What is Sisal?

Sisal (/ˈsaɪsəl/, Spanish: [siˈsal]), with the botanical name Agave sisalana, is a species of Agave native to southern Mexico but widely cultivated and naturalized in many other countries. It yields a stiff fibre used in making various products. The term sisal may refer either to the plant's common name or the fibre, depending on the context. It is sometimes referred to as "sisal hemp", because for centuries hemp was a major source for fibre, and other fibre sources were named after it.

Primary Uses

Virginia Status

What Farmers Need to Know:

Sisal is an extremely long and rugged fiber obtained from the leaves of the agave plant.Propagation of sisal is generally by using bulbils produced from buds in the flower stalk or by suckers growing around the base of the plant, which are grown in nursery fields until large enough to be transplanted to their final position.

These methods offer no potential for genetic improvement. In vitro multiplication of selected genetic material using meristematic tissue culture (MST) offers considerable potential for the development of improved genetic material.

Fibre is extracted by a process known as decortication, where leaves are crushed, beaten, and brushed away by a rotating wheel set with blunt knives, so that only fibres remain. The fiber is then dried, brushed and baled for export.

VA's Near & Longterm Outlook:

Sisal farming initially caused environmental degradation, because sisal plantations replaced native forests, but is still considered less damaging than many types of farming. No chemical fertilizers are used in sisal production, and although herbicides are occasionally used, even this impact may be eliminated, since most weeding is done by hand.

Industries that will Benefit the Most.

Cordage | Geotextiles | Carpets | Plastic | Pulp & Paper Composites

National Status

Primary Regions

Sisal is considered to be an invasive species in Hawaii and Florida. The sisal plant will grow in tropical or subtropical countries in any well drained soil anywhere from sea level to frost line. When planted on rich soil and given some care, the plants grow rapidly, attain a large size and throw up poles when 7 or 8 years Old.

The false sisal of Florida ( A. decipiens ) produces an inferior fiber.

Crop History

In the 19th century, sisal cultivation spread to Florida. The name sisal comes from a seaport town in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. This was the principal port of Yucatan during the henequen boom and sisal fibre was shipped through it. In fact up to the beginning of the 20th century sisal was cultivated mainly in Mexico.

Current Economics

About half the sisal produced is exported to the United States and Canada, where much of it is used as binding twine for grain-harvesting machines.

Unlike synthetic fibres, sisal is 100% biodegradable during its lifetime, and sisal strings and ropes can be recycled as paper. During processing sisal produces only organic wastes, which can often be reused. In the past, 96% of the leaf weight was discarded. Now this is used as fertiliser, cattle feed and as fuel for biogas production.

The plants can be also used as an effective hedge to protect crops and land from predators, and the extensive root system helps to reduce soil erosion in arid areas.

Worldwide Status

Primary Regions

Sisal fibres are obtained from Agave Sisalana, a native of Mexico. The hardy plant grows well all year round in hot climate and arid regions which are often unsuitable for other crops. Sisal can be cultivated in most soil types except clay and has low tolerance to very moist and saline soil conditions.  Husbandry is relatively simple as it is resilient to disease and its input requirement is low compared to other crops. Sisal can be harvested from 2 years after planting and its productive life can reach up to 12 years, producing from 180 to 240 leaves depending on location, altitude, level of rainfall and variety of plant.

Crop History

The word Agave is derived from the Greek word agauos, signifying admirable and magnificent.  Agave’s lineage dates from 1748 where it was included in a group of vegetable species of the family Amarilidaceoe, a sub family of Agavoideoe Pax.

The first commercial plantings in Brazil were not made until the late 1930's and the first sisal fibre exports from there were made in 1948. It was not, however, until the 1960's that Brazilian production really accelerated and the first of many spinning mills, largely devoted to the manufacture of agricultural twines, were established. Today Brazil is the major world producer of sisal at some 50-60,000 tons from a high of 130,000 tons only 5 years ago.

Current Economics

Production of sisal fibre in 2013 amounted to 281 thousand tonnes of which Brazil, the largest producing country, produced 150,584 tonnes.

Tanzania produced approximately 34,875 tons, Kenya produced 28,000 tonnes, Madagascar 18,950 tonnes and 16,500 tonnes were produced in China (mainland). Venezuela contributed 4,826 tons with smaller amounts coming from Morocco, South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola. Sisal occupies 6th place among fibre plants, representing 2% of the world’s production of plant fibres (plant fibres provide 65% of the world’s fibres).

Although traditional uses of sisal are in marked decline, there is renewed interest in this fibre as a composite in the automotive industry, to reinforce building materials and for geotextiles. Sisal is also gaining popularity as a natural fibre for interior design.

Important Fiber Terms