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Get to Know Madagascar's Natural Fibers

Updated: Jan 17

There are two dominant types of fibers which can be used from the plant life growing on the island of Madagascar, and these figure prominently in much of the craftwork produced by Islanders. Many of the island inhabitants are taught from a young age how to weave baskets, hats, and mats from the available fibers growing on the island, and this tradition gets passed down, so as to continue the skills and the tradition.

Some of the products manufactured on the island by these artisans are just now being made available to people in the West, as their quality and unique island flavor are being brought to other people around the world. This discussion will center around the two primary fibers which get incorporated into these quality island products.



Sisal


This is a type of flowering plant which is native to southern Mexico, but which has spread to a great many other countries around the world, including Madagascar. It produces a very stiff fiber which can be used to make a number of products, especially rope. The fiber can be used for several other products besides rope and twine, and is often used in the making of cloth, paper, hats, carpets, bags, footwear, and sometimes as a reinforcement for composite fiberglass, and some types of cement products.

The plant has a seven to 10 year lifespan, and normally produces around 250 leaves which are commercially usable. Each one of these leaves consists of about 1,000 fibers, and these are the parts of the plant which have the strongest commercial usage. This fiber has been used for centuries to make paper and fabrics, first coming into prominence in the Mayan and Aztec cultures. In the 19th century, the plant was cultivated in Florida, Brazil, the Caribbean islands, Asia, Tanzania, and Africa, and Madagascar. It has come to be a source of reliable commerce in Madagascar, and has become a very popular fiber for making a number of different crafts and types of clothing.


Raffia Palm Tree


Sometimes known as the Ivory Coast copper raffia Palm, this palm tree is a species which is native to Africa and grows to heights of approximately 10 meters. It is recognizable by its compound leaves that can each reach a length of 12 meters, and appear a dark, shiny green, with a feather-like surface. These are solitary palm trees which display brown-colored fruits. The fruits are often used in traditional medicines as a kind of liniment for pains, and also sometimes as a laxative.

The plant has some edible options, with sap from the trunk being fermented into palm wine, while the fruits can be boiled and eaten. The boiling part is extremely important, since the fruits are quite toxic when consumed raw. The Ivory Coast Raffia Palm is also a source of a soft but extremely strong fiber which can be used in the making of baskets, hammocks, hats, tote bags, and mats, as well as in paper.

The leaves can be used as a thatching material, while the midribs and the stalks from the leaves are frequently used as poles in the construction of housing frameworks. The wood itself is also used in housing construction. With regard to its use in craftwork, the soft and strong fiber is ideal for usage in creating hats, mats, and baskets. The fibers obtained by pulling off ribbon-like strips from young leaves which are just starting to unfold, and it can actually be woven into cloth.

In some cases, it's also used to make brooms and roller brushes which can be used for sweeping streets. It can also be made into a very tough weather-resistant rope. The leaf stalks in the large midribs of the leaves are extensively used by natives to construct housing frameworks, and the poles are used in a number of different ways such as for ladders and furniture. These can also be split into strips and used to make screens, baskets, and mats.

The Raffia Palm tree grows wild in wet, lowland tropics, and is especially prevalent at elevations lower than 200 meters. It requires warm and sunny climate and moist soil, and it is considered to be a monocarpic plant which grows for several years before it exhibits flowers. When it does flower, it produces a massive inflorescence, and then dies out after setting the seeds. Once a Raffia Palm tree has been planted, it will generally take between three and seven years before it flowers, and the cycle of dying off and rejuvenating is generally allowed to proceed naturally by seeding.


Uses for fiber products

On Madagascar itself, products made from the Sisal fiber and the Raffia Palm fiber are frequently used to make footwear, hats, mats, and baskets. On the east and west coasts of Madagascar, the Raffia Palm tree is the staple fiber of the entire region, and it is used by the peoples who inhabit these areas to produce a vast number of different usable products.

One of the unique qualities about Raffia Palm products is their water-resistant capability, which makes them useful in the rain and the mud, as well as the humidity which is a constant feature of both areas. Raffia Palm hats for instance, are well known to tolerate the frequent rainfall in these areas, and still be functional for a long time.


Other fibers in Madagascar


On the southeast part of the island, there is a species of tree from the Voara family which is used as a primary fiber in the manufacture of clothing and other goods. In the southeast hinterland, the Hofotra (abutilon angulatum) species is the most popular fiber, although it requires a great deal of processing, including boiling the bark, washing, sun-drying, splitting, and twisting it into a desired configuration.

In the South and West, cotton and wild silk are the fibers of choice, and both are used extensively in the manufacture of high-quality clothing. The Malagasy people define silk by the kind of leaves eaten by the silkworms, and some types are highly prized. The dominant fiber of the Central Highlands are the hemp plant, banana stem fiber, and wild silk from the Tapia trees, although these have limited distribution.

There is actually quite a diversity of fibers used on the island of Madagascar, although traditional usage tends strongly toward Sisal and the Raffia Palm tree.

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