Sisal rope comprises natural fibers from the Agave sisalana plant. The sisal plant is a tall, flowering plant. It produces about 1,000 fibers used to create sisal rope and other products. Sisal rope must go through decortication to remove the fibers from the leaves. Decortication involves crushing and washing the leaves, leaving only the fibers behind.
The exact origin of Sisal is unknown, but it likely originated in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Aztecs and Mayans used sisal for centuries. Then, the Spanish invaded Mexico and brought sisal to Europe. Eventually, sisal production made its way to Tanzania. Tanzania is now the largest producer of sisal.
The main uses of sisal are for crafts and pet toys. There is much debate about using sisal rope with your pets. Most people seem to agree it’s safe for cats and rabbits. The flexible nature of sisal rope makes it an excellent choice for crafts like macrame. Sisal rope also works in marine, industrial, and agricultural applications.
What Is Sisal Rope?
Sisal rope comes from the flowering plant Agave sisalana, native to Southern Mexico. The leaves are sword-shaped and arranged in a rosette pattern. The entire plant is about 4.8-6.5 ft (1.5-2 m) tall. The leaves are gray to dark green. Each leaf is about 2-6 ft (0.6-1.8 m) long and 4-7 in (10-18 cm) wide.
After about four to eight years, the plant sends up a flower stalk that can reach 20 ft (6 m) in height. The stalk produces yellow flowers that form thick clusters at the end of the branches. Each flower is about 2.5 in (6 cm) long and has a foul odor.
As the flower begins to die, the buds develop into small plants called bulbils. Eventually, the bulbils fall to the ground, taking root and growing into a new plant. The original plant then proceeds to die.
Each plant lives for about seven to ten years. One plant produces about 200-250 usable leaves throughout its lifetime. Each leaf contains about 1,000 fibers which we use to create rope and other products.
Agave sisalana is the sister plant to Agave Azul, which we use to make tequila.
Sisal rope is about 20% weaker than manila rope, another natural fiber rope. Still, sisal is resistant to UV rays. It is good at holding strong knots but doesn’t stretch much.
Sisal Fiber Extraction
In most places, to extract the fibers, the sisal plant must go through “decortication.” During decortication, the leaves are crushed and beaten with a machine-operated roller. The leftover leaves are brushed away with a rotating wheel and blunt knives.
Next, workers scrape the pulp from the fibers, and the fibers are washed and dried. The resulting fibers are creamy white and about 40-50 in (100-125 cm) in length. Though the fibers are long, they are coarse and relatively inflexible.
In East Africa, decortication occurs by washing the leaf parts away from the fiber with water. Decortication in East Africa appears on estates in large plants.
After decortication, sisal fiber is dried, brushed, and baled. Artificial drying produces higher-quality sisal fiber than sun drying. The quality of the fiber depends mainly on the drying process and the moisture content in the fibers.
History Of Sisal Rope
Officially, the sisal plant is recognized as coming from the Yucatan Peninsula. Still, there are no official records of the plants growing there. Instead, there are records of the plants being shipped from the port of Sisal in Yucatan. The port was a Spanish colonial-run port at the time. Today, plantations in Yucatan grow henequen (Agave fourcroydes). Henequen grows fibers resembling sisal.
Howard Scott Gentry is a famous botanist. He believed the plants likely originated in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. There is evidence that the local villagers used the plant’s fibers. It likely was a cross between the Agave kewensis and Agave Angustifolia plants.
The Aztecs and the Mayans used the fibers of the sisal plant to make paper and textiles. During this time, the Mayans referred to the plant as “Yaxci.”
Sisal Comes To Europe
Sisal came to Europe after Spain conquered Mexico in the 16th century. Demand for sisal began to increase with the invention of the grain binder machine in 1880. The machine made it easier and quicker to manufacture fibers. It also upped the demand for cheap twine.
Sisal Comes To Tanzania
In 1893, sisal cultivation reached East Africa. The plant easily grows in hot, dry conditions. Sisal was brought to Tanzania by Dr. Richard Hindorf, a German agronomist. Hindorf attempted to transport 1,000 plants from Mexico to Tanzania, but only 62 survived. Still, those 62 plants took off and formed an entire industry in Tanzania. Tanzania is now the world’s second-largest producer of sisal.
In the 1960s, sisal was the primary source of Tanzania’s economy. It contributed to about 65% of the country’s foreign exchange. The people of Tanzania thought of sisal as “white gold.” They produced about 200,000 tonnes of the plant in the 60s and 70s.
Sisal Continues To Spread
Florida, Brazil, and the Caribbean Islands also began cultivating sisal. These areas began their cultivation sometime in the 19th century. Around the same time, cultivation also began in Asia. Around 1880, cultivation reached Cuba.
Brazil started to plant sisal crops in the 1930s and exported its products in 1948. Production of Brazilian sisal boomed in the 1960s. The boost in production occurred when they established professional spinning mills.
Shortly after sisal came to Brazil, other countries began producing it, too:
Brazil continues to be the primary producer of sisal today. Every year, Brazil produces about 125,000 tonnes of sisal fiber. Other significant producers include Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya.
Today, the plant grows across other parts of Mexico as well as around the world. Some other places it grows includes:
- The Canary Islands
- Central America.
Modern Sisal Production
The rise of synthetics, like plastic, began near the end of the 19th century. With it came the fall of sisal and other natural materials. In Tanzania, the price of sisal dropped very low. Today, we are more aware of the damage synthetic fibers are causing. Sisal is making a comeback, and manufacturers are again seeing a profit.
Uses Of Sisal Rope
Sisal is a strong, elastic, and durable material that makes it ideal for use as twine. Historically, it was mainly used for binder and baler twine. Sisal is also excellent at absorbing dyes for added color. It also resists degradation with use around saltwater.
Sisal Rope For Cats
Sisal ropes are one of the most popular products for making cat scratching posts. The ropes or twine are wrapped around the scratching post. The coarse fibers are enriching for the scratching instincts of cats.
Scratching posts are safe for cats, but avoid using toys made from sisal rope. Cats may swallow the fibers while playing, which can cause obstruction.
Is Sisal Rope Safe For Dogs?
The use of rope toys is highly debated in the dog world. Some experts claim it to be safe, while others warn against ever using it. Sisal is a natural fiber that is non-toxic. As long as the rope is not treated with chemicals, it is technically safe for dogs.
The trouble comes when dogs swallow the fibers. Most small pieces of toys easily pass through the digestive system. Rope fibers get stuck in the digestive tract, causing life-threatening issues. It is up to you to weigh the risks against the benefits. Most dogs won’t eat ropes, but the possibility is always there.
Is Sisal Rope Safe For Birds?
As with dogs, veterinarians recommend against using fibers for your birds. Most birds pick at rope fibers and spit them out, but some swallow them. Swallowed fibers can lead to impaction. The main causes of impaction are cotton threads, plastic threads, and hair strands. Still, natural rope fibers like sisal can cause the same problems.
Ingestion issues seem to be particularly prominent with cockatiels and lorikeets.
Besides ingestion, rope fibers can get wrapped around a bird’s leg or neck. Birds can end up strangled or needing their legs amputated.
Is Sisal Rope Safe For Rabbits?
Unlike dogs and birds, sisal rope is perfectly safe for rabbit toys. The natural fibers of sisal rope are much like hay, which rabbits chew and eat daily for a healthy diet. As they munch on sisal, the fiber breaks down into small pieces which the rabbit can safely swallow. These small pieces won’t get stuck in the digestive system as long, whole threads would.
Crafts & Home Goods
High-grade sisal fibers are treated and made into yarn used to make carpets. The yarn is durable and practical for carpets in high-traffic areas. Sisal doesn’t produce static, and it doesn’t accumulate dust.
The rope is flexible and easy on the hands. So, it is ideal for creating decorative home furnishings. Common macrame designs include hanging shelves, hanging plant hangers, and chairs.
How To Dye Sisal Rope
The best way to dye your sisal rope is to use liquid or powder packet dye. Follow these steps to dye your rope:
- Seal the ends with hot glue or a rubberband to prevent the rope from fraying when it gets wet.
- Fill a bucket half to three-quarters full with hot water.
- Add the liquid or powder dye to the water and mix thoroughly. Use as little or as much dye as you want.
- Completely submerge the rope into the water.
- Allow your rope to soak for about 15-30 minutes to absorb the dye.
- Remove the rope with tongs or a fork.
- Rinse the rope, beginning with warm water and slowly transitioning to cold water. Continue rinsing and wringing your rope until the water runs clear.
- Place the rope on some paper towels and allow it to dry thoroughly.
Can You Paint Sisal Rope?
Another way to dye your sisal rope is to use paint. The paint doesn’t soak into the rope as well as a traditional dye, but it’s a good option if you have lots of paint on hand.
Follow these directions to dye your sisal rope with paint:
- Wrap the length of the rope around your hand to create a loose ball.
- Fill a bowl with about 8 oz of warm water.
- Add 1 tbsp of your chosen paint to the water and mix thoroughly.
- Completely submerge the rope into the paint mixture and let it soak for 15-30 minutes. Do not leave the rope in the mixture for more than an hour, or the fibers will begin to break down. Occasionally stir the paint mixture and rope.
- Using a fork or tongs, remove the rope from the paint mixture.
- Place the rope on a paper towel to dry for about five minutes.
- Untangle the rope and rewrap it.
- Sit the rope on a paper towel and allow it to dry completely.
Other Uses Of Sisal Rope
Sisal ropes are often used in industrial, marine, and agricultural applications:
- Petroleum exploitation
Sisal VS Other Natural Ropes
Consult this chart to compare jute rope with other nature ropes:
Comparison Of Natural Ropes
|Shrinks When Wet||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Resistant To UV||Good||Good||Good||Good||Good|
Does Sisal Rope Shrink When Wet?
Sisal rope is a natural fiber that absorbs a lot of water and shrinks when wet. It’s a good idea to “pre-shrink” your sisal rope if you plan to use it outside or in wet conditions. Pre-shrinking involves soaking your rope, so it shrinks before use. Shrinking your rope before use leaves you with a more accurate length to work with.
What Does Sisal Rope Smell Like?
A lot of sisal rope is treated with oils to make it more resistant to the weather. So, it often smells like oil or chemicals. Untreated sisal doesn’t smell good either, as the plant gives off a foul odor. Still, untreated sisal has a more recognizable, natural scent.
How Long Does Sisal Rope Last Outside?
Sisal rope is susceptible to degradation when exposed to the elements. While dry sisal may last several years, sisal left outside is only likely to last a few months. Sisal treated with oil or another protectant may last a few months longer.