Benefits of Bast Fibres

Blog By Dermot Moore
What is bast fibre?

Bast fibre is a strong woody fibre obtained chiefly from the phloem of plants and used especially in cordage, matting, and fabricsExamples include flax, hemp, jute, miscanthus, ramie, cereal straw and nettle.

We will look primarily at flax, hemp, and nettle within a UK framework.

Flax 

Flax has an abundance of applications, from food to fabrics and textiles, which also existed in ancient European societies due to its adaptability to different soils and suits temperate climates. However, flax is a labour-intensive crop which may have contributed to its phasing out as new synthetic options become available and abundant in the textile and fabric industries. This transition was in the UK between the latter half of the 19th century and mid 20th century, during which time British flax production fell drastically, from a production spanning 320,000 acres to a tenth of the size by 1930. 

Yet, all is not lost. Today flax has gained new popularity as a food supplement, and the rising popularity of sustainable farming practices has increased considerations around harnessing flax to improve crop systems. As focus turns to enhancing crop rotation systems, flax has an opportunity to shine. Flax thrives in more diverse and prolonged crop rotations. However, flax can prove less effective if placed in the same spot more than once within three years.

Aside from its role as an agricultural remodeler, flax still serves a purpose within the textile industry, offering a much more robust alternative to wool and cotton products.

Hemp

Hemp is perhaps the most contentious bast fibre in Europe, which is apparent from extra regulation growers face when attempting to start production. Also, if you asked someone on the street about hemp, there is a high likelihood that its psychoactive relative would get a mention. However, attitudes are fast-changing as education, and successful hemp ventures gain greater media attention. As bast fibres go, hemp offers more significant aid to agroecological systems than flax. Firstly, it is less soil exhaustive, meaning it can be placed more frequently in a crop rotation system. Hemp is also particularly deep-rooted, invigorating the soil, increasing its solidity and reducing parasites (fungi, worms etc.), which means fewer pesticides and fertilisers are required on the specific land area. Hemp also offers near-total shade over the soil, significantly reducing the chances of weed growth.

There are also countless historical examples of hemp’s sturdiness in action, serving as a valuable sailing material for ships themselves and sailors’ clothing. Hemp fabric is particularly resistant to degradation from saltwater and sunlight exposure. Modern interactions with hemp have swung more in the direction of construction and packaging, as it offers a more sustainable alternative to materials such as plastic and concrete. These industries appear most effective at changing the stigma around hemp. Who knows? Perhaps we will see a complete turn around to the days of old when hemp was announced by royal decree under Henry VIII to be a most valuable economic resource, and farmers were to set aside a specific area of their land to cultivate it. 

Nettle

Nettle, like hemp, has its own stigma around it. Often seen as a weed and an invasive pest on farms, nettle’s agricultural and material benefits are often overlooked. Its stinging nature does little to increase one’s fondness for this plant. However, nettle can serve as a valuable crop within a rotation system and a wild counterpart to domesticated crops. This latter part relates to our interaction with wild nettles that tend to grow along field margins. Wild nettles attract insects to the edge of fields, which may otherwise harm crops.

Controlled nettles can also be harvested and applied instead of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; this does not just improve the local biome; it also reduces health risks to humans, such as reproductive harm, cancers and immune attack. Nettles grow abundantly in the UK and across most regions where the climate is temperate and damp.

Its nature as a bast fibre is also relevant. The strong, deep-rooted systems that crops like hemp, flax and nettle possess permit them greater consolidation and resilience than other, more shallow-rooted crops. With the risk of rising constraints around imported resources due to environmental change, nettle may become a vital resource within the UK and European agriculture.