Year of Natural Fibers Series – May: Kudzu

Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle student and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

May 2019 –  KUDZU: 

Kudzu

Have you ever been to parts of the south and seen a green vine growing up the side of an old building, trees or a telephone pole? It can be easily looked over if small enough, but other times, you can find green, twisted mounds of this climbing up pretty much anything. There are many rumors of what the tangled growths do – things like offering homes to breeding snakes, swallowing entire towns, or growing so fast that no one can contain it’s rapid conquering of all civilization (note the sarcasm here).

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about Kudzu, that vine that carries with it an extremely negative connotation to those who know it. Known to many as the “vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an invasive species here in the United States, first introduced by the Japanese at the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and then spreading in the 30’s after it became a popular garden element. Yes, it is a rather quickly growing vine that made its home here many years ago. But you could argue that there are more mysterious tales about this vine than there is factual knowledge about the plant. Kudzu is indeed a natural fiber that has an interesting use.

In the 30’s, kudzu was used to fight the devastating dust storms that ravaged southern fields. The Soil Erosion Service gave approximately 85 million kudzu plants to southern landowners and the Civilian Conservation Corps did their part by planting it throughout the south. But while the surge of plantings helped remedy soil erosion, what the government programs didn’t realize is that the Japanese, the original cultivators, regularly harvested it. That fed into the invasive issue that we see today. However, with an increased supply of kudzu, some are seeing it less as a blight and more as an opportunity.

Kudzu flower

The plant has many inherent uses – animal fodder, starch and papermaking, for starters. It can be used for healing purposes, as some cite Kudzu more versatile than ginseng. It is said it can treat things like alcoholism and hangovers, to colds and upset stomachs. But the reason why we’re discussing the vine here is of course its fibrous qualities.

Artists like North Carolina resident Matt Tommey use kudzu for basket making. Tommey uses many invasive vines like kudzu, honeysuckle, bittersweet, grapevine and english ivy to craft homemade pieces that are perfect examples of how we can turn an invasive species into a work of art. Check out his work here: http://www.matttommey.com/how-to-weave-a-basket.html. And in Japan today, artisans are still using kudzu as a form of cloth. While shiny and supple, the fabric that comes from the vine is not especially durable. Therefore, kudzu-based clothing is used in ceremonious occasions.


Sources:

https://www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/24498-from-enemy-to-ally-kudzu-camp-seeks-to-overturn-misconceptions

http://www.matttommey.com/how-to-weave-a-basket.html

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/true-story-kudzu-vine-ate-south-180956325/