Bast fibers, such as flax, hemp, and ramie, are some of my favorite handspinning fibers. In addition to the pleasure I find in spinning such long, silky fibers, I also appreciate that they are easily grown in most climates and soils and have less negative impact on the environment than many other crops. Bast fibers usually require a fertilized soil but little to no pesticide or herbicide. In many parts of the world, bast fibers have long been used to make fabrics that are durable, comfortable, and easily laundered. Today, we still crave the exquisitely casual yet sophisticated appearance of bast fabrics.
Ramie is the queen of the bast fibers. It has the finest diameter, yet it is stronger and more resistant to wrinkling, shrinking, mildew, acids, and alkalies. Ramie is easy to wash, bleach, and iron, in addition to being absorbent and receptive to dye. The brilliant sheen of ramie fibers and fabrics are often compared to silk; and whether used alone or in blends with other fibers, ramie has a unique silky drape.
A Bit of History
Ramie is thought to have originated in the west-central region of China. Chinese textile history focuses mainly on silk because it has survived in the greatest quantities in the graves of the rich and famous, but three types of bast-fiber material were in use from Neolithic times to the thirteenth century. These were ramie, hemp, and ge (from a vine-creeper). Fragments of ramie fabric have been found to date back to 2700 BCE, and ramie has been mentioned in old Chinese texts, such as the Imperial agricultural treatises written in 2000 BCE. (1)
In Korea, there has also been a long traditional use of ramie for garments and funerary wraps. In Japan, the women of the samurai elite often wore garments woven from fine white ramie decorated with shades of indigo in the warm summers. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that cotton became the dominant fiber in China, Korea, and Japan, replacing the traditional use of bast fibers. (2)
From China, ramie found its way to the Mediterranean and subsequently to Egypt where ramie fabric was used for clothing and mummy wrappings. Some textile fragments identified earlier as flax can now be correctly identified as ramie using microscopic analysis. The individual fiber cells of ramie are much longer and wider than those of other bast fibers, with cell widths ranging from 12 to 80 microns. (3)
Today, ramie is a widely cultivated fiber plant and is grown most notably in India, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Brazil, and Thailand. Despite being widespread, it remains an expensive fiber due to traditionally high labor requirements for production, harvesting, and decortication, and because the bulk of available fiber is diverted to local industrial and commercial uses. (4)
Ramie is a member of the Urticaceae or nettle family and is a hardy perennial that produces a large number of unbranched stems from underground rhizomes. The stems can reach a mature height of 4 to 8 feet within 60 days. When harvested, the plant is cut close to the ground to allow for new growth. In contrast, flax plants are pulled from the soil, roots and all. Because ramie is cut, it can yield up to six crops annually and produces useful fiber for 6 to 20 years. (5)
The true ramie, Boehmeria nivea, is also known as China linen or white ramie and is the Chinese cultivated plant. It has large heart-shaped, crenate leaves covered on the underside with white hairs that give it a silvery appearance. The term “China grass” is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the plant, but it is more correctly used for the ribbons of fiber stripped from the ramie plant before they have been degummed. (6)
A second type, Boehmeria nivea variety tenacissima, is known as green ramie or rhea and is believed to have originated in Malaysia. This hybrid variety has smaller leaves that are green on the underside, and it appears to be better suited to tropical conditions. Green ramie has longer, thinner stems, and the fibers tend to be coarser than for other types of ramie. (4)
Ramie is retted and processed similarly to flax, except that the ramie pectins are very difficult to break down with bacterial action alone. Because the fibers are much more resistant to acids and alkalies than those of any other bast fiber, dilute solutions of caustic soda and hydrochloric acid can be used to digest the pectins and release fibers that are then washed, dried, and sometimes softened. When degummed, the fiber has a silk-like sheen and after bleaching, it is pure white. After processing, the individual fibers range from 1½ to 12 inches, with a 6-inch average length. Because of the variability in length, the fibers are typically separated or cut into more uniform lengths in preparation for spinning.(6)
Working with Ramie Fiber
The common commercial fiber preparation for handspinners is bleached combed top, which is considered a superior product to bleached flax because of its higher luster and strength. The fibers in the commercial top are parallel but can vary considerably in length.
One sliver that I recently spun contains fibers ranging from 3 to 9 inches; a second sliver has a range of 1 to 6 inches, with a predominance of shorter fibers. The first can be used to produce a consistent worsted yarn; the second is more suitable for blending. An abundance of short fibers can present yarn consistency problems since the longer fibers will draft out first, leaving behind shorter fibers that give the yarn a different character. If this presents a problem, then ramie can be spun from the fold to achieve a better mix of fiber lengths during drafting.
In spite of the relative fineness of ramie fibers, they are still stiff and can produce a hairy yarn that can irritate sensitive skin. Yarn with this fuzzy surface can also make it difficult to create a clean shed when used as warp, so care should be taken when spinning for weaving. Fortunately, wet-spinning and using a worsted draw can produce a lovely, fine, smooth singles with the stiff fiber ends locked in place.
To produce the smoothest handspun ramie yarn, make sure that the twist is always kept in front of the forward hand during spinning. The fingers of that hand are always on the yarn as it forms, and I use the dampened (not wet) thumb and index finger of my forward hand to press the parallel fibers together. As I move my hand backward along the drafted fibers, the twist follows my fingers away from the wheel. A back and forth rolling action of my moistened fingers continually sorts the fibers, keeps the fibers parallel, and releases any twist that might try to enter between the fingers. If I allow twist between my fingers, this will trap fibers that will no longer draft smoothly and usually results in bumps in the yarn. Increasing the twists per inch can also decrease yarn hairiness. If ramie is dry-spun, the resulting yarn will be hairier, with a more lofty, matte appearance.
For a thicker yarn, it is best to ply fine singles together. As further protection from prickliness, follow the rule “first spun is first plied.” This means that each singles must be rewound onto another bobbin before plying so that the singles will be plied in the same linear direction as they were spun, taking care not to add or remove twist from the singles while rewinding. This is a practice recommended by Peter Teal, author of Hand Woolcombing and Spinning, and was also used by the marine rope-making industry that has for centuries produced smooth ropes from coarse fibers such as jute and hemp. When you are ready to ply, how much twist should be used? While I generally agree with Mabel Ross’s suggestion that adding two-thirds (66 percent) of the singles twist to a two-ply yarn will create a balanced yarn, stiff fibers like ramie may require slightly more plying twist to achieve a perfect balance.
Ramie yarns behave similarly to linen on the loom and benefit from high humidity for warp and weft, and, like linen, a warp can be a fine two-ply with a singles weft to maximize luster after finishing. Sizing warp yarns and choosing a sett with some space between warp ends can reduce hairiness and increase strength.1
Stockinette or garter-stitch ramie fabrics have better dimensional stability than cotton or rayon, and sweaters made of ramie or ramie/cellulose mixtures show only a small degree of shrinkage in the width direction and minimal growth in the length direction. A study suggests there is no advantage to handwashing over machine washing, and tumble drying ramie that is combined with cotton or rayon seems to maintain garment dimensions better than flat drying.7 When knitting a cotton/ramie blend, avoid knitting patterns that include ribbing since neither fiber has elasticity or resilience.
Most dyers suggest scouring all materials before dyeing, and ramie is no different. Unbleached ramie should be simmered in a solution of washing soda and detergent and then rinsed well in hot water. Bleached ramie requires only a hot, soapy wash with a detergent such as Synthrapol.
Most fibers benefit from the use of mordants to improve the light- and washfastness of natural dyes. Ramie, like other cellulose fibers, benefits from premordanting with tannin since it improves the absorption of alum and copper mordants. It also benefits from an alkaline additive, such as soda ash, to the alum bath to make the solution less acidic, and alum can be applied more than once to obtain stronger colors. (8)
For blends, be aware that different types of fibers absorb color from a dyebath differently. In the same dyebath, animal fibers can take up dye more quickly and before vegetable fibers have had a chance to absorb their share of dye.
Cellulose fibers are also better able to tolerate rapid temperature changes. For these reasons, it is sometimes a good idea to divide a dye liquor into multiple dyebaths, dyeing protein and cellulose fibers separately before blending or plying. On the other hand, yarns containing a blend of fibers, or plied singles, can produce interesting effects from a single dyebath.
Ramie fiber has long been used to create cloth with fascinating characteristics. It has the sheen of silk and the hand of fine linen. Ramie’s beauty, durability, and resistance to the elements have held the interest of generation upon generation of fiber artists.
Blending Ramie with Other Fibers
Ramie can add some very desirable characteristics to blends, such as resistance to bacteria, mildew, and insect attack. It is extremely absorbent, dyes fairly easily, increases in strength when wet, withstands high water temperatures during laundering, and can be bleached. The smooth, lustrous appearance of ramie improves with washing, and ramie keeps its shape and does not shrink. It has long been used in summer garments because it is cool, absorbs moisture well, and dries quickly. Interested in making handspun, handwoven curtains? Ramie is a great choice as it has very little stretch and good resistance to sunlight. All of these characteristics can be valuable additions to blends with other fibers.
A rule I follow when blending fibers is to match fiber lengths so that no fiber in the mix is more than one and a half times the length of the others. If one fiber is much longer, it will draft first, leaving shorter fibers behind. Blends that contain fibers of different staple lengths are often most easily spun from a folded combed sliver or carded batt. Handcarding rolags is another way to successfully prepare and spin a mix of fiber lengths.
What’s Not to Love?
When I blend ramie, it is generally to overcome its less desirable characteristics. Ramie fiber has very little elasticity, it wrinkles easily, and it can have a stiff hand. If a fiber artist considers these attributes undesirable for a specific project, each can be overcome by blending with other fibers, such as silk, cotton, or wool. These three fibers can reduce wrinkling and soften the hand of ramie while adding their own personality to blends. Ramie blends will typically be dry-spun, giving the yarns more surface texture, but there can also be the advantage of interesting colors due to differential dyeing.
Ramie and Silk Blends
Silk top may contain fibers similar in length to ramie. The fibers can be blended together on combs, thereby retaining the parallel fiber direction for worsted spinning and achieving maximum luster. Ramie will add body and shape retention to the silk. It will also increase its resistance to staining or fading in sunlight. Silk will reduce the weight of the ramie and add luster. The mixture can be dyed with fiber-reactive dyes, giving interesting results. Dyeing with natural dyes is a bit more complicated since the fibers require different mordants, pH values, and temperatures. General laundering will have to be geared to the more delicate character of silk.
Ramie and Wool Blends
Longwool fibers can match ramie’s fiber length. Fibers of equal length can be blended on combs for worsted spinning and maximum luster. If you are looking to soften the hand of ramie, then it would be better to use a wool with a fine micron count, such as Bluefaced Leicester. Mixing with a coarse, strong wool, such as a Norwegian wool, could give a durable blend for socks. Ramie also absorbs moisture well and dries quickly. It adds body and minimizes shrinkage. Cellulose and protein fibers are dyed with different chemical dyes (fiber-reactive versus acid dyes), and different mordants are necessary for natural dyeing, so for saturated colors, dye the fibers before blending.
Ramie and Cotton Blends
Cotton presents a different problem for blending since ramie fibers should be cut to get a better match of fiber lengths. Ramie will add strength to cotton. It will also minimize shrinkage and increase shape retention during laundering. (7) Cotton will make the ramie lighter with a softer hand. This blend can be carded into batts and spun semiwoolen, or it can be carded into rolags for traditional woolen spinning, but there may be little luster remaining in the mix. The blend can be dyed using fiber-reactive dyes and with the same mordants for natural dyeing.
- Jarvis, Ruth. “Ramie.” Ontario Master Weaver Thesis, September 2000. Ontario Handweavers and Spinners.
- Harris, Jennifer. 5000 Years of Textiles. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004: 133, 146.
- Catling, Dorothy, and John Grayson. Identification of Vegetable Fibres. Leicester: Archetype Publications, 1998: 73.
- Wood, Ian. “Ramie: The Different Bast Fibre Crop.” New Crops Newsletter (Queensland, Australia), no. 11, January 1999.
- Mattera, Joanne. “A History of Bast Fiber.” Shuttle Spindle and Dyepot, Fall 1977, 31.
- Quinn, Celia. “Ramie.” Spin Off, Winter 1984, 50–51.
- Tondl, Rose Marie. “Ramie.” NebFact. Lincoln: University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1991.
- “The Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes.” www.maiwa.com
- Dean, Jenny. Wild Color. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1999.
- DHG Shop, www.dhgshop.it
- Teal, Peter. Hand Woolcombing and Spinning. Poole, Dorset, England: Blandford, 1976.
- Woolery, www.woolery.com
Gayle Vallance is a perennial student of all things related to spinning, weaving, and the history of fiber. She has a Master Spinner certificate from Olds College in Alberta, Canada, and has completed the technical spinning level from the Handweavers Guild of America and the basic weaving level from the Guild of Canadian Weavers. She uses color, texture, and fiber to create unique yarns and fabrics, relating what we do now to what has been done by artisans in the past.