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You Need To Know About This Fantastic Vegetarian Silk Made From Cactus Plants

You Need To Know About This Fantastic Vegetarian Silk Made From Cactus Plants

I love learning about new fibres, so when someone recently told me about Vegetarian Silk from a Cactus, I needed to know more!  Cue lots of research on the subject, which I’m delighted to share with you. It is a fantastic vegetarian alternative to silk with superb lustre and super soft to the touch, I’m sure you already want to know more about it too…

What is Cactus Silk?

Cactus silk is (almost) exactly what it sounds like: silk made from a cactus! (More on this later.) Sometimes called Vegetable or Sabra Silk, it is a luxurious fabric made from the Saharan Aloe Vera Cactus (part of the Agave family). If you’ve ever been on holiday to Morocco you may already be familiar with it. The cactus is grown in the Saharan Desert and the fabric is hand-loomed in Morocco. Markets in Marrakech are often adorned with the beautiful metallic skeins and products.

There is also a Mexican fibre called Istle or Ixtle or tampico fibre that is a slightly harder plant fibre from a few different Mexican Agave and Yucca plants that is used to make fabrics, brushes and cords.

How is it made?

Aloe Vera Cactus

Cactus Silk is made from the natural vegetable fibres found in the long agave cactus. Confusingly, even though it is often called an “agave cactus” it is actually not a cactus, but rather just a plant that belongs to the subfamily Agavoideae. So Cactus silk may not be the most appropriate name after all! Another interesting fact: the plants only ever flower once before they die and this can take decades before it even happens!

The process for making Sabra Silk has been the same for centuries. Breaking open the cactus, the fibres can be accessed just like finding the fibres from flax to make linen. The spiky leaves are crushed and soaked in water to separate the fibres and filaments, then they are washed and dried and spun to make silk threads.

It is traditional to keep the fabric as natural as possible, so many producers will only ever dye cactus silk with natural vegetable dyes. This process can take a long time, but when it is completed the colours are incredibly vibrant and beautiful – and the dye has not damaged the vegetable fibres at all.

Cactus Silk Woven

When the fibres have been dyed and dried, they are then woven on looms. This is a highly specialised skill, and something that should really be done by hand if it is going to be done properly. You can always tell if a machine has woven the cactus silk together to make a fabric, because it feels uneven and strange. The weaver has to carefully weave depending on the different thicknesses and waves of the fibre.

Sometimes weavers incorporate camels wool in alternating stripes to add texture to the fabric, or it is woven with a contrasting colour of chenille or cotton yarn to enhance the natural sheen.

What are its properties?

After the cactus silk fabric has been made, you will see that it has a beautiful, natural metallic sheen.  This silky sheen is really gorgeous and dazzling, and many people often mistake it for silk. The long, hand-woven process to make it does often mean it can be quite expensive.

So how about sewing with this fabric?  Pleasingly, it is possible to wash cactus silk at 30 degrees and to iron it as long as you have the temperature quite low. Cactus silk has high elasticity so is naturally almost completely wrinkle free, so you may find that it doesn’t need ironing anyway!

Why is it eco friendly?

For a start, cactus silk is vegetarian and even vegan! Conventional silk comes from the cocoon of silk worms which some people like to avoid. Unlike some other materials that take a huge amount of resources to make, cactus silk only has one ingredient: and that is cacti! Cacti are very quick to grow, which means that they can be replaced very quickly, not harming the environment that they came from. Production is very small-scale at the moment. Furthermore, because most cactus silk is hand-woven, it does not have any carbon footprint.

What are its common uses?

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The fabric is usually found in street markets either in small pieces, made into tassels and napkin holders or used to cover buttons. Many people use cactus silk for scarves because it is so shiny and soft. Others will use it for soft furnishings on cushions and for trimmings on things such as curtains.

For such an interesting fibre with a great heritage and sustainable properties, Cactus Silk seems to be a bit of an untapped resource! What would you use it for?

 

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10 Comments

  • I am a weaver and I recently visited Morocco. I am very confused about all the “silk” sold in the markets that is called Sabra silk made from “cactus.” It looks like rayon to me and since it was very inexpensive and not handled with great care, I believe it was not the fiber you are talking about. Am I right? I sincerely hope you can answer this. My fellow travelers (also weavers and dyers) and I are very curious!

    • Hi Janette, Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post! Without looking at the fabric you’re talking about it’s very hard to say for certain. Like most products, when something becomes popular it’s often copied in a super cheap way (such as silks made from polyesters). It may well be that the fabrics you’re talking about were synthetic. Having said that, the cactus fibre is widely available in Morocco and it’s even sold in local street markets- so it’s an affordable fabric and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t handled with great care particularly. I hope you picked some up for yourself to have a play with in any case. Thanks for reading,
      Charlie

    • Thanks so much for your response! In Chefchauen, we saw demonstrations of holding a flame to tightly woven rugs that were made from “cactus silk.” Knowing that the process for making thread out of the cactus is pretty labor intensive and since it was our first stop n Morocco, we were not sure what to believe and didn’t purchase one. Later, we heard so many implausable stories about natural dyes, that we began to look at all the inexpensive cactus silk in the markets sitting in stacks on the street and question it even more. We consulted a reputable gallery owner in Essaouiria, about the dye stories as well as the sabra silk. He suggested that most of it was rayon. So, I am wondering if it is thread made from the cactus, is it now being commercially processed to make it so readily available and inexpensive? And, yes we did purchase some and are beginning our dye experiments on the un-dyed ones!

    • Ah, yes. It does sound as if it’s had the “bamboo” treatment. Manufacturers in China found new ways of processing the bamboo fibre- naturally, a very hard fibre, using a chemically intensive treatment. It is likely that the agave plant is now undergoing the same chemical processing to bring it to mass market, which allows it to be so cheap. That is the problem with sourcing from the market – unless you actually see someone weaving the fibre, it’s very hard to get to the bottom of it! I have plans to visit weavers there myself, so will investigate this further and report back (and hopefully bring back some real agave silk fabric with me)!

    • Thanks Charlie! I would love it if you got to the bottom of this. As I understand it, the “silk” made from agave was very precious and only used for royal garments and such. Maybe, like with natural dyes, the practice “dyed” out as new chemical processes came into being. But the stories still remain! The salesmen will all tell you that the red is from poppy flowers, the blue from indigo, the orange from saffron and so on. In the market, if you see a demonstration of the dye powder they use, it is clearly a chemical, maybe fiber reactive dye. And we know that poppies don’t give red and indigo doesn’t just mix with water and make blue. So, good luck! I think you really have to search to find the villages still using (or once again using) traditional processes. Maiwa from Vancouver, has a good series on teaching natural dyes to the women about 5 years ago. PLEASE keep us posted on your findings. It is such an interesting mystery and thank you for your response.

  • I also cannot believe all the wild claims about how Sabra silk comes from the fiber of the Agave . Maybe agave is processed as a rayon from agave but to suggest that the fibers from the agave itself become this fine and lustrous “silk” sold for an incredibly low price in the markets makes no sense . Please try research further and provide the real story .

    • Hi there, Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post. As I said to Janette, without looking at the fabric you’re talking about it’s very hard for me to comment. As is the case with bamboo fibres, when something becomes popular it’s often copied in a very cheap way. It may well be that the fabrics you’re talking about were processed using a mass consumer process.

  • Hi, I am very interested in Sabra fabric and couldn’t find relevant information on the Internet.
    I believe that cheap “Sabra” product are not made from Aloe vera fibers anymore but from synthetic fibers mixed with cotton or wool (that is also suggested on the Wikipedia article). I wonder if it is still possible these days to find real 100% Aloe vera Sabra fabric and how much it will cost. You said that you would investigate further, did you get any new information ?

  • Hello Charlie,
    I’d purchased a lovely woven cloth in Essouaria last fall.. the Owner of the small shop sold me a twin sized bed cover which I have used for a tablecloth. It is spectacular with extremely concentrated colors, when I asked what the material was made from he told me that it was made from Palm Fibers.the Price of the cloth was 200 dirham or about 20 bucks (!!?!!).
    Stupidly I only bought 1, So I got on Whats App an contacted a girlfriend who lives in Fez. She sent me a similar fabric. Much pricier and made of Sabra and wool, this fabric is gorgeous as well but the wool leaves a lanolin residue on my handsand is more suitable as a light Blanket rather than a table cloth. I think that she obtained these in Fez and not Essouaria. I do believe that there is a regional variance.Do you have any of these Materials in stock?I am primarily interested in the lighter weight material.

  • Hi Charlie……thank you for your informative article on the topic of ‘cactus silk’. I am the CEO of company based in the medina of Marrakech and one of the hand made products we deal in are rugs and pillows made from this material. I recognise that you mention the considerable research you have undertaken in investigating cactus silk and would love to know more.
    You mention:
    The process for making Sabra Silk has been the same for centuries. Breaking open the cactus, the fibres can be accessed just like finding the fibres from flax to make linen. The spiky leaves are crushed and soaked in water to separate the fibres and filaments, then they are washed and dried and spun to make silk threads.
    Have you seen this process first hand undertaken in Morocco?
    You also mention:
    It is traditional to keep the fabric as natural as possible, so many producers will only ever dye cactus silk with natural vegetable dyes.
    Have you been able to independently verify that the dyes are natural?
    All the information we have suggests that there is in fact no such thing as cactus silk produced or used in Morocco to weave rugs or pillows. Locally this material is known as Sabra, and, to the best of our knowledge, rayon is the material used to weave these products. Rayon is imported to Morocco from China, much of it ready dyed. Some of it isn’t, particularly the thicker thread used to weave rugs, which is dyed locally in the dyers souk. However, and contrary to the information you will usually find on the internet, most of the dyes used today are chemical and not natural.
    We don’t pretend to have the definitive answer on the subject. However, it is one of our aims to correct so much misinformation currently circulating the internet regarding Moroccan handmade goods. If you have further information we would love to know more….thanks!

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