BY J. R. DODGE, DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE.
The China grass of the East is attaining importance in the commercial and manufacturing circles of Europe. Specimens of the plant in the garden of the department, and of its fibre in the museum, have attracted much attention, and require a brief mention in this report.
It is a member of the nettle tribe, the Baehmeria nivea, formerly known as Urtica nivea. It is called “tehou-ma” in China. A variety in Sumatra, the Behmeria tenacissima, (of Roxburgh,) is known as rami, kalmoi, or calloee hemp. The rhea, of Assam, is the same plant. It is understood that these two varieties (B. nivea and B. tenacissima) are distinct, though their fibre is very similar, and for all practical purposes identical.
Other nettles produce a good fibre. The Behmeria puya, of India, yields a fibre having a commercial value nearly equal to the B. nivea. Urtica heterophylla, or the Nilgiri nettle, which abounds among the Nilgiri hills and other parts of India, produces what is known as “vegetable wool,” which commands £80, or $400, per ton in England.
A specimen of very strong fibre, from a variety of nettle found in Minnesota, has been received at the department, but the accompanying fragments of the pow were in a condition too imperfect to identify its botanical classification.
It was sent by S. W. Pond, of Shakopee, Minnesota, who represented it as a comparatively abundant wild product of that vicinity.
It is a plant very susceptible of cultivation and propagation, in various modes, increasing readily by seed and suckers. Its growth is rapid and luxuriant, vieing in vigor with the rankest tropical weeds. It thrives in a moist climate, but is not very particular as to soils. P. L. Simmonds, editor of the Technologist, says of it: “So rapid is the growth of this plant, that, by careful observation, the colonial botanist of Jamaica found one of its shoots attain the height of six and a half feet in fourteen days, and ultimately eight and a half feet; but in good land it would exceed this by two feet, while in China and the East Indies, where it is highly cultivated, eight feet is the height mentioned it now makes, from which fibre six feet long is obtained.”
B&ligoe;hmeria tenacissima was brought into Calcutta from Bencoolen, in 1803, by Dr, Roxburgh, and cultivated in the botanic garden, under his direction, for several years. Its cultivation was so extended that, in 1814, specimens of its fibre, sent to England, were experimented upon, with so favorable a result, as to
strength and other valuable qualities, that the Society for he Encouragement
of Arts and Manufactures awarded a silver medal to Captain Joseph Cotton, of
the East India Company, for its introduction. A practical difficulty arose to
prevent its immediate use for textile purposes. The processes employed in the
preparation of flax and hemp and other common fibres were found entirely inapplicable to the reduction of nettle fibre. Of course the primitive and wasteful mode practiced by the natives—scraping by hand—was not to be considered. The practice of the Todawars, who previously boil the stems in water,
or of the Malays, who steep the stems in water for ten or twelve days, was sufficiently effective for the requirements of Asiatic manufacture, but useless in the
manufactories of civilized nations. Maceration was tried, but it was ascertained that the fibre itself was destroyed more easily than the glutinous matter that cemented it together. Several machines, intended to break the unretted stems, were originated, tested, and abandoned during the forty years that followed its
introduction. A patent was obtained, in 1849, by L. W. Wright & Co., for a
process for preparing this fibre, which removed, to a great extent, the practical
difficulties preventing its use. It consists of an ingenious arrangement for boiling the stems in an alkaline solution, after steeping twenty-four hours in cold
water, and twenty-four hours longer in water of a temperature of 90° [Fahrenheit, presumably- ASC]. The fibre
is then thoroughly washed in pure water, and then subjected to the action of a
current of high-pressure steam till nearly dry. “
Considerable quantities of “China grass” are now imported into England, and a new impetus has been given to trade by recent successes in attempts to perfect
the processes of its manufacture. Beautiful specimens of China grass goods were
exhibited at the international exhibitions of 1851 and 1862. Samples of the
various beautiful products of this fibre have recently been received from the most
successful of its manufacturers, Messrs, Joseph Wade & Sons, Bradford, England, and may be examined at the museum of the department. The following
correspondence of the State Department, promptly forwarded to this office by
Mr. Seward, illustrates clearly the present condition of this interesting manufacture:
United States Consulate, SHEFFIELD AND Bradford,
At Bradford, December 16, 1865.
Sir: I have the honor to transmit herewith a report from Mr. McClintock, vice-consul at Bradford, embodying some interesting facts in relation to the manufacture at this place of the “China grass,” so called, by Messrs. Joseph Wade & Sons.
The Messrs. Wade have been experimenting with this vegetable production during the last seven years, and have now brought its manufacture to a considerable degree of perfection. Many other persons have attempted the same thing,
but have all, with perhaps one exception, been unsuccessful.
The grass is said to be produced in considerable quantities in China, but the continuance of the civil war in that country has interfered with its production, and it now sells in London at the rate of eighty pounds per ton.
It is believed that many parts of the United States are favorable for its growth, especially the cotton-growing States, and perhaps Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and other States lying in nearly the same latitude.
I presume that the consul general at Shanghai will, if application be made to him, be able to communicate full information in regard to its culture, and thus be instrumental in introducing into the United States a very valuable production.
I will forward to the department the small case of samples referred to in Mr. McClintock’s report.
I have the honor to remain, sir, your obedient servant,
GEORGE J. ABBOT,
United States Consul.
Hon. F. W. Seward,
Assistant Secretary of State.
Consulate of The United States,
Bradford, December 15, 1865.
Sir: Upon your last visit to Bradford you expressed a wish for further information concerning the successful manufacture of the so-called “China grass” at
this place. In accordance with this desire, and concurring with you in the belief that there is at present a most auspicious opening for the introduction into the
United States of that valuable production, with a view to its culture upon a very
large scale, I beg, through you, to call the attention of our government and
people to some of the facts and arguments which seem to render its early introduction so desirable.
The Chinese have for centuries made, by hand-labor, various descriptions of “grass cloth,” well known in America and Europe, and often of great strength and beauty, from: the fibre of B&ligoe;hmeria cordata, or Urtica nivea, known to
commerce as China grass. Large quantities of the grass have, at various times,
been brought over to England, and probably also to the United States, in the
hope of finding a market among the dry goods manufacturers, who are always
on the lookout for new materials; but it has hitherto been, and is even now,
found impossible to produce a true “grass cloth” by machinery. The fibre is rather brittle, though very strong, and it is found that the China grass cloth of
commerce is only to be woven by hand-labor, in which, of course, the Chinese themselves are beyond the reach of competition.
Large quantities of the grass have therefore been in store in London and elsewhere for years. Some enterprising manufacturer would occasionally purchase
a few tons with which to make experiments, but the only result, for a long time,
was that he who experimented the most lost the most. Thousands and even
tens of thousands of pounds were sunk by one and another, who each fancied for
a time that he had discovered the true method for working up this intractable
substance. Whether it was tried in the United States or not, I do not know;
but the concurrent testimony of my American friends in the trade is that no one
is now successfully working it at home.
Within two or three years past, however, several firms in this neighborhood,
especially Messrs. Wade & Sons, of Bradford, and a company at Wakefield,
have succeeded, by chemical means, in bringing the fibre into a state most
closely resembling the best mohair, or other bright worsted, and have worked
up great quantities of the refined material, as a substitute for worsted, in many
kinds of stuff goods; always, however, in combination with cotton, (the warp
being cotton and the weft of the China grass,) as they have not yet been able
to work it properly alone.
The manufacture of worsted goods (that is, of goods made of long-staple wool,
as distinguished from short-staple or ordinary wool) has become an immense
trade, of which Bradford has, at present, almost a monopoly, although the manufacture has lately been extending in many parts of New England. Four-fifths
of these goods are of mixed material—that is, are made with cotton warps.
And for many articles of the kind, especially for those requiring a stiff, strong,
and cool texture, combined with a glossy, silky appearance, it is found that the
prepared China grass makes the very best material.
Of course the grass manufacture is yet in very few hands, of which Messrs.
Wade are the most important; but its development already, even within the last
few months, has been signally rapid. The market value of the raw material
has, for some years past, maintained itself at the very high rate of about eighty
pounds per ton, which price, it is supposed, cannot be much lessened for many
years to come. Two things are certain in this respect: one, that there is now, and
will be, here a practically limitless market for all the raw grass that can be imported, at from £70 to £80 per ton; the other, that under any fluctuations of
the market, the material is intrinsically so valuable that it will always, in the
future, command a price as high as that of cotton, and nearly or quite as high
as that of worsted itself, if not even higher.
Here, then, is a great and rapidly increasing market for a certain vegetable
production at a very high price. In America we have, on the other hand, vast
tracts of country, which being in the same latitude and with very much the same
climate as those districts of China of which the grass is native, we should be able to grow this production to great advantage. Why not, then, introduce its
culture. I submit that these facts constitute a prima facie case for the very
serious consideration both of the Agricultural Department at Washington and
of our enterprising planters and farmers throughout the south.
Messrs. Wade, who have, by the way, been firm friends of our government
throughout the recent rebellion, have very kindly consented to furnish me, for
transmission to the United States, with a small collection of samples of the China
grass in its various stages of preparation, and also of some of the varieties of
cloth prepared from it. As soon as they have it in readiness, I shall have great
pleasure in forwarding them, with an explanatory list. If possible, also, I shall
try to secure a small quantity of the seed.
It seems certain that the manufacture of the grass fibre will be established in
our country at no distant day; but in the mean time there is a market in England for all that we can conveniently grow. It is for our planters simply a question of experiment with the seed, having in view the market price of the raw product. Successful experiments have been made very recently in Java and in India, proving that the grass will grow in any.climate warm enough for the culture of cotton and sugar, provided the ground chosen be sufficiently moist.
I venture to suggest that further information, as well as quantities of the seed,
&e., can doubtless be furnished by our consular officers in China, especially,
perhaps, by the consul at Hankow, that place being the chief market for the
grass, which is brought thither from the interior, and often from a great distance.
I have the honor to be, sir, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
United States Vice- Consul.
George J. Abbot, Esq.,
United States Consul, Sheffield and Bradford.
The samples sent by the Messrs. Wade are in greater variety and perfection
than any others received at the museum, where they can be examined by manufacturers and farmers. They include the following items: The crude “grass,”
as imported; fibre in its first stage of preparation; fibre dressed and bleached,
in lengths of twelve inches or more, very fine, silky, and lustrous; tufts from
the dresser; noils, or short fibre, broken from the long filaments; “slivers” from
tufts of dressed fibre, beautifully colored in blue, violet, &c.; worsted yarns, of
fibre, silk, and wool, both pure white and a line of delicately mottled samples;
grass goods, fibre and wool weft and cotton warp, of the styles known as poplins
and mozambiques, of plain lavender and delicate purple and green shades, and
in plaids and checks of different styles and colors. These goods are lustrous as
silk, delicate in texture, and of great strength. They exhibit a triumph of art
in textile fabrication which reflects distinguished credit on the patient and persevering manufacturers who have achieved it and added to the wealth of the world
by utilizing an abundant and otherwise comparatively useless product of nature.
Among the specimens of textile fibre submitted to the flax commission recently working under the auspices of this department, “were specimens of cloth,
China grass and wool mixed, specimens of raising, specimens of dyeing China
grass, very beautiful products.” The report of the commission further describes
these products: “The fibres of their material are made up of very long cells,
which would be ruptured in any attempts to cottonize it, and it should be used
as long line. The specimens of cloth presented, in which this fibre was combined with wool, were very beautiful.” Dr. Geo. O. Shaeffer, of the bureau of
patents, attributes the great strength of the fibre, which is found to be much
greater than that of hemp, to the fact that it has fewer breaks of uninterrupted
continuity than any other. He says: “The character of the single cells is as follows; In diameter, they exceed those of fine flax, of which, however, many are required to make line of equal length. In cross section they are irregular, and the greatest diameter is found sometimes in one direction, sometimes in
another, somewhat after the manner of cotton. This gives them an advantage
in spinning, furnishing a better hold of the fibres upon others than if circular in
section. It is said that specimens of the oriental fabric have been examined, in
which the thread was untwisted, being made up of long filaments joined end to
end by some glue or cement.”
The B&ligoe;hmeria was introduced into the United States botanical garden in 1855. It was cultivated to some extent, with reference to testing the possibility
of acclimatizing it in the southern States. It has not been ascertained whether
such tests were actually and satisfactorily made. It is at present growing in
the garden of this department from seed received from China in 1865. It proves
too tender to withstand the frosts of this climate. The latitude of the Potomac
is evidently its northern limit. The plant grows here very freely during the
summer, and attains full size and maturity, but the roots are liable to be destroyed
during winter. Experiments will be made to ascertain whether this plant cannot
be cultivated advantageously by storing its roots during winter, and planting
annually, as is done with many similar plants.
In China, a light sandy soil in a convenient location for irrigation is selected
for its culture. Beds four feet in width are pulverized well, pressed down and
rolled smooth, afterwards watered and raked again before sowing the seed,
which are sprinkled on the surface, in combination with four or five parts of moist
earth to one of seed, but not covered with soil. Light mats protect the seeds
during germination, and the young plants where the sun’s rays are most powerful. The mats are kept wet, and are removed at night.
The beds are kept clear of weeds, and the plants; when two inches high, are
transferred to a stiffer soil, placed four inches apart, excluded from the light and
air, and well watered and hoed. The watering is repeated every two days.
After transplanting, the plants are covered with fresh horse or cow manure,
They soon throw out their new shoots, which may be removed and planted elsewhere. This mode of propagation, and that of covering, are often successfully
adopted. The roots, which are fleshy tubers, multiply and intertwine, and make
replanting necessary in a few years.
The seed is sown in February, and the first cutting is made in June. The
harvest is gathered three times during the season, at intervals of two months.
The second crop is of rapid growth and of finer quality than the first or third.
The stems are cut soon after new shoots put forth from the root stock. These
shoots then grow vigorously and constitute the next crop. The seeds are
yielded by the main shoots, are gathered in October, dried in the sun, mixed
with damp sand, and covered with straw to keep them from the frost. Before
they are used they are tested in water, and those that do not sink are thrown
out as useless. The best seeds are in color a spotted black.
The mode of preparation in China is thus given in Warden’s “Linen Trade, Ancient and Modern:”
It is to be hoped that manufacturers will continue their attempts to perfect and extend this manufacture, and that farmers, if the effort to acclimatize is successful, will, especially in the south, test the capabilities of our soils and climate for the extensive production of this fibre as a material for manufactures.
“The first year, when the plants are a foot high, they are gathered, and the
fibres of the cut straw are fit for spinning. The tchou-ma or China grass may
be gathered three times a year, and when the stems are cut the little shoots
springing up from the root stock should be about an inch high. After the large
stems are cut the suckers spring up with more vigor, and soon furnish a second
crop. The seed should be sown in February; within four months the first crop
may be reaped; two months thereafter the second is ready, and in other two
months the third and last crop may be cut. The stems of the second crop grow
faster than the others, and yield the finest quality of fibre. After reaping the
crop the stocks must be covered with manure, and immediately watered.
“The stems are split longitudinally with knives, the bark being first removed;
then the lower layer is scraped off, and the under leaves are displayed and removed by boiling in water. The first layer is coarse and hard, and only fit for common materials; the second is finer and more pliable, and the third is the best,
and is used for the finest purposes. After peeling the fibres they are tied in
skeins, steeped for a night in a pan of water, and then dried. They are then
again steeped in water containing ashes of burnt mulberry wood, then in water
and chalk, and then boiled in water containing straw, which makes them white
and supple. They are then dried in the sun, again boiled in pure water, washed,
and once more dried in the sun, after which they are joined end to end and spun
on a wheel, and the long threads thus formed make the warp and woof of the
cloth to be manufactured. Others prepare the stems by boiling in lime water,
and washing, &c.; others by wetting with dew at night, and sun-drying by day;
and others by the steam of boiling water; so that the mode of softening and
bleaching the fibre is not uniform.”
Recent improvements in the manufacture of this fibre, as seen in specimens
received from individuals in this country and Great Britain, have excited considerable interest, and elicited inquiry; in fact, the subject came before the Senate
of the United States, in connexion with a letter (enclosing samples of goods) of
Mr, William H. Richards, of Boston, and a resolution was adopted calling upon
the Senate Committee on Agriculture to “investigate the subject of procuring
the seed and cultivating the ‘China grass.’”