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What Is Sisal?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 July 2014
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Sisal is a term which refers both to a species of agave native to Central America, and to the fiber which can be produced by this plant by processing its leaves. The fiber can be used for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from papermaking to textiles. Plantations for growing sisal can be found in many areas of the world, including Latin America and the Caribbean, and the plant has sometimes been fingered as a target for environmental degradation because native plants and forests may be removed to make way for a sisal plantation and processing plant.

The plant, known formally as Agave sisalana, has origins which are a bit uncertain. Several Central American cultures have a long history of growing and using sisal, making it difficult to determine where the plant first appeared, and how much human influence has contributed to the plant's evolution. When European explorers reached the Americas, this plant was one of the many products they were introduced to.

These plants produce rosettes of sword-shaped leaves which start out toothed, and gradually lose their teeth with maturity. Each leaf contains a number of long, straight fibers which can be removed in a process known as decortication. During decortication, the leaves are beaten to remove the pulp and plant material, leaving the tough fibers behind. The fibers can be spun into thread for twine and textile production, or pulped to make paper products.

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Sisal is too rough to be worn, but it can be used to make rugs, placemats, and floor mats. It is often used in doormats for its rugged and durable properties, and the coarse surface makes it ideal for trapping dirt from shoes. Floor rugs tend to be made from higher quality sisal which may be treated to be smooth, and sisal can also be used for things like wall hangings, upholstery stuffing, and ornamental items. Scrap fiber or low quality fibers can be used to make paper and cardboard.

In its natural state, sisal has a creamy to straw color. It may be bleached to be white, or dyed with various colors for the purpose of making patterned decorative products. It can also be treated to smooth it, make it more durable, or help it resist fungal growth. Sisal rugs are classically backed and edged with cotton or wool to help them cling to the floor and to prevent scratches and damage to the floor from the coarse sisal fiber.

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myharley
Post 9

I really like the natural fibers that are found in sisal flooring and was looking for something that had a casual look to it.

I have a sisal rug under a round table in my sun room. The look and feel of the rug complement the casual, earthy tones I have the sun room decorated in.

I like to bring the outdoors in when I decorate, and using a sisal rug is one way I feel like I am making the room comfortable, but yet look natural at the same time.

bagley79
Post 8

When we moved in to house we currently live in, there were sisal stair runners on the stairs going down to the basement.

I liked the look of the fabric with its neutral tones and the fact that it kept the stairs from being too slippery.

What I really didn't like about it was how rough it was on my feet - especially if I was barefoot. After a few months I decided I couldn't stand it any longer and replaced it with some carpet.

My only complaint with the sisal was how rough it felt. My kids went up and down those stairs in their bare feet all the time. They were really glad when we replaced it with something softer on their feet.

seag47
Post 7

I have a beach bag made of sisal and jute, a cheap fiber that resembles sisal. The fibers of the bag are woven in a way that leaves small gaps between strands, so wet swimsuits and towels can air out a little. It is strong enough to carry a heavy load, which I usually bring to the beach.

My friend bought a bag like this also, but she uses hers as a purse. She says she is impressed with its durability. Most purses don’t last her a year, and this one has lasted over two years so far.

She usually buys leather or suede purses, but if they get rained on, then their appearance is ruined. The sisal and jute purse is not altered at all by rain.

Perdido
Post 6

My friend has sisal carpet in what she calls the “sand room” of her beach house. It is the room that guests first walk into when returning from the ocean, which her house faces. She has a pier that leads from the door of the room to the middle of the beach.

Walking on the sisal carpet feels like walking across a giant doormat. It is rough, but it is excellent at capturing sand.

The carpet has been dyed a blue-green color, so you can see the sand. She has a faucet over a small tub low to the ground, so you can wash your feet and legs off there. When you exit the tub, you can tell if you are still tracking sand around or if your feet are clean.

shell4life
Post 5

I have a set of sisal place mats and potholders. They are both a light olive green color and the texture of straw.

The place mats are not as thick as the potholders. They are big enough that guests can set their drinks and plates on top of them. This eliminates the need for coasters.

I often use the mats when I need somewhere to put a pot fresh off the stove while I dip the contents out into bowls or onto plates. The fibers don’t mind the heat, and the mats keep me from burning the counter tops and the table.

ddljohn
Post 4

It's very interesting that sisal production is actually a threat to the natural habitats of some of these countries because sisal is often marketed as being "all natural," "organic," and "environmentally friendly." I guess it's environmentally friendly but not always habitat friendly.

I have a sisal loofah. I purchased it from a company that is very proactive about environmental protection and they pride themselves with their environmentally safe and renewable products. It's actually one of the reasons why I bought a sisal loofah from there. I have no idea about where the sisal came from and how it was produced though. I think I will send them an email to find out since I know that sisal production might be contributing to environmental degradation.

Thank you for the information and I hope that most of the sisal in the market has been attained without causing any damage to environmental habitats. It really is a great product and its quality and benefits shouldn't be marred by this issue.

wavy58
Post 3

I replaced my decorative flat doormat with a sisal doormat. The old one was not good at capturing dirt and debris at all. Its fibers were not rough enough to hold anything, and the dirt ended up scattered all over the floor.

The sisal doormat catches anything that we rub off the bottom of our shoes onto its surface. The raised fibers act like brushes and go in between the grooves of shoes to rake out dirt.

I like the natural look of sisal. It is basically dirt-colored, so I don’t have to be concerned about dirt showing up on it.

ElizaBennett
Post 2

@dfoster85 - If you can find woven sisal, that's even better that sisal rope for a scratching post. I have a woven sisal scratching post. It wasn't cheap, but it has lasted four years (it does need to be replaced now, but the company that I bought it from sells replacement pillars - we can keep the same base).

I think the idea is that the horizontal rope is unappealing to some kitties. (Think about how their claws must sort of bump along it.) The sisal fabric, on the other hand, is flat. But there are not many woven sisal scratching posts on the market and the fabric is also hard to find for people who want to make their own, like your friend did.

dfoster85
Post 1

Sisal makes the very best scratching posts! The carpet ones will just encourage kitty to learn to scratch the carpet, plus they wear out quickly. A sisal rope scratching post is tougher for their claws.

You can even make your own if you're handy. A friend of mine has large cats, Siberians, and the commercially available scratching posts just aren't big enough. So he got a big piece of wood, wrapped it in sisal rope, and attached it to a base.

(Unfortunately, his cats turn out not to like scratching posts very much! But my kitty loves his sisal scratching post.)

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