AGAVE / IXTLE / MAGUEY FIBER
Agave fiber, also known as maguey or ixtle, usually refers to blue agave, the same plant from which tequila is distilled. Agave is part of the Agavaceae family of plants. The textile obtained from the agave plants is cellulose fiber made from the plant’s processed leaves.
The name difference derives from history. Mexicans called the agave plant metl, Purepechas named it akamba, and Zapotecans doba or toba. After the Spanish conquest, they changed the name to maguey because that is how the Antillas locals referred to sabila. Spanish realized that they all shared common characteristics: rosette shape, pointy ends, green, and thorns. Agave comes from the Greek Άγαυή, which means ‘admirable’, ‘noble’, or ‘illustrious’; the name was given due to the plant’s diversity and innumerable uses.
Agave plants grow in the desert areas of South America, Central America, Mexico, and some parts of the Southwest United States. Not only propose a sustainable alternative to textile development, but they also pose a new use for usually thrown-away agave leaves.
Agave stands out by its low density, high tenacity, and high moisture absorbency in comparison with other leaf fibers. The fibers of the plant are long and biodegradable. Therefore, their flexibility to be manufactured from threads to technical applications is endless. Agave plants have to grow for three years before they can be harvested. Commonly known to extract Tequila, they have an 8-30 years lifespan; each year, an average of between 40-50 leaves are obtained from each plant. From a hectare, 6 tons of fiber can be extracted. Its color ranges from milky white to golden yellow, making its dying relatively docile.
Once the leaves are ready for extraction, the thorns and the leaf’s spine are removed; the leaves have to be thoroughly washed before drying. An accurate drying is needed because it will affect the fiber’s moisture and quality. They can be dried either in the sun, shade or artificially; the latter, will contain a higher fiber. Only the shade-dried fibers will be almost white as they are not dyed by the sun. The dried fibers will be combed, sorted by grades, and packed.
Fiber removal, washing, and drying must be done promptly after the leaves are cut; otherwise, the gums within harden and the pulp will adhere to the fibers, making the cleaning process almost impossible. Rural communities make a manual process, from decortication, and pounding, to removing the pulp with a knife. Because decortication requires a large amount of time and manpower, this can also be done mechanically. With the machine’s help, the leaves are crushed by a rotating wheel with blunt knives, so only the remains of the fibers are extracted. Some machines can decorticate the whole leaf in one single insert.
Agave is truly a plant that can benefit in such a large range of aspects. Among the many subproducts, some highlight the list. The pulp can be an organic fertilizer or turned into paper; leaves juice can be produced into soaps, fungicides, alcoholic beverages, organic fuel, or animal food; the flower stem is so strong it can be utilized in the construction of houses and ladders; the little pickled bulbs are edible; and, it can also be applied in medicinal procedures.
DIFFERENCE TO FIQUE FIBER
Agave should not be confused with Fique. Even though, a similar fiber can be obtained from both; agave has yellowish stiff leaves with a strong spike at the tips, while Fique’s leaves are greenish and drop to the floor and lack tip spikes.
Because of fique’s similarity with agave, its processing is quite similar. The fique plants also require three years of growth before being harvested. Once the fresh leaves have been picked up, they are shredded into thin threads and sun-dried. It is crucial to comb and lay them in the same direction to obtain a soft and uniform texture. A comb made out of nails is used for this process; as is the case with the agave fiber, this, also, requires a lot of physical work. The fiber needs to be stretched and evenly spread. Subsequently, the threads are twisted to obtain skeins of fique, which will be weaved in a variety of techniques, from crocheting to a loom.
Lissete Montealegre, a Mexico City resident whose online zero-waste store sells ixtle items. This tension highlights a contradiction at the heart of the movement for sustainable products.
The zero-waste movement has had a lot to do with rescuing natural materials and fibers, but I feel it is an issue with two sides. On the one hand, we are supporting their recovery, but on the other, their exploitation.”
Explore items using maguey fibers
Both Colombian design brands Mola Sasa as well as Matamba are using the natural fiber as a material for for jewelry as well as bags.