Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Manila Hemp

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MANILA HEMP, the most valuable of all fibres for cordage, is the produce of the leaf-stalks of Musa textilis, a native of the Philippine Islands. The plant, called abaca by the islanders, throws up a spurious stem from its rhizome, consisting of a cluster of sheathing leaf-stalks which rise to a height of from 20 to 30 feet, and spread out into a crown of huge undivided leaves characteristic of the various species of Musa (plantain, banana, &c.). In its native regions the plant is rudely cultivated solely as a source of fibre; it requires little attention, and when about three years old develops flowers on a central stem, at which stage it is in the most favourable condition for yielding fibre. The stock is then cut down, and the sheathing stalks torn asunder and reduced to small strips. These strips in their fresh succulent condition are drawn between a sharp knife-edged instrument and a hard wooden block to which it is fixed, and by repeated scraping in this way the soft cellular matter which surrounds the fibre is removed, and the fibre so cleaned has only to be hung up to dry in the open air, when, without further treatment, it is ready for use. Each stock yields, on an average, a little under 1 ℔ of fibre; and two natives cutting down plants and separating fibre will prepare not more than 25 ℔ per day. The fibre yielded by the outer layer of leaf-stalks is hard, fully developed, and strong, but the produce of the inner stalks is increasingly thin, fine, and weak. The finer fibre is used by the natives, without spinning or twisting (the ends of the single fibres being knotted together), for making exceedingly fine, light, and transparent yet comparatively strong textures, which they use as articles of dress and ornament. The hemp exported for cordage purposes is a somewhat woody fibre, of a bright brownish-white colour, and possessing great durability and strain-resisting power. It contains a very considerable amount of adherent pectinous matter, and an unusually large pro portion, as much as 12 per cent., of water in a dry condition. In a damp atmosphere the fibre absorbs moisture so freely that it has been found to contain not less than 40 per cent. of water, a circumstance which dealers in the raw fibre should bear in mind. The plant has been introduced into many tropical lands; but the cheapness of labour in its native regions, and its abundance there, prevent its being a profitable substance for general cultivation. The entire supply comes from Manila and Cebu in the Philippine Islands, where its cultivation and preparation must give employment to a very large population. The exports, which are increasing with great rapidity, amounted in 1881 to about 400,000 bales of 2½ cwts. each, almost the whole of which goes to the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Australian colonies. The quantity imported into the United Kingdom in 1881 was 346,908 cwts., valued at £678,514. The fibre is now so valuable that manila hemp cordage is freely adulterated by manufacturers, chiefly by admixture of phormium (New Zealand flax) and Russian hemp.