What is jute? Uses and impact of this sustainable fabric


Jute is a natural fiber derived from the jute plant. While you might not know its official name, you might recognize a term more commonly associated with this fabric: “burlap”.

The appeal of jute is manifold: not only is this plant-based fabric biodegradable and produced with a minimal carbon footprint, it also offers tangible benefits for the environment.

Jute is the second most produced vegetable fiber – the ever popular cotton ranks first. Jute is well known for its strength and durability, although this coarse fabric is not as commonly used in clothing as it is in industrial and storage materials.

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Vegetable fibers offer distinct advantages to synthetic fibers, including their non-corrosive nature, high weight resistance and durability. For this reason, plant fibers are becoming increasingly popular as a source of clothing textiles, with parts of the fashion world taking an environmentally conscious stance.

How is jute made?

There are different varieties of jute plants. The two main types are white jute and dark jute, also known as tossa jute. The jute plant requires special growing conditions and soil, to be grown in hot, humid climates that have annual monsoon seasons.


Jute field in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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The growing conditions for jute are very similar to those for rice. In total, 85% of global jute production takes place in the Ganges Delta, particularly in the West Bengal region in India. China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand are among the other major jute producing countries.

Jute fiber comes from the stalk and outer skin of the jute plant, which grows into tall, single stems. The plant needs to grow for about four to six months, after which the harvest begins. Harvesting usually takes place after the plant has flowered.

Although jute is primarily known for its fiber, every part of the plant can be used. The jute leaves are cooked in water and eaten as a vegetable, while the remaining stick can be used as fuel or building material.


Sun drying raw jute fiber in Assam, India.
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After harvesting the jute plant, there is a multi-step process to prepare the fibers before they can be used for the fabric. The stems are soaked in water for about 20 days, a process called retting, which helps the fibers separate from the stem. After the retting is complete, the long, shiny fibers can be separated from the stem and combed into long strings. The fibers are then spun into yarn on looms.

After spinning, several potential finishing steps can be taken. Jute yarn can be dyed or applied with chemical processes to make it resistant to fire or water.

After this last step, the jute fibers are then sent to textile factories, where they are used to make industrial clothing and textiles. Jute fibers can be woven on both electric looms and manual looms to create mats, rugs and a diverse range of other textiles, all made in unique weaves.

Jute fabric and how it is used

Jute is a durable, rough fabric that can be used in a number of ways, including in clothing, agriculture, industry, floor coverings and housewares. Jute fiber is thick and easy to work with, and also happens to be very breathable, making it ideal for hot and humid climates.

Clothes

Due to its rough nature, jute is not as commonly used in clothing, especially in Western countries. In India and other South Asian countries, however, jute has had cultural significance for centuries and is more commonly used as a clothing textile.

While most types of jute fibers are light brown, there are also white forms of jute, which are popular choices when using jute for clothing.

In earlier Indian culture, jute fabric was generally associated with the lower classes largely due to its affordability. Jute fabric was also a major component used to create a ghillie suit, which is more or less an old military uniform used to help snipers blend in with the natural landscape.

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Today, however, high-end designers are starting to appreciate the environmental angle and the appeal of jute design. Advanced techniques for processing jute are also making it increasingly accessible, leading to the rise of clothing such as jute jackets, cardigans and sweaters. In Indian culture, jute is made into printed kurtis, tunics and sarees.

Crafts, furniture and beyond

There is great diversification in the utility of jute fabric apart from clothing textiles. Jute fabric is a lighter form of burlap fabric, which is generally used to make burlap bags. Burlap can also be made from hemp or sisal fibers. For a long time, burlap bags have been used to transport fruits, vegetables, grains and other goods.

The utility of jute also extends beyond hessian bags. Burlap has been used as an insulation in floor coverings and for transporting goods. In agricultural applications, jute has been used to control erosion and weeds, as well as to protect seeds. The roots of the saplings are wrapped in jute for protection when transplanted, and due to its biodegradable nature, the roots of the saplings can grow through the jute fabric without resistance.

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Jute is used to make furniture, chair covers, rugs, curtains, and other furnishings. Furniture wrapped in jute rope, like a headboard, swivel chair, or hammock, is a fantastic addition to a bohemian-inspired space. The natural, textured style of jute is an elegant accent against soft linens and plush pillows.

Although the fibers can be dyed in almost any color, jute is commonly used in its natural shade, which is a light beige or golden shade. When mixed with other fibers, jute can make twine, twine and rope.

Jute is also a popular material used in crafts and creative DIY projects. This textured fabric can be used to make coasters, placemats or to accent a flower vase.

Environmental impact

Beyond its versatility, jute offers many environmental benefits. The plant requires minimal use of fertilizers and pesticides, especially compared to cotton, which reduces environmental side effects. In addition, the jute plant is renewable, and the remnants of roots and leaves that fall from the plant enrich the soil and increase its fertility.

Jute fabric is easy to produce and the process has less of an impact on the environment than many synthetic materials. In general, natural fibers, including jute, hemp, and flax, have a lower carbon footprint than glass and mineral fibers. Even the expired fiber of jute can be recycled more than once, making every aspect of jute, from seed to expired fiber, durable.

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Jute is very beneficial for the environment in many ways. Through the processes of carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen emission, the the jute plant helps to purify the air. Each hectare of jute absorbs around 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide and releases 11 tonnes of oxygen.

Environmentally conscious businesses are drawn to jute because the fibers are 100% biodegradable, which means that any product made from jute fibers will completely decompose at the end of the product’s life cycle.

Not only is every part of the plant used, but it even offers nutritional benefits. Jute leaves contain vitamin C, calcium and iron, they are rich in antioxidants and are also used in Ayurvedic treatments.

Alternatives to jute

Jute is a distinct fiber with unique characteristics, although some comparisons can be drawn between jute and other natural fibers, including sisal fiber. Sisal is another plant fiber commonly used in the weaving of baskets and mats, as well as in the manufacture of linings and ropes.

Jute is softer than sisal, which makes it softer and easier to work with. However, sisal is more durable and easier to clean and also grows more easily in a variety of soil types.

While the rigid nature of sisal fiber does not make it a viable substitute for jute fabric, this environmentally friendly fiber can replace jute for rugs, rugs and more industrial products with fewer limitations on the regions in which it can grow.

The future of jute

Despite its many advantages, jute fabric also has some disadvantages. The fabric can be brittle, tends to shed fibers, turns yellow in the sun and does not drape particularly well. For its more industrial uses, these qualities matter less. For clothing, however, these drawbacks are greater and can be seen as a deterrent to designers and clothing companies who may prefer to use softer, easier to work with fabrics.

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Fortunately, there are ways to overcome some of the challenges of jute. Castor oil based lubricants can minimize yellowing, and jute can also be treated with enzymes to reduce some of its stiffness. After being processed, jute can also be dyed more easily. Natural colors become much more vivid in jute when dyed after the enzymatic treatment. These processes make the jute fabric easier to work with when it comes to creating clothes.

With a growing celebration of all that is sustainable and a steady increase in innovation in the fashion industry, designers and apparel companies can incorporate more and more environmentally friendly practices into their clothing, including the fibers used.

Such advances are diversifying jute products, which are becoming increasingly valuable in the consumer market. Espadrilles, cardigans, sweaters, rugs and high-end textiles are among the jute products emerging in the market. Advanced processing techniques and creative designers may well make jute the fabric of the future.


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