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Q: Do you plan to incorporate any banana-fiber cloth into any of your clothing designs?
A: Yes, definitely. Although I have not yet, I would like to in the not-too-distant future.


History of Banana-Fiber Cloth


Going Bananas


For most of us, the banana plant needs no introduction. However, few people today think of the banana plant as a source of fiber for fabric.


Exactly where and when the banana plant was first cultivated is the stuff of scholarly debate. Today, the banana plant grows pretty much any place with a warm enough climate and suitable soil conditions.


The fruit of banana plants is eaten regularly by people all over the world. In warmer climates, bananas are a valuable local source of food. In these warmer places, bananas grow everywhere—in vacant lots, yards, and on roadsides. Banana plants are grown in warmer climates as decorative outdoor landscaping too, and they are likewise valued as an indoor plant in both cold and warm climates.


Bananas are a member of the herb family. An herb is a type of plant that does not have a woody stem, rather, has layers of leaf sheaths. Although not classified as grasses, banana plants do grow in clumps, a lot like grasses. Banana plants vary from the size of a small potted plant to a clump the size of a large tree. The stems of the banana plant can be eaten, and they also provide a source of fiber useful for textiles.


The use of banana fibers for textiles is not a new idea. For centuries, banana fiber textiles were made in Japan and Nepal.


In Japan, banana fibers were a prized substitute for silk and were traditionally woven into ceremonial garments for the wealthy. The Japanese method was a traditional handicraft and not a large-scale undertaking. It involved a very labor-intensive and painstaking process, requiring a lot of skills. The banana fibers themselves required a high level of expertise to extract and weave. The fibers were painstakingly sorted and carded by hand without a bacterial retting process to soften up the stalks, or a scrutching either. The innermost fibers of banana stalks are already very soft and supple, thus making a retting process unnecessary.


In Nepal, a process involving both a bacterial retting and scrutching/crushing was used, in order to make the extraction process faster and less labor intensive. The Nepalese retted banana stalks in the fields or in baths of water, similar to the process involved in the production of hemp or flax cloth. While this had the unfortunate result of the fabric being less exquisite than the fabric made by the Japanese method, it did make the fabric more available to the common person. Still, for whatever reason, banana fiber fabric never caught on in a big way with the Nepalese. 


In both Nepal and Japan, the outermost sheaths of the banana plant were used for making cloth that was not intended for articles of clothing. Coarser banana cloth was used for place mats, floor mats, and sun shades.


In the last decade there has been a revived interest in using banana fibers to make textiles, first in India, and now in China. In the last few years, the Tiruchirappalli Regional Engineering College Science & Technology Entrepreneurs Park, working in conjunction with the Indian government’s department of agriculture, patented a machine that could efficiently turn the stalks of banana plants into fibers suitable for textile manufacturing. India looks to be the place where banana-fiber textiles will make their first large public offering.


Unlike hemp or bamboo, the modern process of turning banana stalks into usable textile fibers requires no time-consuming bacterial retting process or any crushing or “scrutching” process (a mechanical operation which, by breaking and beating the retted material, separates out the textile fibers in the stem). This lack of a retting and scrutching process makes harvesting banana fiber relatively fast and not very labor intensive. Banana fibers can easily be sorted for thickness. The innermost stalk fibers are the softest and most pliable; the outer fibers are the thickest and strongest. The process of turning banana stalks into textiles is the opposite of the relatively slow and labor-intensive process of turning woody stalks of bamboo, hemp, or flax into fibers suitable for textiles.


Ecological and Social Impacts of Banana Fiber


The ecological aspects of large-scale use of banana fiber are sort of a mixed bag, but the overall picture is a good one. Today, banana cultivation is practiced all over the warmer parts of the world. Estimates are that worldwide, there are over one billion tons of discarded banana plant stalks every year. In major banana-growing regions, discarded banana stalks create a huge agricultural waste problem. Those tons of discarded banana plant stalks sitting around every year are just waiting to be turned into useful textiles. Until recently, there simply was no fast and efficient method of doing that. And there's another big reason that banana fibers have not yet seen any large-scale application in the international textile industry: the ready availability of cheap, mass-produced cotton.


Q: Okay, so can banana fiber produce a large-scale economically viable alternative to cotton use in textiles?
A: Banana-fiber textiles can definitely lessen the demand for cotton on a large scale; however, banana-fiber textiles are not able to completely replace cotton without creating severe environmental problems. Banana fibers and other fibers work well as a complementary fiber to cotton. A few manufacturers in India and China now incorporate banana fiber into cotton blend fabrics. The blending of cotton and banana fibers could make great strides to lessen the demand for cotton cultivation. Interest in banana-fiber textiles has been strongest in India and China. India is the largest, and China is the second largest grower of bananas. The recent interest in turning banana stalks into textile fiber has been due partially to the need to process and make use of the huge amounts of agricultural waste products that are a byproduct of banana growing. In both India and China, there is also a growing awareness of the problems associated with large-scale cotton cultivation.


There is some good news concerning banana cultivation worldwide. There is rising consumer awareness in many places concerning the labor disputes, political issues, and environmental issues surrounding banana cultivation. Increasingly, there is an international effort to rotate bananas with other crops and to use organic growing methods. The history of labor practices and profit distribution related to banana cultivation has been contentious in Central America, but the same set of political controversies has not existed in other banana-growing places, such as India and China. There are also growing international efforts to ensure a better payment rate given to local banana producers in “Fair Trade” agreements.


The environmental impact of bananas depends largely on where the bananas are grown. In the Caribbean, as well as India, there is a long history of bananas being grown by small family farms, then sold to large agricultural collectives for export or to local supermarket chains. The owners of these small family farms typically grow other crops and often have employment outside of banana cultivation. For decades, to assure fixed and decent prices, arrangements have been in place between the Caribbean agricultural collectives that handle exporting bananas to Europe and the European buyers associations. The use of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides on small farms is usually very minimal. Europe has imported almost all of their bananas from small Caribbean family farms for decades.


Unlike banana cultivation on small family farms, large corporate plantations have a bad record concerning environmental impact and social responsibility. Corporate cultivation is basically a furious race to the bottom price for bananas. That involves a lot of chemical use in the growing process, which has greatly damaged the environment and caused terrible health problems for people living in places where large corporately owned banana plantations exist.


Unfortunately, bananas are a crop notably attractive to pests and prone to diseases. Intense cultivation of bananas in some places has created a one-crop local agricultural base. No crop rotation and intense cultivation lead to depletion of soil nutrients and a reliance on chemical fertilizers. The heavy use of chemical fertilizers leads to increased soil erosion and to polluted watersheds in those areas where chemical fertilizer is used. The treatment of the bananas after being picked is also an environmental and health issue. After being picked green, the bananas intended for shipment to distant locations are treated with chemicals to ward off spoilage and to retard ripening. After-harvest treatment chemicals applied to bananas are not very healthy to people or the environment.


Any proposed expansion of banana-growing plantation land is a very contentious political issue. More tropical forests have to be cut down to make room for more banana plantations. The need to cut down more tropical rain forests to increase banana cultivation has led to an effective worldwide halt to banana-plantation expansion. Now the focus of the international banana-growing industry is on increasing the productivity of land already used for banana cultivation.


Unlike such crops as cotton or wheat, banana production thus far cannot be totally automated. Banana cultivation is still labor intensive, requiring many more workers to tend and harvest the fields than is true of many other crops. The need for large numbers of people working a banana plantation creates a desire to keep wages as low as possible. Bananas still have to be cut by hand, and the heavy bunches of bananas often have to be carried a short distance by human labor.


The banana-growing industry has a somewhat checkered record of labor practices and political maneuvering in Latin America. In the past, the term “Banana Republic” was often applied to the Central American nations where large American agricultural corporations set up large-scale banana-growing plantations. The American banana-growing corporations were known to have bought out and bribed local politicians in these nations, effectively turning local politicians and government officials into unofficial paid employees. Such local officials in banana-producing countries were known for not acting in the interests of the local populations, but instead, acting in the interests of large American agricultural corporations.


There have been longstanding disputes in Central American banana-growing regions concerning the rights of workers to organize, and complaints about low wages, long working hours, and bad working conditions. There has been a long and troubled history of labor disputes between the local banana-plantation workers and the American corporations investing in the banana plantations. There have been contentious political issues concerning where the flow of money is going that comes from the profits of the banana sales. Like cotton, banana cultivation has been, and often still is, associated with one-product regional economies. The longstanding accusation against the large American agricultural corporations doing business in Latin American banana-growing regions has been that they are not putting enough money back into the local economies.


Q: What are the positive aspects of incorporating banana-fiber fabrics into your clothing? A: First, I think it's a really cool idea, and at this time, banana-fiber clothing is still a novelty. No doubt it will be a nice conversation-starter at various social gatherings—"Nice shirt!" then "Yeah, people grow bananas for this one!"


Banana-fiber fabric is good at absorbing moisture and for keeping cool on hot days. It breathes well. Banana-fiber cloth is very soft and supple, although not quite as soft as cotton or rayon. (Nearly all plant stem-based fibers are going to be a little bit stiffer or coarser than cotton or rayon.) The banana fibers also have a nice shimmer to them, a lot like silk. Banana-fiber clothing is very comfortable to the skin and not likely to trigger allergies. Banana-fiber cloth also comes in differing weights and thicknesses based on what part of the banana stem the fiber was taken from. The innermost sheaths are where the softest fibers are obtained, and from the outer sheaths come the thicker and sturdier fibers. Separating the bamboo fibers by thickness is not terribly difficult or labor intensive. The outermost fibers of the banana stalks are good for making canvas, rope, packaging materials, and fibers used as an alternative to fiberglass for building purposes. Banana-fiber cloth is also biodegradable.


Q: Okay, so what are the downsides of incorporating banana-fiber cloth into your clothing designs?
A: First, banana-fiber fabric is still a novelty item. There are currently only a few manufacturers of banana-fiber fabric worldwide, and it still has a somewhat high price tag. At this time, there are a limited number of print patterns and styles of banana-fiber fabric available.


From a durability standpoint, banana fiber is a lot like cotton. Although the banana-fiber fabric harvested from the inner stalks of the banana plant stems is quite soft and supple, it is not as strong and durable as pretty much any fabric except rayon. Even the banana-fiber cloth made from the tough outer sheath is still not nearly as tough and durable as hemp, bamboo, or other natural fibers. Banana fiber is also not notably bacteria resistant or odor resistant, and it is not particularly insulating.