Banana fibre counts as a bast fibre and has relatively good mechanical properties. However, the use of banana fibre for textiles has not yet been researched widely, and the literature on its use for the fashion industry is somewhat limited.
Bananas count as one of the most important global food crop and are currently cultivated in around 129 different countries, with India contributing approximately 15% of the total fruit production worldwide. Banana fibre is produced from the 'pseudo stem' of the banana plant, which would usually be burnt or left to rot (apart from a small amount that is fed to cattle). Every pseudo stem of the banana plant can only bear fruit once, and since the fibres are obtained after the fruit has been harvested, they are made entirely from agricultural residue.
There are several different ways of separating the fibres from the stem and processing them into yarn. Some producers use an entirely natural method, where all excess material is stripped off the individual layers with a serrated knife until only the fibre strands are left. The fibres are then dried and knotted together using a special twisting technique, before they are woven into fabric. One of these producers is Sekar C., head of the Anakaputhur Weavers' Association, who I had the pleasure to meet during my research trip to India, and who kindly invited me to his home in Chennai in order to show me the exact production process.
Other methods of banana fibre processing include different varieties of retting and combing, as well as chemical extraction methods. In addition to that, banana fibre can also be processed into a cellulosic yarn, which is much softer than the original bast fibre. This cellulosic yarn has great mechanical properties and a nice sheen, which is also why it is often described as a vegan alternative to silk (also known as 'banana silk').
Compared to other fibres, the production of banana fibre is extremely resource-efficient - the fibre is obtained from a resource that is cheap, renewable and widely available, and no additional water or land are needed for its production. If left untreated, the fibre is also entirely biodegradable, and its production has the potential to create new jobs in rural areas.
But similar to peace silk production, there is also a clear lack of standardised production methods and certifications, which makes it difficult to trace the use of chemicals, waste water treatment and labour conditions during the manufacturing process.
Another disadvantage of banana fibre is its high level of stiffness compared to cotton, hemp and flax. Especially the untreated bast fibre is quite rough and can only find limited application for textiles. Sekar C. from Chennai (India) for example uses it as an additive in woven textiles in order to give the fabric a certain texture, like shown below.
But in addition to food and fibre production, pretty much every other part of the banana plant can be utilised as well - the large leaves are often used as plates or to steam food (e.g. Tamale), and the most inner layer of the pseudostem can be cooked and processed like a vegetable (example below). In addition to that, the outer, more coarse layers of the pseudostem are used to make baskets or carpets.
While cotton and polyester are currently still the most used fibres in the textiles industry, other natural fibres such as banana seem to be struggling to gain market access. Nevertheless, an increasing amount of textile producers and designers are starting to make use of this eco-friendly fibre. A few examples for products made from banana fibre can be found below as well as in the online shop.