Old Ways

Clothes we Made from Plants

Today, movement towards sustainability, fair trade and recycling within the textile industry is big business.

Due to lack of knowledge, people have been led to believe that many textiles have always been manufactured with synthetic products.

This is not the case. Synthetic textiles were being invented as early as the early 1800s, but became very popular during the 1930s and 40s due to the ability to produce cheaper fabrics with more versatility.

They escalated in popularity throughout the 1960s and 70s, however flammable they may have been. Thankfully, it appears that times are changing. Manufacturers and makers are looking for ways to appreciate what nature has provided us with for centuries.


Consumers are calling for more natural products in every industry, especially in clothing and associated goods. To understand what clothes and garments can be made from plants we have to look back in history as well as forward.

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Historic textiles

Historically, people appreciated and valued textiles and clothing much more than today. Specific items were worn on special occasions and lasted a lifetime. We also know from those displayed in museums or found in antique shops that the majority were handmade and exceptional care was taken in their creation.

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Unfortunately, in recent years we have been living in a throw-away society of synthetic fast fashion. Now it appears that, due to this mass production, the appreciation of quality textiles has been lost. However, there is hope that there may be a resurgence.

If people are encouraged to make their own garments with sustainable textiles, plant fibres that are better for us to wear may make a comeback, along with new alternatives.

Plants in textile and garment production

By working with nature and incorporating historical knowledge and techniques, the way plants were used to create textiles, albeit by hand, along with their uses that were long forgotten, are being revived.

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With improved scientific and engineering knowledge this now enables the creation of textiles from plants that can be used over and above their synthetic counterparts, as well as improving the way in which they were originally created.

medieval clothe dying

Adapting old techniques could reduce the use of chemicals and plastics which are damaging the environment and, in some cases, people’s health. As long as this is monitored so as not to harm the planet further through farming methods, a great partnership in new and improved uses for plant fibres within the textile industry could be forthcoming.

What plants can offer in the textile industry

This is nothing new.  For centuries plants and animals have provided us with clothing and textiles to enable life to be as useful as possible albeit not always comfortable. Whether it was basic leaves removed from a plant to cover up your modesty, woven into a mat, braided to make a rope or used as jewellery, plants have played a vital role in providing these opportunities.

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Despite not having all the mechanical facilities and knowledge available as we have today, it did not stop even Early Bronze Age people from turning their plants into useful textile items.

In these modern times we are fortunate to have laboratories and testing equipment that can analyse structures and properties of plants. This enables improved textiles to be produced and then used for a variety of different requirements.

Early textile finds – plants and their historic uses

Archaeologists have managed to identify the use of fibres from different plants from as far back as the Neolithic Period. The process of using plants and converting them into textiles was basic and time consuming.

Having unearthed some remnants of the products created all those years ago just shows how knowledgeable and forward thinking these people were. Product design and durability were considered even at that time and the best plant for the job was harvested and processed. I am sure they would be amazed how long their invention had lasted.

medieval clothe dying

Although the production of these natural resources may have changed considerably over time, and knowledge and understanding has improved extensively, we still see uses for these plants in the products we have today such as ropes, matting, weaving and basketry.

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There are a number of plants that are widely known for their involvement in the textile industry. Newer ones are also being discovered, or at least more widely utilized when produced by modern methods.


Items excavated cover various historic periods. Finds include nettle yarn wound onto wooden sticks for use as handles for weapons, pieces of linen cloth, as well as bundles of yarn. It also shows how wealthy people were.

These were not always items found near burial sites but in and around settlements, giving a good insight into how they lived, what they used every day and in battle. Many plants are native to specific countries due to the climate, soil and ecology they require to grow.

History shows us that people would use the plants available to them where they lived and would cultivate these plants to enable them to continually produce items that were needed.

Read More: The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

Plant fibres run up the stems or just beneath the bark of a tree. Fallen branches would be used so as not to damage the living tree. Some plants such as nettles, an annual plant, would be limited to certain times of the year.

Fibre textile techniques would be used to make plain weave items. These were formed by crossing the fibres over each other – a modern example of this is a tea towel. If you look carefully you can see how they are made. Fibres were twisted into cords to make a twine and the twining technique would be used for matting. Wooden looms would have been made to enable these fibres to be woven and then made into goods.

As time went on, these hand produced goods would have also been made to take to local markets, whereupon the expertise of the maker would enable these products to be sold or traded.

Plants to textiles

There are numerous plants both from the land and in the water that have been and are used today for producing some type of textile. It helps to remember not all textiles are utilised into clothing. For example, bags, handles, cloths, matting, rugs, to name just a few.

This is without considering items that combine some kind of plant fibre that you may not be aware of, or take for granted like bandages or webbing for upholstery.

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Some plant based textiles are more common than others and some are newly formed. Others have been used for generations. Below are a few commonly known plants made into textiles but some that are lesser known.

Cotton: versatile and comfortable, cotton is grown all over the world. It is produced from the pods of the cotton plant and suitable for a variety of uses in textiles. When the bolls (pods) mature they break open and the fluffy cotton fibres are revealed.

The process of ‘ginning’ extracts the seeds from the pods. Although once completed by hand, it is now mechanically achieved. After washing and combing, if you were to complete the process by hand, the cotton would need to be spun.

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Any dyeing would take place and then woven into a fabric to be made into a variety of products, garments or threads for sewing. The benefit of cotton is its wide range of uses due to being biodegradable, strong, hypoallergenic and naturally sustainable.

Natural wrinkling when made into fabric can be a disadvantage along with the unethical employment that occurs in some countries although this, thankfully, is gradually changing.

Hemp: another versatile and natural fibre, hemp has been used for generations for clothing, rope and sails. It is sustainable, resistant to many pests and grows at a rapid rate. However, it does have a stigma attached due to it being made from the stem of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa).

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Due to the fibres it does not insulate well, ideal for clothes for keeping cool. It can be woven into yarn for knitting and weaving, fibres to fill items, made into tape for bag handles and straps, or blended with cotton and elastane into jersey fabrics. Being strong, it is also woven into canvas, denim and twill.

Bamboo: the largest grass and very fast growing. Its capability of regenerating after cutting saves the need for replanting, providing a continuous supply. Bamboo fibre creates a soft fabric. It is 100% biodegradable so very kind to the planet. It is used in sportswear, underwear and can be made into headwear for people who have sensitive skin or have lost their hair due to alopecia or cancer.

Flax: Linen is derived from the stem of flax. When woven it is stronger than cotton which makes it long lasting. However, it wrinkles easily, is susceptible to shrinking and more expensive than cotton.

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Jute: is highly breathable and sustainable, and the second most produced after cotton. Most people know its use for matting or sacking/bags as the fibres are used to make burlap. Jute fabric is now made for use in clothing and can be purchased in various colours.

Ramie: a member of the nettle family, this plant is native to China. The stem fibres are similar to linen. It has antibacterial properties, is eco-friendly and used as a cotton substitute. Ramie is very strong and made into clothing as it is quick drying.

Kapok: a sustainable fibre, it is made from the fruit of the Kapok tree. It is soft and silky, used more often as a hollow fibre filling in items such as pillows. It is now able to be spun and blended into fabric which is soft and comfortable. Kapok is usually blended with another material like cotton as it is not suitable on its own.

Dandelion: as yet not made in to a clothing textile, the stem of the dandelion contains latex, which is dried to turn it into a rubber.

Pineapple: the leaves are scraped to release the strands. The process to create a textile is very slow. The fibres are split and the fine ‘liniwan’ is woven into the cloth. The main producers and weavers are found in the Philippines. Pineapple fibres can be blended with silk to create an exceptionally fine textile suitable for bridal wear.

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Banana: fabrics are made from the inner and outer peel of the banana. It is thought that the first area in which banana was made into fibre was the Philippines, but now it is mainly manufactured in India. Once the process to separate the fibres is completed, they are dried in bunches. After being spun into yarn any dyeing takes place.

The yarn is able to be woven into garments or made into matting, depending on whether it is from the inner or outer peel. It is sustainable due to production from what is deemed as waste.

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Seaweed: as well as being known as a superfood with health benefits, technology has now taken seaweed to a textile level.

Fabrics are being produced that incorporate the brown algae knotted wrack, which is found in the fjords of Iceland and around the British Isles coastline. The end product allows the fibres to be spun and then either knitted into fabric or woven.

Whilst this article covers an array of different plants, there are a variety of other plants that are able be made into sustainable and eco textiles. It is pleasing to see that there is movement away from synthetics but there is still a long way to go to ensure that any plant textile or fibre is made ethically and without over farming.

There is also the need to try and use fewer chemicals, if any, in the production of some of these textiles so there is no artificial interference and any of the products from plants are as natural as their original source.

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