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Natural Fibers

Fibers of both plant and animal origins have been utilized since the beginning of human civilization. They have been used to provide shelter and clothing to shield us against the extremities of nature and paper to record history. A host of household utility items like baskets, sacks, ropes, and rugs have also been made through them as is still done in rural areas of the developing world. In contemporary times, natural fibers form an important component of the clothing and home textiles and are increasingly being used in industrial applications which range from paper and packaging to composite materials used in automobile parts. In several developing countries, the proceeds from the sale and export of natural fibers contributes significantly to the income and food security of marginal farmers and others in the field of processing and marketing natural fiber.

The widespread use of synthetic fibers increased since the 1960s, caused a corresponding decline in the market share of natural fibers. Producers and processors in the labour intensive natural fibers sector had to face up to the challenge of competing with cheaper and more durable synthetic fibers.

However the shortcomings of highly consumerist and inorganic lifestyles of the industrialized nations have loomed large with the manifestation of phenomenon like ozone layer depletion and global-warming. This has resulted in the advent of a more environment sensitive regime in the west, which calls for a global shift towards renewable resources and clean, green technologies and products. Natural fibers are a significant aspect of this paradigm shift.

Status of Natural Fibers in Uttarakhand

There are around 95 different kinds of plant origin fibers available in the whole of Uttarakhand. Of this bunch, only a few are found to grow in abundance and are linked intrinsically to the tribal communities as part of the living craft cultures. While some level of economic activity is being undertaken centered on these fibers, pilot case studies have demonstrated the potential for industrialization and commercialization of this sector. Most prominent fibre species on which different institutions, NGOs have been working are Rambans (Agave cantala), Bhimal (Grewia optiva), Industrial Hemp, (Cannabis sativa L.), Stinging Nettle (Gerardinia diversifolia), etc.

Hemp: (Cannabis sativa L.)

hempHemp is a commonly used term for variety of products which include fibre, oil and seed. Hemp is refined into products like hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp and fuel. Industrial cannabis (industrial hemp) comprises a number of varieties of Cannabis sativa L. that are intended for agricultural and industrial purposes. Industrial cannabis is characterized by low THC content and high cannabidiol (CBD) content. THC is the primary psychoactive compound produced by cannabis and non psychoactive CBD is the other most common naturally occurring cannabinoil. Oilseed and fibre varieties of cannabis approved for industrial hemp production produce only minute amounts of these psychoactive drugs not enough for any physical or psychological effect. Typically hemp contains below 0.3 per cent THC while cultivation of cannabis grow for recreational use can contain anywhere from 2 per cent to over 20 per cent. Therefore it is necessary to estimate THC content of cannabis plant to make it suitable for industrial uses.

Industrial Hemp has traditionally been cultivated in villages of Uttarakhand for household purpose. According to the information collected during field research conducted by UBFDB, the villagers specify that there are two types of plants which grow from the same seed; one from which seeds are collected for spices and leaves are utilized for drugs extraction whereas the other plant is used for flowers and fibres. However, this has been observed that fibres are extracted from both the plants. It is maintained that the Hemp species growing for domestic purpose consists less % of narcotics.

Policy on Legalisation of Hemp in Uttarakhand

As per the UP Excise Act, 1910, the plantation of Hemp was not prohibited in British Kumaon and Garhwal districts, which includes all of Kumaon except district Udhamsinghnagar and all of Garhwal except Uttarkashi, Tehri and Haridwar districts. As a fruition of UBFDB’s advocacy efforts and as also a validation of the perpetuation of this law, in May 2005 the Excise Department issued a Government order (GO no. 783/ XXIII/61/aab/31st May 2005) which allows exclusive procurement rights to UBFDB, but lack of clear cut mechanism the order could not come in force due to the narcotic connotations associated with this resource.  Uttarakhand can capitalize on this legal privilege to grow and process Hemp by becoming a pioneering State in India, to have explored the many possibilities of this resource. At the same time it can provide economic employment , through various sub-sectors such as cultivation, collection, extraction, processing, value addition, seed collection, fuel alternatives, etc which are all labour-intensive activities.

A study was carried out by the Uttarakhand Bamboo and Fiber Development Board with the technical support of GBP&A University with the objectives to identify morphological variability and THC content among different lines of Cannabis sativa L. The materials for present study comprised of nine lines procured from natural populations of Kullu, Pitthoragarh, Pauri garhwal, Bageshwar, Almorah, Ramnagar, Rudraprayag, Haldwani, Haridwar.

The key findings of the study revealed the following:

  1. Significant differences were observed for seed weight and seed germination percentage among the different lines. Seed weight was recorded maximum in treatment 3 (Pauri garhwal) (2.13g) whereas it was minimum in treatment 8 (Haldwani) (1.79 g). Seed germination percentage was found to be maximum in treatment 1 (Kullu) (49.62 %) and minimum in treatment 3 (Pauri garhwal) (10.34 %).
  2. Insignificant differences were observed for plant height and number of leaves per plant. The highest plant height was recorded in treatment 4 (Bageshwar) whereas minimum was recorded in treatment 6 (Ramnagar) at 15 and 30 DAS. The maximum number of leaves per plant was found in treatment 6(Ramnagar) while minimum was recorded in treatment 5 (Almorah) at 30 DAS.
  3. Spectrophotometric quantification of THC revealed that treatment 6 (Ramnagar), treatment 1 (Kullu), treatment 2 (Pitthoragarh) lines showed low THC ranging from 0.002-0.300 whereas treatment 5 (Almorah), treatment 9 (Haridwar), treatment 3 (Pauri garhwal) contained medium THC content ranging from 0.301-0.600 while treatment 7 (Rudraprayag), treatment 8 (Haridwar), treatment 4 (Bageshwar) contained high THC ranging from 0.601- 0.900.

Results from ELISA technique showed that treatment 6  (Ramnagar) contained 24.50 µg THC, treatment 1 (Kullu) 23.80 µg THC and treatment  2 (Pitthoragarh) 24.90 µg THC per 100 mg dried cannabis leaves. Therefore these lines were considered as low THC lines whereas treatment 3 (Pauri garhwal) contain 26.00 µg THC, treatment 4 (Bageshwar) 27.00 µg THC, treatment 5 (Almorah) 25.50 µg THC per 100 mg dried cannabis leaves considered as medium THC lines and treatment 7 (Rudraprayag) contain 29.50 µg THC, treatment 8 (Haldwani) 29.50 µg THC per 100 mg dried cannabis leaves were considered as high THC lines.

Bhimal (Grawia Optiva)

bhimal natural fiber Bhimal is a moderate sized tree up to 45 ft high and 5 ft girth, found from Punjab to Bengal and ascending up to an altitude of 7000 feet in the Himalayas.  In Uttarakhand, Bhimal is a popular fodder species. It is found growing abundantly in the wild in the mountains and is also cultivated along boundaries of fields by villagers for its multiple-uses. Its bark yields strong fiber which is used to make nets, ropes, sacs, brushes, brooms and rugs.

There is potential to develop fine yarn from the coarse and uneven fiber that is obtained from it, to be used in the home textile industry. Once the yarn is developed it could have the potential to be used to make mats, rugs, blinds, and lamp shades. It can be especially useful once blended with sisal, jute, and hemp. Currently the use of this fiber is still being researched and a few products have been developed by the professional designers.

Twisting and twining are the regular methods used to create products such as mats, rugs, window blinds, etc. Bhimal exhibits better dye ability than jute. If developed well there is ample potential for innovative products to be developed from this resource, which can take on a state identity.

Agave spp. / Sisal/ Ram bans

rambansBelonging to the Agavacae family, there are 300 species of this plant world-wide. Some of these species yield fiber such as Agave sisalana and hence the name Sisal became a synonym even for other Agave fiber–yielding species. The plant is supposed to be indigenous to the Central Americas. Around the 15th century, this plant spread in Europe, Africa, the Indian peninsula, and central and far east Asia. Though Agaves show a fair degree of adaptability to diverse climatic, edaphic and physical conditions, the warm sub-humid eco region with podzolic and brown forests in the western Himalayan foot hills is suitable for cultivation of agaves.

Agave is a perennial plant, large rosette like shrubs, identified by its 50 to 150 thick spiky long, rigid, spirally arranged, leaves. The spike leaves are bunched together on a short stem. Upon maturation, the plant yields a pale yellowish/shiny white fiber. After growing for a number of years (4-10) a large inflorescence is produced and this exhausts the plant, where upon it dies.  The leaves are cut to yield the fiber.

The leaves of this cactus type plant yield a stiff, thick, uneven and strong fiber. Fiber is extracted from the leaves through decorticator, through which the fiber and other constituents are collected separately. The Agave leaf extract contains roughly 4 % fiber and the remaining 96% residue.

World-wide sisal is used for manufacture of marine and industrial ropes, mats, carpets, decorative handicraft and utility items, reinforcement of corrugated polyester sheets, and textiles. The extracted fiber can also be used to make high quality paper-making pulp. In Brazil, sisal is used to reinforce roofing material. Sisal extract waste is used in manufacture of alcohol, bio-pesticide, bio-compost and also used in manufacture of acids and pharmaceutical products. Sisal is used as a live fencing material and also for soil conservation purposes. Future prospects of the development of this resource include development of a bio-pesticide industry given its insecticidal and antifungal properties.

In the craft sector of Uttarakhand, sisal is used to make hand-braided and machine stitched mats and decorative products. A few NGOs have been working dedicatedly on this  fiber for the past several years, such as Women’s Development Organisation, WDO, Dehra Dun (Dr. Mrs. K.K. Sharma), Girish Griha Resha Udyog, Kotdwar, (Mr. Girish Kandwal) and HOPE, Pilkholi Ranikhet, (Mr. Prakash Joshi). They have successfully demonstrated the commercial potential of Sisal fiber handicrafts.

Himalayan nettle (Girardinia diversifolia):

natural-fiber-1Himalayan Nettle is a grass species, the plant is found in the upper reaches of Himalayas, the plant can attain a height of up to 12 to 18 feet in height. The Plant has been generally found in broad leaf forest, having a high leaf litter fall. Different pockets of Uttarakhand has traditionally used the plant fiber for making domestic products like ropes and other rope based products such as slippers used by, Locally the products like Chappel, Ghana, Natesh, Jotan. Over the years these raw material for these products has been replaced by plastic.

Himalayan Nettle has a unique characteristic that makes it an ideal clothing material for both winters and summers, the fibers of the plant are actually hollow as such they can accumulate air inside thus creating a natural insulation. In order to create clothing material for summers the yarn length can be twisted closing the hollow core and reducing insulation.  In winter with low twist the hollow fiber remains open maintaining a constant temperature. Looking the enormous potential in nettle, Uttarakhand Bamboo and Fiber Development Board is promoting Bhimal, Agev.

Since 2004, Uttaranchal Bamboo and Fiber Development Board (UBFDB) has undertaken feasibility assessment, material research and potential for design diversification in selected Natural Fibers to sensitize the community with strategies for design development and product diversification. In collaboration with leading research agencies such as Indian Institute of Technology, (IIT) Delhi, UBFDB has initiated several research studies on Fiber extraction processes and Tool development with a goal to developing industrial applications of the Natural fibers in the state. Efforts are on to find appropriate methods of fiber extraction. Recently two studies have been conducted by UBFDB at Central Coir Research Institute (CCRI) and National Centre for Jute Diversification (NCJD), Kolkata for the Feasibility analysis of utilizing the existing coir /jute extraction technology in similar applications in Bhimal and Agave.

Sufficient work has been done by the Board to economies the process of conversion of the raw fiber into sellable product range; the product range developed so far has received good response from the experts in the textile industry. It is certain that the product range which has been developed so far which by strict textile standards would require further refinement, however from the view point of handloom industry the product range developed are at par with other handloom based products. The difference between animal fiber based product range on handloom and natural fiber based product range in handloom in both these categories the animal based handloom product range have an upper hand since the fiber at hand is finer and is not affected by the seasonality factor, time of extraction of fiber from animal. The animal fiber does not have to pass from the retting phase, which till date has not been standardized primarily because the raw material collection points are in the upper reaches where accessibility is a key issue, and since transportation is a costly affair in the hills, the next processing phase after harvesting that is water retting is done close to the collection points as such maintaining strict quality standards is a issue that needs to be thought over.