds very similar to hemp with it’s properties, so, maybe it will do what hemp never could, and become main stream. I like what you describe. it sounds really cool. NowIneed to go share that on my sabine page…. :)

  8. Jay Arbetman says:

    cool stuff indeed. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I did extensive research in the area of hemp. My advise. Do not smoke the samples.

    Seriously, also some interesting pineapple leaf fabrics and other things being developed. I’ll bet I heard the word Kenaf 20 yrs ago. Like hemp, bamboo, modal and many other innovative plant type fibers it will likely to be combined with cotton or spandex or other fibers.

    Did you ever see the chipper/shredder scene from the movie Fargo? Getting a chipper? If I were Mr. F-I I would behave myself!

  9. Alas, unlike hemp and linen, the kenaf fibers are quite short – 6 mm. They’re great for paper.

    I found that the less-usable-for-cloth short linen fibers are “tow”. I knew what tow-headed was, but hadn’t connected flax with what they used to stuff the seams of ships.

    Also that naturally-retted linen produces quite a stench.

    Re: hemp research
    I was teaching an adult group how to distinguish different fibers and blends by burning samples. We were gathered around the area with best ventilation when the principal of the school appeared, showing a bunch of dignitaries around. She said, “hey, Carol, what are you doing?” I explained, and said, “We’re about to test hemp!” and she said, “Great!” and they all trooped in. I loved that school.

    Hemp, linen and ramie all smell about the same, and produce the same ash. I’d guess, so would kenaf.

  10. There are a lot of different varieties so length varies, in addition, kenaf has two fibers; one inner, one outer (kenaf fiber length can be as long as 2,000 mm). It is also possible something was lost in translation; kenaf fiber width is typically 4-6MM.

  11. I was wondering about that, too. They might be flat enough to curl, as it’s “wide” not “thick”. Presumably the fibers could be split, as they run lengthwise. Curl up for the evening with a basket of kenaf blanks and a fine knife!

  12. Brina says:

    Some ‘new’ fibers have been around for a while. Piña cloth, ie cloth made from pineapple leaves, has a long history in the Philippines.

  13. Marie-Christine says:

    How fascinating.

    This week too I received and ad for wool-and-nettle yarn. Apparently improvements in the retting process are now making nettle feasible. Keep an eye out for that too :-).

  14. Jim Beam says:

    Why are you so quick to label kenaf better than bamboo? Why single out bamboo? I did a quick search on chemicals used to process kenaf in to fabric and they’re used in the process. I’ve even read that chemicals are used in the processing of organic cotton & hemp. By the way if you are wearing organic cotton clothing how is it dyed? I looked in to dyeing fabric with vegetable dyes but learned that I needed to treat the fabric with chemicals first.

  15. Jim Beam says:

    You haven’t explained the process in making kenaf in to fabric so how can you claim it’s better than bamboo? I checked Kenactive’s website but no details there on the chemicals they use. All it says it that they use “natural chemicals”.

    I care most about doing good but until something becomes popular it won’t have the resources behind it to become better. Nothing is perfect specially in the early stages but bamboo has potential. There is a company that has developed a process to pulp bamboo with natural enzymes. Their product hasn’t made it to market yet as far as I can tell. Maybe it will when bamboo becomes more popular?

  16. Some of this is intuitive.

    Fibers that are naturally long enough to use as is take less processing than the ones that must be ground up, polymerized, and extruded into (usually) a hardening liquid.

    Bamboo (rayon) is processed much like petroleum-derived plastics. The only difference is that its raw base is cellulose rather than oil.

    Please read Kathleen’s extensive earlier posts on these processes and fabrics.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Jim: I think the heart of this matter is the issue of resourcefulness. A word to the wise is sufficient because they take it and run with it, and frankly, that is my customer. This is a free site, it’s not my job to do anyone’s research if it’s readily available. If it’s analysis needed on an arcane topic or something difficult to find or unpack, I’m all over it because I can provide something you can’t get anywhere else. This subject is easy to research; since the other links I left proved to be insufficient for you, here’s another to get you started.

  18. Cary Pragdin says:

    Thank you Kathleen for once again unveiling a topic completely new to me. I like the idea of the Pygmy Hippo as the Kenaf Mascot, or maybe a mongoose or meerkat or green mamba (the tall trunks look like a stretched-out green mamba).

  19. Sarvi says:

    I found this very interesting as I just purchased a hank of kenaf fiber from Habu textiles (which produces unusual yarns for home knitters and weavers) and didn’t really know anything about it. It feels like linen, but coarser and with less sheen, in the hank I purchased. I don’t know how else it might look if handled differently (the same shop had fine, glossy silk and also a heavy silk that looked almost like tree bark, for example). I have a few photos here, of the hank and the label, and a closeup of the fiber.

  20. Thanks for posting this, Sarvi –

    Most of these cellulose fibers soften up considerably when worn and laundered. The process can be sped up by adding washing soda (a base).

    http://www.habutextiles.com/yarn/by_fiber

    Kenaf wasn’t listed, but it came up in am advanced search:
    http://habutextiles.com/search/node/kenaf

    If you whip up a swatch and run it through however many washes, would you tell us, please?

    I’m always happy to come up with projects for others to do…

  21. Diana says:

    There are a few vendors selling kenaf seeds on eBay–the cloth, too. But man, do those leaves ever look illegal!

  22. Leonore Alaniz says:

    Your posts are interesting. Would kenaf grow in Massachusetts? Do you think approaching a college with agricultural roots, and perhaps dedicated to Permaculture – (UMass Amherst) is an option? Leaf shape alone is not reason to swart growing a plant.

  23. Is anyone familiar with or interested in Textiles as part of Permaculture Design? Joel Glanzberg, a well-known Pculture Designer based in NM, uses effectively textile analogies to explain PC design principles. The applied link is still missing however. We understand that re- and up-cycling, organic growing etc, are sustainability aspects. Beyond their life-cyles, textiles belong to PermaCulture as much as the shirt on our backs. For example, could (fiber) mono – cultures be replaced with localized, and diverse production, befitting mindful consumption? Can we re-design textiles into the con-text of PermaCulture ? To mind come contemporary Peruvian family plots where colored cotton is grown, its seeds saved as sacred …..

  24. Jeff says:

    I have grown this plant (Kenaf) successfully in Southern Ontario Canada, in my front yard garden. I did get some interesting comments on whether it was some kind of funky pot plant or not. I lived 2 blocks from the police station. Southern Ontario is zone 5b zone 6, it grew to 12 feet and I planted it late, mid June. I would imagine if these were started in a greenhouse in March/April they would reach full height by fall. I was just thinking of this plant today and whether it would have the same textile qualities as hemp. I really enjoyed this article and forum. I’m working on some business ideas, so I’m delving into the possibilities of this plant and maybe others for possible alternative textiles/products..Can anyone tell me if there are wholesale hemp yarn/fabric sellers in Canada?

  25. Kathleen says:

    Can anyone tell me if there are wholesale hemp yarn/fabric sellers in Canada?

    Canada is a good source but there are also places in the US. There is turnover among suppliers so one has to keep on top of it. It’s beyond the function of the blog to post proprietary details but the forum (being private already) is where I go to source so it might help you too. Good luck as you move forward.

  26. Christine M says:

    I have some curtain panels made of kenaf from Pottery Barn. The problem I’m now having is that I don’t know how to launder them. The dry cleaner has never heard of the fabric and doesn’t want to clean them. The label says to dry clean, but the woman at the dry cleaners tells me that often laundry instruction labels are just slapped on without really knowing if the instructions are the best way to launder.

    So does anyone know if I can launder kenaf fabric in a washing machine? Thanks!

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