Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibers! Click here to learn more about this year’s theme.
Articles written by La Salle student and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.
March 2019 – COIR:
Have you ever seen a coconut while perusing the produce section at your local grocery store? For residents of the Philadelphia area, coconuts tend to stick out like a sore thumb since we’re so far from the places where coconut trees grow. Don’t be mistaken though – while we think we’re seeing the entirety of what falls from the tree, that’s only the inner part of the whole coconut. What’s discarded before it arrives at your nearest Acme or Whole Foods is a fibrous shell that is the next natural fiber that we’ll be looking at. Coir is its name, and it plays a big part in the world of natural fibers.
Coir is an ancient material that was used heavily by those living in South Asia, especially India. Ropes and cordage, essential elements of ancient ships sailed by Indians and Malaysians in their travels across oceans, were made by coir fibers. So were floor coverings made by English merchants once they discovered the robust fiber. By the mid-1800s, an industry sprang up in India that turned the hard shells of coconuts into useful coir fiber that was shipped to various parts of the world.
How do you turn a coconut into a fiber, you ask? Great question. Let’s back up to what you see at the grocery store. What’s on the shelf or in a basket is the inner most part of the nut, the part that can be cracked open to unlock the sweet, white fleshy substance we all know as coconut. But before the inner portion can be put on sale, it has to be freed from its outer husk. This is what coir is made from. That thick, water-resistant husk protects the inner fruit from any damage when it falls from the top of coconut trees, essentially acting like a shock-absorbing shield.
Once the husk is obtained, soaking it is the first step. After soaking, the long, separated strands are then beaten to further separate them. Next comes spinning, a process that is consistent with most natural fibers. After that raw fiber is spun into yarn, those yarn strands are spun together to form even longer and stronger strands for weaving.
As opposed to cotton or flax, two types of natural fibers that produce more homely kinds of fabrics, coir’s strength and coarse composition gives is a more robust role. One of the most interesting of these roles is erosion control in environmentally sensitive areas like shorelines and wetlands. For example, coir mats spread across bare earth prevent against the eroding forces of water runoff. Coir logs, long stretches of thick, tubed fiber about a foot in diameter, can line banks that are exposed to eroding tides. And because coir is biodegradable, it’s a material that leaves no harmful waste.