Hugh D. Wilson

Blow gun - from lowlands of Eastern Ecuador: wood (gun barrel [probably palm - hard], darts - probably bamboo), gum (stuff used to bind), cordage (vine bark used as wrapping), and fiber for attachment of gourd and (probably from Kapok (Ceiba - Bombacaceae), tropical tree, seed fiber, too fine to spin) - for packing.  Note: ancient device - no DOMESTICATED plants involved - from with wild (see overview from lowland Peru).

Fibers I:

A good portion of our cultural baggage includes technology and this requires the use of natural materials for applications other than food. The most basic and ancient human tools required attachment - binding for arrows and lances - and this required a fibrous material. Also, we are a warm-climate species. Expansion of human populations from our point of origin - the Old World tropics - required protection from the cold via fibrous material. Thus, some domsticated species that are used for fiber are of ancient, old world origin and, because they were among the first to be brought 'into the camp', have multiple uses.

Classification of fibers:

Plant vs. Animal vs. synthetic

Animal: (sheep, camels, vicunas, guanacos, some goats and rabbits, and the silk moth) - all are animal fibers than can be twined or spun and composed of protein, polymer of amino acids - much more complex than cellulose - will denature (no heat), has more flexibility and dye retention, and more susceptible to pests (more attractive food resource than cellulose).

Plant: cellulose, polymer of glucose - polysaccharide - molecules cross-linked to one another - basic material to the cell wall - a feature unique to the plant kingdom and NOT present in animals.

Synthetic: produced from petroleum, cheaper (at this point in time), less complex structurally.

Types of plant fibers:


1. A specific type of cell - thick cell wall, elongate, typically present in the vascular bundle of stems and leaves - associated with the phloem

2. A tissue type - bundles or strands of fiber cells that function in the vascular system to protect the living cells of the cambium and phloem [sieve tube elements and companion cells - image of vascular bundle - Helianthus]


      1) bast (stem-phloem of dicots)

      2) leaf (vascular bundles from monocot [usually] leaves - image Yucca leaf)

      3) fruit and seed

Bast (Stem) Fibers:

Flax - Linum usitatissimum - (Linaceae) - no wild species - origin uncertain - med. basis - used by swiss lake dwellers 10K BP, Egyptian (mummies) - 5K BP - Greeks and Romans (our word 'line' and generic name Linum derived for latin word for flax fiber. A true 'bast' fiber (from phloem) - crop used for both fiber and linseed oil in old days - now cultivars selected for each use. Fibers are naturally smooth, straight, and 2-3X longer than cotton - ascendency of cotton economic - machine processed - flax worked by hand - takes time - fine linen too expensive for most folks.

Hemp - Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae-note also hops from this family) - initially spread around the world as a fiber crop - probably originated in western asia (Afganistan) - 6K BC in china [also grown for its seed - oil] - 1st century AD in Med. Basin - ususally used for cordage, rope, canvas, and sailcloth - Levi Strauss made 1st Levis with hemp cloth - (check book - how did the names 'jeans' and 'denims' originate?] - major item of US culture and world trade.

Leaf Fibers:

Sisal - Agave sisalana (Agavaceae) - Mexican, central American - fiber of the Mayans and Aztecs - big advantage - producing something useful from arid regions of the world - also pulque, tequila also from Agave.

Abaca, Manila hemp - Musa textilis (Musaceae) also M. paradisiaca [banana] - leaf fiber taken from long petioles - largest herbs, rhizomes, etc. - special properties and many uses: tea bags, dollar bills, 'manila envelopes, filter tips, etc.

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