Sisal extraction with a small portable machine

from sisal were 40-50 inches (120-150 cm) long, and these lengths were very strong (Hochberg 1980, 55). Up until the 1800s, the harvesting and processing of sisal was mostly done by hand.

Sisal farming utilized the latest in technology for planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing. From 1875 on, special machinery was used in the Yucatan to work the sisal fibers. Previous to this, crude tools were used to extract the fibers from the sisal plant. From the 1870s to the early 20th century, steam-powered machinery was used to process sisal fibers.

By the second half of the 19th century, mechanized American farm equipment such as hay balers and reapers were designed to use twine to bundle the harvested crops. Sisal was one of the major types of fiber used and was one of the most important exports from Yucatan, Mexico to the United States. As the demand for more self-binding equipment increased, so did the demand for binding fibers. By between the 1870s and 1915, some sisal farms in Yucatan were becoming large-scale commercial agricultural businesses, or plantations, although they only grew sisal for export. Major American manufacturers of self-binding harvesting machinery such as International Harvester were looking to Yucatan to supply their sisal fibers, which was then made into binder-twine (Wells 1985, 30-50).

Sisal fibers were grown in northwestern Yucatan, and required a great deal of labor to plant, harvest, and process. Family-run, large-scale sisal farms (haciendas and later plantations) were run with the same iron rule, discipline, and minimal wages as the sugar or tobacco plantations elsewhere. As the profitability of sisal increased, the plantation owners pushed the laborers harder. The field laborers were mostly the indigenous peoples, in this case the Mayans (campesinos), who were treated with little respect by those in authority, the intermingled Mayan/Spanish peoples (ladinos) representing the owners and managers (Wells 1985, 8-25).

By 1880, Yucatan manufacturers had invested $5 million in the sisal industry, and by 1879, Yucatan had 18,000,000 plants under cultivation. Processing this number of plants required over 420 scraping-wheels, run by 229 steam engines with a force of 1,732 horsepower, and thirty wheels moved by animal power. Each scraping-wheel extracted an average of 300 pounds of fiber a day. The scraping-wheels and animal wheels were only run about 202 days out of the year (Dodge 1879, 546-7). These figures indicate that by the 1880s, sisal was no longer just a small farm crop; it was now a major economic agricultural force.

However, this boom in the sisal trade was soon to change. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the sisal industry was heading for difficulties, due to competition from the hemp and cotton markets and price fluctuations, all controlled by the importing foreign companies and not Yucatan sisal producers themselves. This, plus over-extension of sisal company finances, would lead to the collapse of many major sisal merchants, planters, and manufacturers. The investment of all of a company's resources into the production and processing of a single major crop in the Yucatan was not the basis for a stable economy. Having no alternative crop in case of economic depression would inevitably lead to the ruin of major sisal producers. In addition, the terrible plantation conditions and treatment of workers led to major unrest and violence from the Mayan workers directed against the sisal industry and its proponents, the Ladinos. This violent rebellion came to be known as the "Caste War," and the resulting government military action decimated the labor population, thus damaging sisal production (Wells 1985, 144-82). In addition, the failure of the Yucatan's railroad network to effectively bolster the sisal trade only added fuel to the fire. All of these problems exacerbated the ongoing economic decline of the Yucatan sisal trade. By 1915, the Yucatan's 'gilded age' (time of economic prosperity), developed by the sisal trade, was ending. Even now, the Yucatan has never been able to resurrect this 'gilded age'.

Today, sisal is primarily used to make rope, string, matting, rugs, brushes, sacking (burlap), cable insulation, and for general industrial use. It is still produced in Yucatan, on a small scale. Currently, Kenya and Tanzania together produce 50 percent of the world's total sisal supply. Sisal fibers are no longer used to make binder-twine; most crop harvesting, binding, and bailing machines now use wire, synthetic twine, or plastic strapping to bundle the crop.

See: Natural Fibers and Dyes, pp. 301-3

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