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The switch from natural abaca, hemp fiber ropes to synthetic ropes

This photo of synthetic ropes washed up on a beach in Alaska — piled up during beach clean up day — made me wonder about how much of this type of trash is swirling in our oceans.

I knew that natural abaca fiber was a material used to make ropes (and still is) and of its use in ship rigging and the American shipping industry in the mid 1800’s.

I was curious about when the change occurred from using natural fiber ropes to synthetic ropes.

plastic rope debris photo by Kip Evans

Photo by Kip Evans. A pile of nylon and synthetic rope trash — beach trash clean up, Alaska USA

The result of this query is in this blog post, and explores a bit of rope history, and the use of natural fiber ropes as it relates to the plant fiber hemp and abaca (musa textilis — also known as Manila Hemp), and abaca use in the Philippines (Native Leaf products are made in the Philippines).


Abaca is a herbaceous plant in the banana family. It looks similar to the banana plant, except that it does not produce edible bananas.

Abaca is one of the plant materials used in Native Leaf products.

Up until World War II, most fibers used for rope and for industrial use (and marine applications) came from natural fibers.

Among the natural fibers used for rope and cordage was hemp and abaca.  Natural fiber ropes are also made from flax, cotton, jute and sisal.

Abaca is indigenous to the Philippines and the plant fibers were used by natives long before the Spaniards arrived and colonized the archipelago in 1521.

History of rope use

From a Wikipedia article: …The use of ropes for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting, and climbing dates back to prehistoric times.

It is likely that the earliest “ropes” were naturally occurring lengths of plant fibre, such as vines, followed soon by the first attempts at twisting and braiding these strands together to form the first proper ropes in the modern sense of the word.

Impressions of cordage found on fired clay provide evidence of string and rope-making technology in Europe dating back 28,000 years.

The ancient Egyptians were the first to document tools used in rope making.  The artwork below depicts the manufacture of rope by mechanical means.


Industrial hemp use in the U.S. (the primary plant source for rope and marine use) and when abaca replaced hemp

Hemp fiberInformation from a paper by Randall Fortenbery and Michael Bennett, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics

Hemp is among the first plants cultivated by human beings, and is native to Central and South Asia.

By the 16th century, migration and trade brought the plant to Europe.

In the 1700s and 1800s, hemp was Russia’s largest export crop (as well as one of the most important crops in England) and the material used for cordage and sailcloth by American, Canadian and European shipping companies.

The puritans first brought hemp plants to New England in 1645, and hemp cultivation next spread to the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

By the mid 1800’s, — due to strong demands for cordage and sailcloth by the US Navy — over 160 factories existed in the state of Kentucky alone, employing several thousand workers who manufactured hemp bagging, bale rope and cordage.

By the late 1800’s though, the US hemp industry declined due to the development of the cotton gin, the advent of steam and petroleum powered ships that no longer needed sailcloth (and less ropes), and imports of cheaper jute and abaca fiber.

Abaca eventually replaced hemp for use in marine cordage, because of its lightness (it can reportedly float on water) and resistance to salt water corrosion.

The rise of abaca for rope / cordage use

Although abaca had been grown and used in the Philippines for centuries, wide use of abaca fibers outside the Philippines did not occur until the mid 1800s.

This coincided with the opening of the Port of Manila to foreign trade during the last phase of the Spanish rule in the Philippines.

abaca hemp warehouse Manila late 1800s

Traders at abaca warehouse, Manila, Philippines late 1800’s.   Bales of abaca can be seen at bottom right of photograph. Photo source: The Philippine Islands by Ramon Reyes Lala via the Gutenberg website, published in 1898 by the Continental Publishing Company.

Excerpt from the book A History of the Philippines by David P. Barrows, released in December, 1911 (the hemp mentioned in the excerpt is “Manila hemp” or abaca).

In 1831 the exportation of hemp amounted to only 346 tons. But the effect upon production of opening Manila to foreign trade is seen in the export six years later of 2,585 tons.

By 1858 the exportation of hemp had risen to 412,000 piculs, or 27,500 tons. Of this amount, nearly two thirds, or 298,000 piculs, went to the United States.

At this time the North Atlantic seaboard of America was the center of a most active ship-building and ship-carrying trade.

The American flag was conspicuous among the vessels that frequented these Eastern ports, and “Manila hemp” was largely sought after by American seamen to supply the shipyards at home.


Abaca plant image

Abaca plantaion – photo credit, Philippine Dept. of Agriculture website

Excerpt from the Philippines Department of Agriculture’s Fiber Development Authority website:

…According to historical accounts, an American lieutenant of the U.S. Navy brought a sample of abaca fiber to the United States in 1820.  This gave the initial impetus to Philippine abaca trade with the United States that five years later, the first exportation of abaca was made. 

Since then, abaca became well-known as one of the strongest materials for marine cordage because of its superior tensile strength and proven durability under water. 

With the onset of the 20th century, abaca fiber has become the premier export commodity of the Philippines.

…At the close of the First World War, the Japanese also took keen interest in abaca for its navy, also choosing Davao as the plantation site. They improved the method of production introduced by the Americans. This put the industry to a higher level of efficiency. 

The Philippines has a monopoly in the production of abaca fiber in the 1920s. Since this period, wars were won by countries with superior navies and considering that cordage was vital to naval operation, the Philippine monopoly in abaca production alarmed the Americans.

 In 1921, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to cultivate abaca in Central America, particularly in Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras using the most outstanding Philippine abaca varieties.

This was to be the beginning of the end of our abaca monopoly.

It was after World War II that a Japanese national, Furukawa, one of the pre-war abaca plantation owners in Davao, started field-testing and successfully cultivating abaca in Ecuador. 

Today, Ecuador is the only other country commercially producing abaca in the world.

dyring abaca strands photo Dept of Ag Philippines web

Abaca fiber strands drying – photo credit, Philippine Dept. of Agriculture website

The arrival of synthetic fibers, and the decline of abaca as a prime material for ropes

The invention of nylon from petroleum based chemicals in the 1930’s began what would be the rapid decline of the abaca industry.

nylon fishing net attached to small plastic floats by Peter ChurchAlthough nylon was invented as a synthetic fabric replacement for silk (and for use as women’s stockings), nylon fit the needs of the military during World War II and the material used for making parachutes as well as for constructing rope and cordage.

The first rope made with synthetic or man-made fibers was made from nylon.

Nylon and the invention of related petrochemical based materials quickly replaced the traditional use of natural fibers, including for fishing nets, and many Philippine abaca farmers phased out their plantations.

The use of abaca as a prime rope material declined and the abaca industry nearly collapsed.

Abaca use in our era

Abaca rope or “Manila rope” is still manufactured by cordage companies in the Philippines, but most abaca fiber produced in our era is used for the specialty paper industry (e.g. tea bags, filter papers, paper for printing currency).

When the demand for raw abaca declined, the Philippine government worked to develop a fiber craft industry.

Production and export of abaca rugs, doormats, hats, coasters, hot pads, linen and handbags grew and by the mid 1970’s, the abaca craft industry became a source of income for many Filipinos.

Note: Native Leaf created products from the outer part or “bark” of the abaca plant, as well as from hand-woven abaca textiles procured from cottage industry (backyard) weavers. Photos below of wine boxes and gift box set from our prior product line, and mini gift bags available on our website.

There is also ongoing research using abaca fibers with modern materials to create lighter, more environment friendly alternatives (see article Daimler-Chrysler / Mercedes Benz replaces glass fibers with natural fibers and our blog post about the Ford Motor Company use of natural fibers at the 2012 San Francisco Green Festival).

Modern rope construction

These days, the majority of cordage /rope products are constructed from synthetic,  petroleum-based materials.

So, what’s the problem with that?  We will explore and discuss on a future blog post! (See follow-up post, here)

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Article information sources, related reading and links:

— Jane

1 Comment »

  1. Pingback by Asian Festival at Salinas Chinatown: Celebrating Chinese, Japanese, Filipino culture and preserving history | Lola Jane's World — May 7, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    […] — Filipino formal attire, and traditionally made of pineapple fabric or a type of fine abaca (musa textilis related to the banana plant) — and the changes throughout history in traditional women’s […]

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