Sisal refers to one of two things; the first is the plant, Agave sisalana, which is a specific species of Agave originally found in southern Mexico. The second is the fiber yielded from the harvest of this plant, which is also sometimes referred to sisal hemp. This fiber is what the plant is primarily cultivated for, and has a variety of uses, including paper, cloth, carpet, various articles of clothing, bags, and even dartboards. The most common traditional use for sisal in fiber form, however, is the production of rope and twine.
The easiest way to identify a sisal plant is by the round arrangement of sharp leaves on its top. These look similar to the leaves on a pineapple, although they are straighter, span as far outwards as they do upwards, and are much larger (up to 2 meters in length). The leaves are the part of the plant that is valuable to harvest; each leaf produces around a thousand fibers. The leaves also grow back after being harvested from the plant’s thick, trunk-like stem; a plant generally has a lifespan of about a decade.
Sisal is one of the primary materials used in the production of agricultural twine. In addition to being naturally biodegradable, it is desirable for use as twine because it is strong and durable while still somewhat stretchy when in woven form. It is also resistant to deterioration in salt water, which is a common problem among other biodegradable fibers.
Besides its use as rope and twine, sisal is traditionally also used to make textiles and fabric, particularly mattresses and carpets. Though too tough for use in clothing, the fiber’s durability makes it suitable for rugs, carpets, and even shoes. Most of these applications use the higher grades of fiber acquired from the sisal plant; the lower grade fiber is also commonly used to produce paper.
Fiber is retrieved from the plant by crushing the leaves and washing or brushing away the waste parts of the leaf until only the fibers remain. These fibers are then carefully dried, and stored in bales for transportation. Artificial drying is thought to produce better quality fiber than sun drying, but is sometimes forgone because of its inefficiency.
Morán, Juan I., Vera A. Alvarez, Viviana P. Cyras, and Analia Vázquez. “Extraction of Cellulose and Preparation of Nanocellulose from Sisal Fibers.” Cellulose 15.1 (2007): 149-59. Web.
“The Plant List — A Working List for All Plant Species.” Agave Sisalana Perrine. N.p., 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 May 2016. <http://www.theplantlist.org/tpl1.1/record/kew-294215>.
“Uses Of Sisal.” Wigglesworth Fibres. Wigglesworth & Co. Limited, n.d. Web. 22 May 2016. <http://www.wigglesworthfibres.com/products/sisal/usesofsisal.html>.