Sisal (Agave sisalana) is a hard fiber that is extracted from the leaves of sisal plants, perennial succulents that grow best in hot, dry areas. It benefits from temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit with plenty of sun. Sisal is an environmentally friendly fiber as it is biodegradable and almost no pesticides or fertilizers are used in its cultivation.
The plant consists of a rosette of sword-shaped leaves about 5' x 6.5' tall. Young leaves may have a few minute teeth along the margins, but lose them as they mature. The sisal plant has a 7 - 10 year life-span and typically produces 200 - 250 usable leaves. Each leaf contains an average of around 1000 fibers.
Sisal is one of the world's important natural fibers, and occupies 6th place among fiber plants. Global production of sisal fiber in 2007 totaled 250,000 tons, with Brazil as the top producing country.
Fiber is extracted by a process known as decortication, where leaves are crushed, beaten, and brushed away by a rotating wheel set with blunt knives, so that only fibers remain. In East Africa, where production is typically on large estates, the leaves are transported to a central decortication plant, where water is used to wash away parts of the leaf.
The fiber is then dried, brushed and baled for export. Drying is important as fiber quality depends largely on moisture content. Fiber is subsequently cleaned by brushing. Dry fibers are machine combed and sorted into various grades.
Sisal was first used by the Aztecs and Mayans to make crude fabrics and paper. The native origin of the sisal plant is uncertain, but thought to be a native of the Yucatan Peninsula. Plants were originally shipped from the Spanish colonial port of Sisal in Yucatan, which is where the name comes from.
In the 19th century cultivation eventually spread to Brazil, as well as countries in Africa, notably Tanzania and Kenya. The first commercial plantings in Brazil were made in the late 1930s and the first exports were made in 1948. Today Brazil is the largest producer of sisal in the world.
The lower-grade fiber is processed by the paper industry because of its high content of cellulose and hemicelluloses. The medium-grade fiber is used in the cordage industry for making ropes, baler and binder twine. Ropes and twines are widely employed for marine, agricultural, and general industrial use. The higher-grade fiber, after treatment is converted into yarns and used by the carpet industry.
Sisal carpet does not build up static nor does it trap dust, so vacuuming is the only maintenance required. Depending on climatic conditions, sisal will absorb air humidity or release it.