The Potential of Sunshe’u in Clothing Making

Sunshe’u, a native plant of the Andean region, seems to be used to make clothing. Ignoring the traditional techniques of production of fibers with this plant, I have attempt to apply a technique of retting with water used for hemp and linen (http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k58377648/f1.item).

The principle of retting is to make the plant rot in order to be able to easily detach the fibres from the woody part. Water retting (prohibited in France since the 19th century because of pollution) is done by drowning plants in stagnant or running water. Air retting (longer) consists of leaving the plants lying in the fields once cut, and letting the sun and rain rot the wood.

Water Retting

I plunged four sunche’u samples into a bucket of water: two samples of sunche’u (flowery and not flowery) and two samples of sunche’u picante (also flowery and not flowery). After 14 days, the branches seemed rotten enough to be worked on. The water had turned dark brown and had a pestilential odour.

Water retting.jpg

Fiber Removal

Fiber removal is done between two stones, one of which is wide and flat. If the plant is rotten, the fiber should detach very easily from the first rubbing between the stones. (If the experience is repeated: be careful! The smell is difficult to get out of the hands!)

Fiber removal with a stone
Fibers removal with a stone
Obtaining fibers
Obtained fibers

By far, the flowery sunche’u picante gives the most fibers with equal amount of branch. Those fibers also seem to be more elastic and less brittle. The less efficient is the flowery sunche’u, whose fiber (in small quantity) is very brittle and unusable thereafter.

The fibers retain the foul smell of the water in which they have soaked. The most effective way to make it disappear is to do a light laundry bath. Ash washing has also been also tested, with less success.

Fiber softening

To be used as yarn, hemp and linen fibers are softened, either in a water mill or along an esfalder iron. This last is a simple piece of metal on which one rubs the fiber of all its length.

After applying this method to my samples, the flowery sunche’u picante is once again of better quality and gives more soft fiber. The others give a lot of waste, their fibers breaking very quickly.

Note that this is the most tedious stage: each fiber must be passed one by one along the esfalder. In case of a more consequent production attempt, I suggest teamwork.

Once softened, the obtained fibers seem to be difficult to use in order to make a yarn: coarse, not very flexible, small size… It would be necessary to test other techniques, for example by trying to make wide bands of fiber to make mats (I am inspired here by a technique called Chitsaj, used by the wichi in the Argentine jacko for the Bromeliads, grouped under the name Chaguar).


Stéphan Goutard

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