Also known as ‘china grass’, ramie has historically been used throughout China for apparel, as well as by the Ancient Egyptians for mummy wraps and shrouds. It is used for sewing threads, fishing nets, filter cloths, furnishings and other textiles.
Ramie is resistant to bacteria, mildew, rotting and insect attack, therefore it doesn’t require chemicals to grow and is biodegradable, providing it has been combined with natural dyes. When used in textiles, ramie can withstand high temperatures of water and is well suited to conventional laundering. In fact, washing even improves its smooth appearance. The anti-shrinkage capacity makes it a good material to blend with wool and to strengthen other fibres, with a tensile strength eight times greater than cotton. Ramie’s lined appearance resembles linen, owing to the various strand lengths of its fibres. This contributes to the versatility of the fibre, making it suitable for all kinds of garments, from dresses to sportswear.
Producing ramie can be costly as the raw fibre is enshrouded in an adhesive gum, meaning that it must undergo a chemical cleansing process to extract it for use, consequently ramie isn’t widely used for textiles. Some alternatives to chemical extraction include: pounding, heating and washing however these processes are both labour and energy intensive. Though the appearance of ramie is white, lustrous and fine, the consistency is stiff and brittle. A remedy for this is to spin the yarn when wet, leading to a softer feel. Additionally, unlike other natural fibres, ramie’s high productivity rapidly depletes the soil it grows in.
Caustic soda de-gumming is the most widely practiced process for extracting the fibre from its adhesive gum. Sadly, this process is not eco-friendly. Instead, choose fibres that have been extracted using enzymes or alternatively peracetic acid, to protect the environment.