Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Herb of the Week: Agave

Agave americana
Agave, Century Plant, Maguey

It is odd given my lifelong interest in both plants and nearly every art and craft known to man that I haven't done more in harvesting and creating botanical-based dyes and fibers. But after taking a workshop a few years back that focused on Native American cord and rope making, I like to occasionally try making cords from scratch - all the way from harvesting the raw plant materials. Last year I had the opportunity to work with fibers from an Agave americana plant.

I was inspired by a YouTube video linked in the Learn More section below. It shows a Kichwa man harvesting fibers from agave. He is a master and makes it look easy. I assure you, I struggled and took far more than the 7 minutes he did in the video! But thankfully, I did my homework and did more research than watching one YouTube video. It seems the sap from A. americana can cause contact dermatitis. In fact the horror stories of people who took chainsaws to such plants abound. So I took precautions and wore rubber gloves during my fiber harvesting. Unfortunately I got some fresh sap (unbeknownst to me) on my sleeves and when I hiked up the sleeves, I ended up with that dermatitis. Not fun!

See the pictures below for the story of how I make rope from this plant.

Learn More:
Plants for a Future: Agave americana
Wikipedia: Agave americana
Dave's Garden: Agave americana
YouTube: Indigenous people of Ecuador harvesting agave fibers

Agave Rope Making:

This is the agave plant. See detail of spiny leaf tip. These pretty blue-green leaves also sport sharp thorns along the leaves. (Plant location: Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park)

After some scraping away of the fresh plant material, the long white fibers can be seen in the leaves. The fibers and their arrangement can also be seen in the cut edge of the leaf. Agave is an exceptional fiber plant.


After the bulk of the fleshy, soft plant material was scrapped away, I left the fibers to dry. After drying I found the fibers far too "prickly" and suspected that the oxalate crystals (which cause the dermatitis) were still too present. So I decided that retting may make the fibers more friendly to the touch. After a few weeks, I found the fibers better to work with. Below are some finished, ready to be worked fibers.

 Now for the fun part, making the cord. I used an S-twist or two-ply style. (Want to try it? See directions here.) You can twist it with your fingers or by rolling on your knee.

Finished cord! Like to get an idea as to what this fiber is like? Sisal ropes are made from another species of agave (Agave sisalana) and should be relatively easy to find.