Sesal or Sesal-hemp Icon

January 16, 2022

Sesal, or sesal-hemp is known as Mexican grass and is named after the export harbour of Sisal (in the N. W. of the peninsula). For some years past, it been used increasingly as a substitute for abaca.


  • resembles abaca though lacking the fine gloss.
  • is somewhat weaker
  • costs from £5 to £10 less per ton
  • is only used for ships’ rigging.

The refuse from it has been found an extremely useful adjunct to the materials ordinarily used in the manufacture of paper.

The Technologist for July, 1865, calls attention to the origin of this substitute, in a detailed essay differing essentially from the representations contained in the “ U.S. Agricultural Report” published at Washington in 1870.

The growing importance of sesal and the ignorance prevailing in London as to its extraction, may render a short account of it acceptable.

The description shows the superior fineness of the abacá fibre, but not its greater strength.*

Sesal-hemp, which , is by far the most important product of Yucatan. This rocky, sun-burnt country seems peculiarly adapted to the growth of the fibre.

In Yucatan, the fibre is known as “jenequem” as the name of its plant, which has 7 varieties.

  1. Chelem, identical with Agave angustifolia
  2. Yaxci (pronounced Yachki; from yax, green, and tri, agave). This is used only for fine weaving.
  3. Sacci (pronounced Sakki; sack, white), the most important and productive, supplying almost exclusively the fibre for exportation ; each plant yields annually 25 leaves, weighing 25 lbs., from which is obtained 1 lb. of clear fibre.
  4. Chucumci, similar to No. 3, but coarser.
  5. Babci; the fibre very fair, but the leaves rather small, therefore not very productive.
  6. Citamci (pronounced Kitamki; kitam, hog); neither good nor productive.
  7. Cajun or Cajum, probably Fourcroya cubensis ; leaves small, from four to five inches long.

Only 1 and 7 are found in the wild.

The cultivation of sesal has only in recent times been prosecuted vigorously; and the extraction of the fibre from the leaves, and the subsequent spinning for ships’ rigging, are already done by extensive steammachinery. This occupation is especially practised by the Maya

  • In the Agricultural Report of 1869, p. 232, another fibre was highly mentioned, belonging to a plant very closely related to sesal (Bromelia Sylvestris), perhaps even a variety of the same. The native name, “jxtle,” is possibly derived from the fact of their curiously flattened, spiky-edged leaves, resembling the dentated knives formed from volcanic stone (obsidian) possessed by the Aztecs, and termed by them “ iztli.”

Indians, a memorial of the Toltecs, who brought it with them upon their emigration from Mexico, where it was in vogue long before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The sesal cultivation yields an annual profit of 95 per cent. A mecate, equal to 576 square yards (varas), contains 64 plants, giving 64 lbs. of clear fibre, of the value of 3 dollars 84 cents; which, after deducting 1 dollar 71 cents, the cost of obtaining it, leaves 2 dollars 13 cents remaining. The harvesting commences from four to five years after the first laying out of the plantation, and continues annually for about fifty or sixty years.

In tropical countries there is scarcely a hut to be seen without banana trees surrounding it; and the idea presented itself to

neglected, which might be done by the mere labour of obtaining it; besides which, the little labour required for their proper cultivation is quickly and amply repaid by their abundant fruitfulness.* This idea, however, under the existing circumstances, would certainly not be favourable to the Philippines,

  • The banana trees are well known to be among the most valuable of plants to mankind. In their unripe state they afford starch-flour; and when mature, they supply an agreeable and nutritious fruit, which, althou;h partaken of freely, will produce neither unpleasantness nor any injurious after-effects. One of the best of the edible species bears fruit as early as five or six months after being planted, suckers in the meantime constantly sprouting from the roots, so that a continual fructification is going on, the labour of the growers merely being confined to the occasional cutting down of the old plants and to gathering in the fruit.

The broad leaves afford to other young plants the shade which is so requisite in tropical countries, and are employed in many useful ways about the house. Many a hut, too, has to thank the banana trees surrounding it for protecting it from the conflagration, which, generally speaking, lays the village in ashes. I should here like to make an observation upon a mistake which has spread rather widely. In Bishop Pallegoix’s excellent work, " Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam," I. 144, he says: “L’arbre à vernis qui est une espèce de bananier, et que les Simaios appellent órak,’ fournit ce beau vernis qu’on admire dans les petits meubles qn’on apporte de Chine.”

When I was in Bangkok, I called the attention of the amiable white-haired, and at that time nearly nonogenarian, bishop to this curious statement. Shaking his head, he said he could not have written it.

I showed him the very passage. “Ma foi, j’ai dit une bêtise ; j’en ai dit bien d’autres,” whispered he in my ear, holding up his hand as if afraid somebody might overhear him.

as it does not pay to obtain bast from the genuine abaca plant as soon as it has borne fruit. The fibre of the edible banana might very well be used as material for paper-making, though obtaining it would cost more than the genuine bandála.

In the Report of the Council of the Society of Arts, London, May 11th, 1860, attention was called to a machine invented by F. Burke, of Montserrat, for obtaining fibre from banana and other endogenous plants.

While all the earlier machines worked the fibre parallelwise, this one operated obliquely on it. With this machine, from seven to nine per cent. of fibrous substance may be obtained from the banana.

The Tropical Fibre Company have sent these machines to Demerara, also to Java and other places, with the design of spinning the fibre of the edible banana, and also to utilise some portions of the plant as materials in the manufacture of paper. Proofs have already been brought forward of fibre obtained in this manner in Java, the value of which to the spinner has been reckoned at from £20 to £25.

It does not appear, however, that these promising experiments have led to any important results; at least, the consular reports which have come to hand contain no information on the subject. In the obtaining of bandála in the Philippines this machine has not yet been used ; nor has it even been seen, though the English consul, in his latest report, complains that all the hitherto ingeniously constructed machines have proved virtually useless. The bast of the edible banana continues still to be used in the Philippines, notwithstanding that the plants, instead of being grown, as in many parts of America, in large well-tended gardens, are here scattered around the huts : but the forwarding of the raw material, the local transport, and the high freightage will always render this material too expensive for the European market (considering always its very ordinary quality)-£10 per ton at the very least;


while “Sparto grass” (Lygieum spartum, Læffl.), which was imported some few years since in considerable quantities for paper-making, costs in London only £5 per ton.*

The jute (Corchorus casularis) coffee-sacks supply another cheap paper material. These are used to make strong brown packing paper, as jute will not stand bleaching.

According to P. Symmonds, the US in recent years have largely used bamboo. The rind of the Adansonia digitata also yields an extremely good material. Paper made from New Zealand flax has superior toughness, eminently suited for “bill paper".

In the manufacture of paper, worn linen and cotton rags are the very best materials that can be employed, and make the best paper.

Moreover, they are generally to be had for the trouble of collecting them, after they have once covered the cost of their production in the form of clothing materials; when, through being frayed by repeated washings, they undergo a preparation which particularly adapts them to the purposes of paper-making.

The more paper-making progresses, the more are ligneous fibres brought forward, particularly wood and straw, which produce really good pastes ; all the raw materials being imported from a distance. That England takes so much sparto is easily explained by the fact that she has very little straw of her own, for most of the corn consumed by her is received from abroad in a granulated condition.

  • In 1862, England took from Spain 156 tons ; 1863, 18,074 tons; 1866, 66,913 tons; 1868, 95,000 tons; and the import of rags fell from 24,000 tons in 1866 to 17,000 tons in 1868. In Algiers a large quantity of sparto (Alfa) grows, but the cost of transport is too expensive to admit of sending it to France.