Are you curious about what jute is? We’ve got you covered. Read on to learn more about this awesome fabric.
Jute is something that touches our lives every day but most of us aren’t aware of it. It may be in the clothes we’re wearing, the food we eat, the floors we walk on, and it’s essential to the transportation of many of the products we use daily.
As far as fibers go, it is second only to cotton in the quantity produced, and its applications are continuing to grow. Yet most of us don’t really give this humble fiber a second thought.
What Is Jute?
Jute is often referred to as the ‘golden fiber’. This is not only because of its color but also because it’s an incredibly cost-effective material.
You may know it by some of its other names such as gunny cloth, burlap, or hessian. Most people don’t know that it’s also called and sold as artificial silk.
There are a couple of varieties of jute (part of the mallow family) with each part of the plant usable for some purpose:
Corchorus olitorius, also called Tossa jute is native to South Asia. This jute is considered superior, yet harder to cultivate, than other types of jute.
In spite of that, it’s the most commonly produced plant because of its hardiness and greater yields. Because of its strength, the fiber is used in cloth to make shopping and shipping bags, and clothing. It’s also used as a culinary vegetable. It’s light brown in color, rather than off-white.
Corchorus capsularis, also called white jute, is lighter in color, but less durable and considered inferior to Tossa jute. It’s used to make ropes and yarn. Historically, it was used to make clothing in the poorest regions of India.
Mesta Jute is a hybrid of white and Tossa jute. It’s grown in areas where the climate isn’t suitable for white or Tossa jute.
The ends of the jute plant are also used. Although it is of inferior quality, it can be used for insulative purposes and as twine. Leftover stalks are used as fuel or building materials. The roots that are left in the ground after cutting serve to enrich the soil and prevent erosion.
How Jute is Grown and Processed
Jute is native to India and does best in hot, humid climates that have monsoon seasons. Today, 85% of all jute is grown in the Ganges River Delta of India (primarily in Bengal) and Bangladesh. It can also be grown in China, Thailand, Burma, and Bhutan.
Jute is incredibly fast-growing and affordable to cultivate. It will reach heights of 8-13 feet in 3-4 months when it’s ready for harvesting. Since the fibers come directly from the stalk, it is among the longest natural textile fibers in the world.
It can grow on marginal land including silt from monsoons, clay, or sandy soils; it is rain-fed and doesn’t require pesticides and fertilizers. Not only is it easy and inexpensive to grow, but the return-on-investment is also very high.
All that is needed is a hot, humid climate with some standing water. This is the same environment as rice fields and they are often grown in a rotation system because growing rice depletes the soil while jute actually enhances it. The two crops have a symbiotic relationship.
Jute is considered a bast fiber. That means that the usable fibers come from the part just under the skin that supports and strengthens the inner “feeding” part of the plant. Other bast plants are flax (linen), hemp, and ramie. Each stalk is composed of cellulose (vegetable content) and lignin (wood fiber).
The process to separate the bast from the rest of the plant is very low-tech. Once the stalks have been cut at the soil line and bundled, they are “retted” or put into slow running water for 10-30 days.
The bacteria and water flowing over the plants dissolve the gummy materials that hold the fibers together. The skin is then scraped away and the fibers are separated by beating the stalk with a wooden paddle.
After separation, the fibers are washed, dried, and graded before being sent to jute mills for processing. Jute is a fiber that can still be woven by hand, rather than requiring machine processing.
Jute Fabric Properties
Aside from being inexpensive and easy to grow and harvest, jute is also useful because of its inherent properties.
First and foremost, jute is strong – stronger than cotton fibers. This is also one of the characteristics that make it useful for rope and packaging material in the form of burlap bags.
The extreme length and uniformity of individual fibers only adds to its strength. It has a very high tensile strength-to-weight ratio, meaning it doesn’t break easily.
Stability & Durability
Jute is resistant to microbiological attacks and is non-corrosive. While it will decompose, it doesn’t lose its strength through use. It can become more brittle with exposure to water, however.
When in its natural brown or almost white state, jute accepts dye easily regardless of the dye method used.
In its natural state, it may turn yellow when exposed to sunlight; however, when treated with castor oil, this is minimized. Similarly, treating it with enzymes can reduce stiffness.
Like some other fabrics such as cupro, jute is naturally anti-static because it retains a high level of moisture in its fibers. This is what makes it such a good material for those working with electrical matters since it can be used as electrical insulation.
We think about breathability in clothing for our comfort, and jute is a good fabric for hot, humid climates.
But this attribute is also very important in packing materials (burlap sacks for foodstuffs) because it prevents foods from spoiling quickly. Working hand-in-hand with breathability, jute has a low thermal conductivity, meaning it doesn’t retain heat: an asset in hot and humid climates.
Jute is completely biodegradable. It doesn’t leave behind any toxic chemicals because none are used in its growing or processing. It doesn’t need any special processing to decompose under normal circumstances.
Jute is not a natural skin irritant like some fabrics. It’s also UV resistant so it protects your skin from burning.
People living on the Indian Subcontinent and in Asia have been wearing jute clothing for thousands of years. Jute textiles have been traced all the way back to the 3rd millennium BC in the Indus Valley.
It’s believed that it was used even earlier. Its ease of processing into usable products, low cost, availability, and suitability for the climate made it an attractive option.
Most of the time when you say jute, you envision burlap. This wouldn’t make very comfortable clothing. The jute used in clothing is finer than burlap. Historically, in India, those that could afford it likely wore clothing made from cotton or silk, but the majority of the population wore jute-based clothing.
Today, jute is used to make blended clothing — soft sweaters and cardigans. 30-40% jute is combined with silk, wool, or cotton to make fine sweaters. 60-70% jute is blended with viscose, acrylic, or cotton to make shawls, blankets, or heavier sweaters.
The finest fibers are used, especially on the Indian Subcontinent, to make “imitation silk” or “art silk”. It’s often used to make sarees and men’s clothing, both dress and casual, at a lower cost than silk.
Jute has been used in making espadrilles for men and women for centuries. It’s inexpensive, tough, durable, and plentiful.
They are perpetually popular throughout the world with high-end fashion houses such as Hermes, Prada, Versace, and St. Lauren selling their version of this summer classic. Of course, they are also sold by many other manufacturers such as Toms, Diego’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Kentti, and Soludos.
Finer jute cloth is also used to make luggage and totes. Because of the high tensile strength, even relatively lightweight bags will cart a lot.
Making Jute Into Clothing Fabric
Historically, jute was all woven by hand. With the colonization of India in the late 1700’s, the British East India Company wanted to find a way to produce jute fabric industrially.
Much of the linen industry was based in Dundee, Scotland at the time and the two fibers are similar so they exported raw fiber for experimentation.
The mills and weavers found that by using whale oil to coat the fibers they could use their machine looms to weave fabric, thereby opening up a much larger market for jute fabric.
Eventually, Scottish companies set up mills in India. When India declared its independence, the mills were taken over by Indian buyers.
Meanwhile, laborers in Jamaica were using discarded jute sacking (called Crocus) to make their garments.
Is Jute a Sustainable Fabric?
It’s always an added bonus when a useful, plentiful, inexpensive, and necessary material is also ecologically positive. Most plant fibers have some sort of negative impact on the environment, but jute actually provides benefits.
It is quickly renewable, requires very few resources (either human, water, or chemical) to grow, is inexpensive to harvest and process, uses every single part of the plant so there is no waste, and has applications for every aspect of our lives.
During the growing cycle, jute returns nutrients to the soil and helps prevent erosion and retain soil moisture. It consumes 15 tons of carbon dioxide and releases 11 tons of oxygen over the 120-day growing cycle so it actually helps clean the air.
Processing jute requires no toxic chemicals so there isn’t a runoff problem. In fact, it is one of the few fibers that doesn’t release microfibers during processing. It’s completely biodegradable, but if burned, no toxic chemicals are released.
Caring for Jute
While jute is strong and durable, it does require a bit of care in cleaning. If you have jute clothing, please hand wash it separately in cold water with gentle soap. Fibers have a tendency to stick to other clothing.
If you have stains, use an oxygen-based stain remover. To dry, don’t twist your clothing because jute is more brittle when wet. Air-dry it away from direct sunlight (which may yellow raw jute).
You can iron it while it’s still wet. Just stretch it to its original size and shape and use a low-temperature setting on the wrong side to preserve the natural weave of your garment.
Most people overlook jute and think of it only as a rough twine or a burlap sack. This is a far cry from the silk-like fabric that can be produced from jute plants.
The more you learn about jute, the more impressive it is. In fact, it may be one of the fibers of the future. Even though it’s an ancient fiber, its applications in the modern world keep expanding. Luckily, it’s also inexpensive, easy to grow, and improves, rather than harms the environment.
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