Fabulous Fibers

Baskets made of various plant fibers.

What is a plant Fiber?

A selection of products made from native plant fibers, including baskets, ceremonial objects, tools, weapons, and clothing.
Wide array of products made from native plant fibers. Photo by Cheryl Beyer.

Two photos: basket with lid and latch in foreground, and two baskets, corn, and a kachina doll in background.
Cattails are used for weaving baskets, mats, raincoats, and baby diapers. It is also an important food plant. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

It is clear that plants are essential to animal life and form the bulk of most human diets, providing a diversity of food through digestible carbohydrates. However, not all carbohydrates are digestible. Indigestible carbohydrates are known as fibers.

Fibers are long cells with thick walls and tapering ends. The cell wall often contain lignin an cellulose. They are dead at maturity and function as support tissue in plant stems and roots. They come from the outer portion of the stem of fibrous plants such as flax, hemp, and jute, or from the leaves of plants such as cattail, agave, and yucca.

Fibers can be spun into filaments, thread, or rope; be chemically modified to create a composite material (e.g., rayon or cellophane); or matted into sheets as with paper. Fibers derived from plant materials are used to make a wide array of products:

  • Paper
  • Cordage
  • Textiles: clothing, sewing material
  • Baskets
  • Brushes, brooms
  • Mats, rugs, bedding
  • Building materials: roofing, caulking materials
Table 1. - Plants most commonly used by Native Americans for fiber.
Plant Number of Uses
Western Red Cedar 188
Broadleaf cattail 105
Paper Birch 59
Banana Yucca 47
Stinging Nettle 36
White Spruce 35
American basswood 35
Small soapweed 35
Alaska cedar 34
Indian hemp 33

Examples of Fabulous Fibers from Native Plants

Western Red Cedar

Western Red Cedar.
Western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Photo by Susan McDougall @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Bear grass.
Bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax). Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.

Sweet grass.
Sweet grass was often burned to purify dancers in tribal ceremonies.

Paper birch bark.
Paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota tree handbook. USDA NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee.

Three birch bark boxes.
Birch bark is used to make beautiful boxes. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

There are almost 200 uses of western red cedar as a fiber! Fibers from the thick bark of the western red cedar, Thuja plicata, have been most widely utilized. It has been used to make clothes, raingear, mats, ropes, blankets, tinder, sewing thread, and wicks. Fibers are even soft enough to be used as baby diapers.

The smaller, younger roots and narrow flexible twigs and stems have been used in basketry and to make fishing nets. The bark has been used to make everything from mats and cords to canoes and cradles.

Wood from this important species Western red cedar is found from Alaska to northern California, and from the Pacific Ocean to Montana.

Bear Grass

At first glance, bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) looks like a true grass species but this plant is a member of the Lily family. Bear grass leaves were used to make and decorate baskets. Leaves were used to weave patterns into baskets and used for edge trimming on mats. Small leaves were used to make clothing including dresses and hats.

In some Native American tribes, bear grass plants were burned every year to allow for harvest of newly emerging leaves from the charred bases.

Sweet Grass

Sweet grass is another important member of the grass family used by Native Americans. This species was used as a food source, medicine, fiber, decoration, perfume, soap, and was burned as a ceremonial item.

A sacred grass, it was and still is often used in healing ceremonies and peace rituals. Leaves were dried and made into braids and used as vanilla scented incense. It could be chewed as a source of energy to ward off hunger during fasting. People also used this important grass for sewing, basket weaving, and stuffing for pillows and mattresses. Teas were prepared from the plant materials for sore throat and coughs.

Paper Birch

The thin outer bark of paper birch, Betula papyrifera, a small tree of northern North America, has been used to make drinking vessels, canoe skins, baskets, roofing tiles, and buckets. It is waterproof, tough, resinous and durable. Only the thin outer bark is removed. Paper birch bark is easy to recognize since it appears to be peeling

Fun Facts

  • The outer bark of paper birch has been used in an emergency as sun-glasses in order to prevent snow-blindness. A strip of bark is placed over the eyes, and the natural openings (lenticels) in the bark serve as apertures for the eyes.
  • Birch bark was used to cover tepees.
  • Birch wood was used to make snowshoes.
  • Birch bark is used to make boxes.
  • Sheets of birch bark where sewn together to make waterproofing for wigwams.

Yuccas

Banana yucca.
Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) plants growing in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains on the Cibola National Forest. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Yuccas are members of the Agave family, which have enjoyed a wide range of ethnobotanical uses. Yuccas have very specialized pollination systems that require the yucca moth for seed production.

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) is preferred over other yuccas because of the strength of its fibers. Individual fibers from yuccas were produced by soaking leaves in water, then pounding them with wooden clubs on flat rocks. After rinsing away the softened pulp, the remaining fiber filaments were twisted together into threads.

Yucca fiber and threads were used to construct sandals, ropes, mats, clothing, nets, hairbrushes, mattresses, and baskets. The tough leaf fibers could also be braided into ropes.

Soapweed, Yucca glauca, also had historical significance to indigenous people as a medicinal and fiber source. The stiff, pointed leaves could be split and used to make baskets. Leaf fibers have been used to make brushes, cords, and ropes. The sharp leaf points have been used as sewing needles.

A tray made of beargrass and yucca with a lizard design.
Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Fiber Art

The Tohono O’odham people of Arizona extensively use yucca fibers in their basketry. This beautiful tray is made from fibrous bundles of beargrass (Nolina) leaves coiled with dried yellow and fresh green yucca leaves. The pods from Devil’s claw (Proboscidea parviflora ssp. parviflora) are the source of the striking black designs in the center and rim of the basket.

Did You Know?

American basswood leaves.
American basswood (Tilia americana). Photo by Paul Wray @ Forestryimages.org.

  • Stinging nettle plants were dried and used to make twine, ropes, and herring nets
  • The roots of White Spruce were used to sew canoes and snowshoes
  • American basswood was important for wigwam construction and framework, used to make twine that was used to tie the poles of wigwams together. The knots were tied when the bark was wet, and once dry, the knots shrank making the joint tighter.
  • Indian hemp was used to make bridle ropes, bowstrings, and threads for sewing buckskins.

Other Plant Fiber Uses

Maori dancers.
Flax leaves are woven into garments by the Maori peoples of New Zealand. Photo by Nancy Cotner.

Shallow Pine needle tray.
Shallow pine needle tray made from longleaf pine and bark. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Sweetgrass baskets.
Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

The Low Country of South Carolina is renowned for its coiled sweetgrass baskets. A tradition brought over by West African slaves 300 years ago, it is still practiced today by master artisans.

The “sweetgrass” (Muhlenbergia filipes) grows along the southeastern coastal plain. The sweetgrass baskets are coiled with bulrushes, pine needles, or palmetto fronds.

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