Yucca Fiber Processing

For Native Americans in the Southwest, Yucca was an important, versatile plant. The roots from Yucca were mashed into a pulp for making soaps, and the Yucca fiber from leaves was fashioned into cordage for basketry, rope making, and footware.

About 15 years ago, a friend gave me a few Yucca roots, and I planted them along a dry creek that runs through our property. My interest in the plant was to use the leaves for basket making, and I wanted to understand how to extract the fiber. From my research, most people harvest the green leaves for processing, but I wanted to experiment with the dried leaves located at the base of the plant.

The image above is from one of those plants, and I believe it to be a Yucca angustissima or perhaps a Yucca filamentosa.

Havesting Yucca Leaves

The image to the left is the same variety as above. As you can see, there are dried leaves at the base representing the growth from a previous year. This photo was taken in the middle of winter, but I am confident that the dried leaves have been dead for at least one year.

Below are a few of the leaves I pulled off of the plant, and in total, I gathered about 200 leaves for my Yucca fiber experiment.

Retting Yucca Fiber

Okay, so what is the best way to get at the Yucca fiber inside of the dried leaf? Well, with many other plant fibers, the process involves “retting,” or soaking the material in water for a period of time to allow micro-organisims to feed on the cellular material and the sticky pectins that bind it together. In other words, you basically let it rot for a while until what you have left are the bast fibers.

Cool!

Without a lot of guidance about how to do this for dried Yucca leaves, I decided to use a rubber mallet on each leaf before I started the retting process. My theory was that this would help loosen and separate the material away from the fiber to allow the retting to proceed at a faster pace.

Yucca Fiber

So, I spend about 1 hours pounding on the leaves before I deposited them into a 5 gallon bucket with water from a nearby stream. I used the stream water because I thought that it would be more likely to be seeded with the organisms necessary for the retting. Every few days, I inspected a leaf, and occassionally I would give the bundle a squeeze to force off some of the material. When I did this, I also decided to change the water, but I’m doubtful this step was necessary.

After about 4 weeks, each leaf was super-slimy and appeared ready for the next step. Holding each leaf against the concrete garage floor, I did the following:

  • Raked a putty knife down the entire length.
  • Flipped the now flattened leaf over and use the putty knife on the second side.
  • Dipped the knife in a bucket to get rid of the slime.
  • Set the leaf aside to dry.

After about 2 days in the garage, the leaves were completly dry.

Carding Yucca Fiber

The final step in preparing the material, prior to actually using it, is to “card” the fiber. That means that we separate and align the individual fibers and remove the remaining bits of non-fiber material. Luckly I already had a couple of “tools” that seemed adequate for the task.

For the first pass, I held a batch of about 10 to 20 leaves at one end, and raked them through the top tool below. I repeated this about 3 or 4 times, and then I flipped the bundle and pulled from the opposite end. As I pulled the fiber through the rake, about 1/2 of the material stayed in the tool. I pulled this out and set it asside.

Next I move to the second, finer tool which is actually a comb for removing lice. The process with this tool was similar to the first, but I need to pull a bit more carefully so that I didn’t tear off too much of the good fiber.

Carding Yucca Fiber

And voilĂ , the material below is the “top combed” fiber that should be best for spinning.

The material below is a mass of the short fibers that were left over; however, I believe I can use this fiber as well.