Agave sisalana, better know as sisal, is a green plant with long, sword-shaped leaves. Sisal is indigenous to Mexico, but today it grows in parts of the world as diverse as Morocco, Hawaii, Thailand and Nepal. Sisal's fibers are used to make dozens of products including cloth, carpet, rope, twine, paper and dartboards. The word "sisal" can refer to either the plant or its fibers.
The Sisal Plant
The leaves of a sisal plant can grow to over 6.5 feet tall. During the course of a 10 year lifespan, a single plant can produce up to 250 commercially viable leaves, each of which contains about 1,000 fibers. Fibers are extracted from sisal through the process of decortication, which involves beating the leaves against a spinning wheel. The fibers must then be thoroughly dried before being sorted.
Sisal Rugs and Carpet
One of the most popular commercial uses for sisal is the production of rugs and carpet. Sisal doesn't attract static electricity nor dust; therefore, sisal carpets require very little maintenance. Unless properly treated with a fiber sealer, sisal fiber expands when exposed to water, so sisal rugs and carpet are not ideal in high-spill areas or near doors where they might be exposed to rain and snow. Dry cleaning powder should always be used for spot removal.
Other Sisal Products
Commercial use of sisal dates back thousands of years ago to ancient Aztec and Mayan societies, which made primitive papers and fabrics from the plant. By the 1800s, sisal was being cultivated in the Caribbean and Florida as well as several African counties like Tanzania and Kenya. Presently, Brazil is the world's top sisal producer.
A number of qualities make sisal a versatile fiber: It is strong, durable and stretchy. Sisal fiber also easily absorbs dyestuff and is resistance to saltwater deterioration. Unsurprisingly, sisal has long been the fiber of choice for making ropes and other general cordage. Sisal can be found in spa products, slippers, geotextiles, cat scratching posts, mattresses and disc buffers. Aside from its many practical uses, the sisal plant can also be distilled into a liquor that resembles tequila.