While sustainable fashion may have only gone mainstream a few years ago, sustainable fabrics have existed for a long time. Ramie fabric is one such. People used the fabric as long as 6,000 years ago.
Ramie, pronounced ray-me, is one of the oldest vegetable fibers known to man1. Ancient Egyptians used it as a burial shroud, and the fabric has continued to be relevant in China and the Southern Asian textile industry for centuries. Over the years, its shiny appearance and strength have proved useful in textiles and construction, amongst other things.
The fabric is a luxurious vegan alternative to worm silk, and it is sometimes mixed with cotton or linen. Looking beyond the ability to hold shape and lustrous fabric appearance, is ramie fabric natural and sustainable? This article discusses its cultivation, processing, and application in detail.
What is Ramie Fabric?
Ramie fabric is a natural fabric woven from the bast fiber of the ramie plant. We also know the fabric as China linen, grass linen, or grass cloth. The fiber is much like flax, jute, or hemp in its microscopic appearance3. The fabric is breathable, not itchy like pure wool, and has a natural white appearance.
The fabric is lustrous and shines more as you wash it. Ramie has natural stain resistance, is very easy to wash, and is fast-drying. The fabric is not prone to shrinkage and can hold its shape after wear and washing. When blended with other fibers, such as cotton or wool, it helps to reduce wrinkling and aids the ability of the blends to hold shape.
Ramie fiber is extremely absorbent, and it even gets stronger when it is wet. It is durable and, therefore, more suitable for heavy-duty textile applications. Ramie is almost six times as strong as cotton and twice strong as flax. It is one of the natural fibers resistant to mildew and attacks from bacteria and other microorganisms. The fiber is unaffected by light, rot, and insects.
The fabric takes to dye but not as easily as cotton, although the colors won't fade as much even with severe sun exposure. It has a peculiar weakness; the ramie fiber is stiff and will break if you keep folding it in the same direction. This brittleness is due to the high crystallinity of the fiber molecules.
What is Ramie Fabric Made of?
They make ramie fabric from fiber from the ramie plant. The plant has two known varieties: Boehmeria nivea, which is known as white ramie or china grass, and the Tenacissima variety, known as green ramie or rhea. Both china grass and green ramie belong to the nettle family. We believe green ramie or rhea to have originated from Malaysia.
The ramie plant is a perennial that can survive for as long as 20 years. The plant produces an abundance of unbranched stalks and leaves, which are the economically viable parts of the plant for fabric production. Stalks of the ramie plant can grow up to 8 feet, allowing for very long individual fiber cells. A single fiber cell can be 5 to 6 inches long. Ramie fibers are the longest of all commercial plant fibers.
The leaves are a food source for people in East Asia4. Manufacturers use it in the production of bio-ethanol and some medicines. China grass leaves have a bright green upper side and an underside covered with tiny white hairs, giving it a silvery appearance, while green ramie is green on both sides. In both plant varieties, the leaves are heart-shaped and have serrated edges.
How is Ramie Fabric Made?
The process of getting fiber from ramie is very similar to how we produce linen from the flax plant. Here, we outline the modern processes of preparing the ramie fiber for weaving into fabric.
A traditional method follows much of the modern processing, except it does not use degumming chemicals. The old method is not as lucrative and has largely been replaced by the modern.
Farmer’s plant ramie using rhizomes. The plant grows best in areas with a warm climate and 3-5 inches of rainfall per month. The preferred soil is sandy and well-drained. The plant grows amazingly fast, so farmers get three harvests in a year.
Farmers know it is time for harvesting when the lower portion of the stalks turns brown. At this time, the tips of new stalks are visible already. They do the harvesting by hand.
Like in other bast crops, the fiber is in the bark. After harvesting the stalks, they separate the bark from the stalk by hand or with machines. We call this process decortication. After that, they scrape off the bast layer’s outer bark, which leaves just the residual cortex material.
About 20-40% of the ramie bark is gummy, and the process of isolating the raw fiber from the adhesive gums is difficult. They use chemical, enzymatic, or microbial methods for degumming.
A typical degumming starts with pretreatment, and enzyme treatment follows. Thereafter, they wash the raw fiber in water and boil it in an alkaline solution. They wash it with water again and then beat it before bleaching it with chlorine. The last few steps include washing the ramie fiber in acid and/or soaking it in oil.
Carding and spinning
The carding process is necessary to make the longer fibers spinnable. Only 30% or so of the degummed cellulose fiber makes the yarn cut; the rest are too short. They usually send too short fibers to spin to the construction industry. There, they use them to make particle boards. Sometimes, the shives and waste fiber are used to stuff animal bedding.
History of Ramie Fabric
People in Asia used ramie fibers to weave clothing as far back as prehistoric times. The ancient Egyptians may have used it in wrapping mummies. Middle-age Europeans also used it.
The durability and silky luster fabric appearance made it a luxury fabric for Korean upper-class folks centuries ago. The fiber is so significant to Korean culture that the traditional method of weaving true ramie is listed and protected as a piece of intangible heritage by UNESCO.
The fabric was first brought to the western hemisphere from eastern Asia in the 18th century. However, the fiber did not achieve economic relevance until the 1930s, when Brazil began producing it. Ramie production peaked in the 1970s when a loophole in Multifiber Arrangements allowed unrestricted import of clothing made with at least 50% ramie.
Ramie Fiber in Today’s Textile Industry
Typical applications of ramie fiber include canvas, straw hats, industrial sewing thread, packing materials, fishing nets, and filter cloths.
Manufacturers often blend ramie with cotton to produce linen-like fabrics or coarse canvas. They use linen-like fabrics in manufacturing clothing, handkerchiefs, and tablecloths. Apart from fabrics for household furnishings, they use coarser materials for strengthening fire hoses.
They use shorter fibers in sustainable paper manufacture. They also use these too-short fibers to make ‘ramie ribbon,’ which substitutes for traditional linen tape in bookbinding. They also use ramie in construction as composite reinforcement.
Today, China is number one in ramie fabric production2; it provides 90% of the fiber globally. They also grow the plant in the Philippines, Taiwan, India, Brazil, and South Korea.
In countries that produce fiber, ramie fishing nets, clothing, packing materials, filter cloths, and household furnishings are commonplace. But they export very little of the ramie produced. France, Germany, Japan, and the UK are notable importers of ramie.
Due to the difficulty of producing ramie fibers, especially with traditional methods, the fiber continues to face challenges. Also, the unwoven ramie fiber’s low elasticity and brittle quality continue to limit its use. It has not achieved acceptance and usage as it can be a sustainable natural fiber.
Ramie fiber, one of the oldest natural fibers, has not gained similar usage in the global textile industry as other natural fibers. Ramie needs better processing methods to achieve the economic viability of other textile fibers.
Is Ramie Fabric Sustainable?
Generally, ramie is a sustainable fabric; it is plant-based and biodegradable. But there is more than one way farmers and manufacturers can go about production. Consequently, how sustainable a batch of ramie fabric is depends on how they farm it and the ethical practices of manufacturers.
Below, we consider certain aspects of ramie production to answer the question of its sustainability.
Chemical use in cultivation
According to a 2018 experimental study assessing ramie's life cycle, producing 100kg requires about 16 kg of potassium oxide, 12.8 kg of nitrogen, and 3 kg of phosphorus oxide. These are chemical fertilizers that have environmental impacts. The fertilizers can leach into groundwater or emit gases into the atmosphere.
The researchers used 7.5 kg of diuron and 0.42 kg of cyhalothrin per hectare to control weeds and insects. These chemicals are toxic, and some countries regulate or ban them. The chemicals find their way into water and air, where they pose a threat to the environment.
However, since ramie is naturally resistant to bacteria, rot, fungi, and other pests, farmers can grow it without pesticides or insecticides. The lateral root formation does not give much space for weed growth, so it does not need herbicides. The plant’s natural pace of propagation and growth is remarkably fast; therefore, sustainable and profitable ramie farming does not necessarily need chemical fertilizers.
Some manufacturers use chemicals to separate the raw fiber from the adhesive bark in the production process. These chemicals include sulphuric acid, sodium hydroxide, and hypochlorous. The wastewater from degumming is toxic. It has very high PH levels, chemical oxygen demand (COD), and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD).
Research suggests that degumming contributes to freshwater pollution, ground acidification, and ozone. So, it needs to be appropriately treated before being disposed of. Note that the chemical processing of ramie does make it a synthetic fiber. It is still wholly organic.
Degumming can be done without chemicals using traditional all-natural methods, but the method is typically not fast enough for profitable large-scale manufacturing.
In an experiment, to grow 100 kg of ramie, farmers used about 715 kg of water for spraying herbicides and insecticides. It was unclear if there was irrigation and how much water was used. However, we can assume that irrigation would have consumed more water.
Ramie is not a water-intensive crop; it does not consume nearly as much water as cotton, a global favorite in natural fibers. So, on a farm where there is no use of pesticides or herbicides, rainfall is enough to grow the ramie crop.
Energy consumption and emissions
Using harvester machines is one of the many sources of carbon emissions in ramie farms. Mechanical decortication, spinning, and weaving also consume energy.
When farmers and mills use clean and renewable energy to produce ramie, they can significantly reduce the carbon pollution it causes.
Like any other cellulose fiber, ramie is biodegradable. Although it undergoes some chemical processes, it will still completely break into organic matter. Ramie’s degradability makes it more sustainable than other fibers that do not decompose because it does not break down into microscopic pollutants at the end of its life.
Ramie may not require a lot of chemical or natural resource inputs, but it is very labor-intensive. Isolating the fiber in the inner bark requires much scraping, pounding, heating, washing, or exposure to degumming chemicals. Weaving is also tricky because of the yarn’s hairy surface.
When we consider its low elasticity and how it breaks when folded the same way over and over, its durability in clothing manufacture is questioned. This is because clothes go through a lot of strain from wearing, washing, and storage. Outside of blends, it would seem that ramie alone is not ideal for everyday clothing essentials like sustainable t-shirts as it would wear out quickly.
Ramie Fabric Pros and Cons
- Natural resistance to pests and diseases: they can cultivate the ramie plant without harmful agricultural chemicals meant to promote healthy plant growth and protect yield. The plant is naturally resistant to bacteria, alkalis, and fungi. It will not succumb to organisms that cause plants to rot.
- High tensile strength: ramie fiber has higher tensile strength than cotton and silk. So it is strong and durable, making it useful as a composite reinforcer. Research suggests that it is a greener construction choice than glass fiber.
- Ages well: ramie fabric gets smoother and shinier after each wash, so you don't have to worry about fading quality. Even when you wash it with high-temperature water, it stays in shape and won’t shrink.
- Low elasticity: although the fiber has high tensile strength, it has very little flexibility. It does not shrink but also doesn’t elongate. This limits its durability and application in modern fashion.
- High-cost fiber extraction: the labor and environmental costs of extracting ramie fiber from the outer bark and gummy matter are high. The process involves a lot of scraping, pounding, heating, washing, or exposure to chemicals.
The high labor cost is the main reason ramie is expensive, and chemicals will hurt the planet.
How to Care for Ramie Fabric
Care instructions for ramie clothing may vary depending on manufacturers. It is often blended, and the unique blends have different care requirements. So refer to the manufacturer's guide on the care label of your garments for the right instructions. Generally, we recommend hand washing or gentle cycle machine washing.
Clothing made only with ramie requires no special laundry care as the fiber can withstand high washing and ironing temperatures. You can avoid fiber breakage as long as you do not iron sharp creases into the fabric. You need to be careful about folding it in storage; ideally, store it hanging.
Some Brands That Use Ramie Fabric
Dressarte Paris is a French sustainable womenswear fashion label. They make custom outfits for customers using upcycled and recycled eco-friendly fabrics. They have a 100% ramie fabrics clothing collection available in standard or customized sizes.
The Lardini brand makes formal wear and outerwear. They use wool, cotton, ramie, cashmere, and other natural fabrics.
Zimmerman is a womenswear brand committed to creating beautiful clothing without neglecting social and environmental responsibility. The brand uses natural fibers like cotton, silk, linen, wool, and ramie for 90% of its collections.
Ramie Fabric vs Rayon
Ramie and Rayon have similar origins. But while rayon goes through chemical processing and becomes semi-synthetic, ramie remains all-natural after chemical degumming. Both fabrics have a silky texture and are better for the environment compared to synthetic fibers. Rayon fabric is easier and cheaper to produce than ramie, but ramie is a more eco-friendly option.
Ramie Fabric vs. Conventional and Organic Cotton
Cotton is a popular plant fiber in the textile industry. Ramie is nowhere near cotton in industry consumption, but it is more eco-friendly compared to conventional cotton’s pesticide and herbicide use.
However, they grow organic cotton, much like sustainable ramie, without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Unlike ramie, no chemical process is involved in turning organic cotton into yarn. Ramie is significantly costlier and harder to source than organic cotton.
Related: Read more on the environmental impact of cotton
Ramie Fabric vs. Polyester
They make polyester from fossil fuels. It is unsustainable both in production and disposal as polyester breaks down into microplastics. Microplastics are an environmental menace that threatens marine life and humans as well. Ramie is a renewable fiber source that decomposes when disposed of. It is better for the environment than polyester.
Ramie is one of the strongest natural fibers and one of the oldest fiber crops. It is environmentally friendly and useful in clothing, construction, and food. The fiber is not popular in the international market because of its labor-intensive production. However, ramie can become more popular with innovative technologies as it has many desirable qualities.
Ian Gilligan (2018) Climate, Clothing and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes and Effects. Cambridge University Press. Page 159.
Shaoce Dong, Guijun Xian, Xiaosu Yi (2018) Life cycle assessment of ramie fiber used for FRPs.
The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy. Microscopic appearance of fibers
The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Ramie. Encyclopedia Britannica.