Economic Botany: A Textbook of Useful Plants and Plant Products

By Albert F. Hill | Go to book overview
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Plants that yield fibers have without question been second only to food plants in their usefulness to man and their influence on the advancement of civilization. Primitive man in his attempt to obtain the three great necessities of life -- food, shelter, and clothing -- early turned to plants. Although animal products were available, he needed some form of clothing that was lighter and cooler than skins and hides. For his snares, bowstrings, nets, and the like he needed some form of cordage that was easier to procure than animal sinews and strips of hide. Moreover, some other type of covering for his crude shelters was desirable. All these needs were admirably met by the tough, flexible strands that occurred in the stems, leaves, and roots of many plants.

Almost from the outset plant fibers have had a more extensive use than wool, silk, and other animal fibers. As civilization advanced and man's needs multiplied, the use of these vegetable fibers increased greatly until at the present time they are of enormous importance in our daily life. It is difficult to estimate the number of species of fiber plants, but a conservative figure would be well over two thousand. More than a thousand species of American plants have yielded fibers. Seven hundred and fifty occur in the Philippine Islands alone. Fibers of commercial importance, however, are relatively few, the greater number comprising native species used locally by primitive peoples in all parts of the world.

It is a remarkable fact that the most prominent fibers of the present day are of great antiquity. The cultivation of flax, for example, goes back to the Stone Age of Europe, as evidenced by the remains of the Swiss Lake Dwellers. Ancient Egypt was famous for its fine linen. Cotton was the ancient national textile of India, and was used by all the aboriginal nations of the New World as well. Ramie or China grass has been grown in the Orient from time immemorial.


It is possible to classify fibers in six groups, based on their utilization, as follows:

Textile Fibers . The most important use of fibers at the present time is in connection with the textile industry, which is concerned with the manufacture of fabrics, netting, and cordage. In making fabrics and netting,


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Economic Botany: A Textbook of Useful Plants and Plant Products


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