Ramie: A Sustainable Noble Textile of the Future?

Boehmeria nivea, or ramie, is a flowering perennial plant that has been cultivated for thousands of years, yet has tended to be overshadowed in the world of textiles by more common botanicals such as cotton, linen and hemp. Native to eastern Asia, this fiber crop – a variety of nettle alternatively known as “China grass” – has remained a small-scale staple throughout history, distinguished by its exceptional strength and luster.
Ramie’s pedigree extends all the way back to the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, when it was woven into burial cloths for mummification. Noted for its stiffness and ability to retain shapes – and only becoming stronger when dampened – it became a choice textile for open weaves destined for warm climates all the way through the 20th century.
Despite a storied history and exceptional physical strength, demand for ramie has nevertheless remained limited. Primarily, this is because producing the fiber from the raw plant material is an expensive process requiring specific manual know-hows and an involved, multi-step extraction process for separating raw fibers from their resinous encasement. Spinning and weaving are similarly intricate processes, as the fibrous yarns are hairy and resist cohesion. Ramie, then, represents a singular and demanding type of textile know-how.
At the same time, contemporary interest in ramie as a fiber – notably as a “noble” textile because of the time and knowledge required for its production – appears to be on the rise. The crop is fast-growing, and may be harvested up to six times a year; as such, ramie is often viewed as an “ecological” textile choice, seen as sustainable in many of the same ways as bamboo.
When woven with other natural fibers, ramie adds strength and luster to a fabric and its own brittleness is mitigated by the inclusion of these fibers (often cotton or wool). The result is a uniquely brilliant and durable fabric, with a unique cultural heritage and a rarity founded on special know-hows. No wonder then that, in tandem with global concern for developing “sustainable” materials, ramie is being looked at by some as a contemporary noble textile.