#HawaiiFiberProject Part I – Alternative Fibers
Have you thought about what your clothing is made of? Some people commit to wearing only natural fibers, responsibly sourced materials or recycled textiles, but where exactly do these fibers come from and how are they processed? Is there room for alternative fibers?
I kicked off the #HawaiiFiberProject by exploring this question and decided to try my hand at processing pineapple fibers. Before settling on pineapple, I researched a few Hawai’i grown plants and ruled out hemp, coconut, and banana. Even though industrial hemp was just legalized in Hawai’i, it would be hard to acquire, the fiber takes a lot of energy to break down and I didn’t have access to the tools I needed. Coconut fibers are great for more rustic pieces and would be perfect for a doormat, but I wanted something a bit more refined. When looking up processes for making banana fibers, they always involved heavy machinery and just wasn’t something I had the resources to produce. Ultimately, pineapple fibers seemed like the most realistic and attainable option. My main guidance was a Youtube video by the Philippine government, it looked fairly straightforward.
A lot of you have been asking be about where exactly these fibers are coming from. Is it the fruit pulp or the rind? The fibers used for textiles actually come from the leaves at the base of the plant, not the fruit.
After collecting about 15 leaves, I re-watched my reference Youtube video and got started. Equipped with a metal spatula I began scraping away at the leaves until the white fibers were visible, and then slowly pulled them out.
There was some trial and error for the best way to pull out the fibers. You have to make sure the whole fiber is exposed to avoid breaking, but also be careful not to cut the fibers while scraping the leaves. In hindsight, I should have kept the strands neatly hanging, instead of throwing them all together, to avoid getting tangled. After extracting the fibers I spent quite a bit of time cleaning and untangling the fibers to be usable.
Since the process of scraping the leaves took longer than expected, I only used about six or seven leaves, but it produced more than enough fiber for me. I can’t imagine creating enough to make a full textile for a shirt, but if you have the right tools and experience it might not be such a taxing experience. I spent two days to make just a small basket full of fibers.
Originally, I wanted to weave a textile out of the pineapple fiber, but the process of making such a fine even thread was beyond my capabilities. After playing around with the fibers and seeing how it behaves, I thought it would work well as an accent in my sakiori tote bag. By taking a few strands of the fibers and twisting them, it was the perfect unexpected touch to the design.
The steps are pretty basic, but by far the most difficult and time intensive stage was scraping the leaves to expose the fibers. I waited a couple days after picking the leaves before starting, so they may have been a bit dried out, but my hand was unbelievably sore after just one leaf. Next time, I would try soaking the leaves, or using them right after picking.
The fiber itself was beautiful and silky. One day I’ll try this again (properly) and make something completely out of pineapple fiber. It reminds me of a linen with a slight sheen, and maybe a little bit stiffer.
Pineapples are traditionally used in the Philippines to make a refined lightweight textile. There are boutique mills that produce the fabric with artisans, but as you can see, it is a very labor intensive process for mainstream production. That being said, there are now several types of textiles made from the pineapple plant, including pineapple leather, and there seems to be a lot of room for innovation in textile production. (Le Souk is a fun site to peruse and find alternative sustainable and ethical fabrics.)
Why should we consider other kinds of textiles and what’s wrong with what we’re already using? My interest in looking at alternative fibers is twofold – 1) textile production could be a positive introduction to the Hawai’ian economy, creating jobs, supplying local designers and offering a unique experience for eco-tourism, 2) the way we currently produce a majority clothing is wasteful, we should constantly be looking for better alternatives to water intensive crops and non-recyclable materials.
Although Hawai’i garment manufacturing grew rapidly during the 1920’s and reached it’s peak during WWII providing for the servicemen on the islands, the textile industry never saw the same fortune. Except for a couple textile mills that came about with the popularity of screen printing in the 1950’s (Alfred Shaheen and Van Hamm Textiles), it’s difficult to find anything on textile production in Hawai’i. Starting in the 1960’s the cost of labor drove out the garment industry, just like in many other parts of the US. Bringing back the garment industry, and starting a textile industry, would mean either transforming it into a niche, high-end market or creating innovative technologies and taking out the human element. Something I discuss in relation to Trump’s America First policies in this post from April.
There is a Made in Hawai’i movement and a few brands make ready-to-wear garments locally. Textiles, to my knowledge, are not being widely produced in Hawai’i. But with the legalization of industrial hemp it seems like an opportunity to become a hub of artisanal and sustainable textile production. The Industrial Hemp Pilot Program is underway, inching Hawai’i towards partaking in the $620 million American hemp industry, which includes not only textiles but also health, food and beauty products.
Other sustainable fibers already growing in Hawai’i, such as pineapple, coconut, and banana, do not face the same legal barriers as hemp. Yet, currently there are no government programs, machinery or skilled labor in Hawai’i to support this. We would have to turn to mills elsewhere for guidance, or create new systems to break down the materials and turn them into fabric. I would be excited to see food waste from these plants used for textiles, I haven’t worked out the operational details for this one, but I would be a really fun project to try out.
I imagine mixing the lure of a Hawai’ian getaway fantasy with the luxurious quality of artisan made sustainable textiles would make for a great niche market. There is no sense in trying to compete with large-scale fast fashion fabric mills. Take Japan for example – across many markets, including the textile industry, they have mastered the beauty and power of extremely well made, artisan crafted products. I think there’s room for Hawai’i to join in too and start making their own boutique sustainable textiles.
Responsible material sourcing, and textile science are constantly evolving and in my opinion, are at the root of sustainable and ethical fashion. Pure, non-toxic, and renewable resources are the base of any basic sustainable garment. This is my main reason for starting the #HawaiiFiberProject, I wanted to take step beyond the clothing design and look at the fibers and textiles that they are made of. Are there materials we haven’t considered? and how would this industry impact our economy and communities?
In closing I’d like to share this video from Patagonia on industrial hemp production in Kentucky. I first saw it back in October and it spurred a lot of the questions I had about how a textile mill could positively impact a community. I hope you enjoy it!