Woven bags, decorative mats, ornate lampshades, cool curtains- there’s a whole world of jute that encompasses beauty and inspires awe in itself. The coarse textured, natural appeal of the golden fibre have been in existence since long now, and with increased notions of sustainability and eco support ruling the world, jute is all set to gain ground globally.
But even as jute holds tremendous potential of virtually revolutionizing the environmental scene, the natural fibre has been mostly neglected and largely remained humble in its evolution through the times.
The Golden Fibre
But jute isn’t touted the golden fibre for no reason whatsoever. With its eco- friendly qualities, jute is the best bet for the future to march unabated amidst rising environmental concerns. A natural textile that is derived from plants, jute consumes much less water than cotton and requires almost no pesticides. Also a plant that consumes more carbon dioxide than most others, jute packs more punch as a totally biodegradable product.
India, in particular, has a long tryst with this wondrous crop. The plants Corchorus olitorius and Corchorus capsularis from which the fibre is obtained, are native to the Indian subcontinent and are grown throughout the year. Jute has been dominating the Indian scene for long, with records of its usage during Mughal rule in the country.
Commercially however, jute was explored at a much later time. The British East India Company was the first trader of jute since the 17th century onward. The monopoly of the subcontinent over the jute business is evident from the fact that nearly all of the world’s jute is grown and milled in the humid, swampy lowlands surrounding Kolkata and in neighboring Bangladesh, where the climate is just right and labor is as cheap.
Jute in the present times
It’s no wonder then that India is promoting jute as a much profitable and viable product specially in the United States, where the increasing use of plastic has seen serious efforts at being curtailed keeping in view its adverse effects on the surrounding environment. As a material for reusable shopping bags, home furnishings, clothing, even diapers and sanitary pads, jute obviously has much utility. And as the Indian government recently mandated all food grains to come with a jute packaging, the golden fiber has again come to rule the world of endless possibilities while being mired in the goals of sustainability.
It’s concerning therefore that the jute industry has failed to see revolution in the way of its harvesting and production. With virtually no imprints of modern technology encroaching upon the production of what can very well be the fabric of the future, the humble jute might have risen in stature and worth but certainly not in the way it is envisaged and marketed.
The manufacturing of jute
Jute finds its roots in the India of more than two millennia back. Among the most labour intensive products courtesy very low forays of the amazing ease of machines into the domains of the traditional industry, jute as a rough, sturdy textile has a rather interesting manufacturing process.
The backbreaking process initiates during the rainy days of summer, when the plants are cut and immersed in ponds covered with mud and leaves for the stems to soften and rot. As this process of ‘retting’ encompasses over 10 to 30 days, bacteria works to dissolve the gummy materials holding the fibres together. After whacking these soggy stalks with mallets to make them fall apart, the fibres are left to dry in the sun before being trucked off to the mills.
At the colonial era mills, hulking metal machinery work all day and into the night as long strands of fuzzy golden thread are pulled, combed, spun and woven into sheets, rolling off the line like coarse, flat noodles.
The jute that comes out of the mills is the staple for a number of products- bags, sacks, decorative and utility items, and while you might scorn at having to carry a jute bag as your shopping essential, jute is now a decidedly upmarket product.