Jute has long played its humble part as familiar twine in kitchen drawers, but it’s also been influential in trade, war, and the textile industry. It’s native to the Bengal region of India and to Bangladesh, where it’s still one of that country’s most important exports. It grows in two varieties: white jute and tossa jute. Both are tall, grasslike relatives of the hemp plant. Jute fibres are unique in that unlike other textile fibres, they’re made up of lignin as well as cellulose, meaning that jute is part fibre and part wood. The fibres are long—between 3 and 13 feet. Jute has been dubbed the “golden fibre” because of its flaxen colour and its silkiness to the touch. It has been farmed in India and what is now Bangladesh for millennia, but the process of stripping and weaving it by hand is painstaking
By the 1830s, textile factories in Dundee, Scotland, discovered that treating jute with whale oil allowed it to be processed by machine. That discovery spawned an industry that brought droves of Irish immigrants to the area. Because women were the ones who did the spinning, the influx caused people to start calling Dundee “She Town.” Jute went into everything from clothes to ropes to burlap sacks for bulk goods such as coffee beans. More than a billion sandbags made of jute protected the trenches during World Wars I and II. Jute products are entirely biodegradable, a winning attribute that continues to make them an environmentally friendly choice.