Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Pueblo Grande Museum ~ Ancient Technology Day ~ Part IV

Hi. I'm back to share more from my day at the Pueblo Grande Museum. I started my journey inside the museum checking out the displays and reading about the area. Within the gallery, there was one display which depicted fiber from the agave plant being used to make twine. This caught my eye like all new fibers do and I wondered if agave fiber is still used today.

Once I made my way outside of the museum to where the exhibitors were, my questions about agave were not only answered, but I even got to make a little agave twine of my own. I did this with the expert help of Vincent Pinto a naturalist and wildlife biologist. Vincent and his wife Claudia run and environmental school called Ravens Way in southeastern Arizona.

Vincent was all set up to show visitors like myself, just how to work with agave fiber. I guess I should backtrack just in case agave is a new plant for you. After all, when I moved out here from Virginia, it was new for me. Agave is found in South America and in the SW United States. It's largely used as an ornamental plant. It flowers only once, but it's quite spectacular when it does. A tall stem rises up from the center of the plant and bears tubular flowers. These stems can be very tall. I've seen them over 5'. After the agave bears fruit, the original plant dies but it usually lives on by way of suckers or root sprouts.

Well, back to the fiber part of this story. When the leaves of the agave die, Vincent allows them to dry. They are very hard and woody. He said that sometimes he will even lay the leaves across a popular foot path. The traffic helps to soften the leaves and make them easier to work with. When the leaves have thoroughly dried, you can take away the outer layer to reveal the fibers within.

Do you see those yellow gloves up in the picture? The are a very good idea when working with agave. I watched as Vincent twisted a leaf in his hands. The dried outer leaf separated easily releasing a powder that Vincent warned was itchy. "You don't want to swallow that." he told me and I believe him. After handling some freshly harvested agave fibers, I found myself scratching my arms all afternoon. Ideally, you would want to wash the fibers before twisting them.

Next Vincent showed me how he plies the fibers just by twisting them with his fingers. When I have a bit more time, I'd like to take some video of this to show you. it's kind of hard to capture in stills. Of course you don't need to bother finger plying if you have something like a drop spindle or spinning wheel around the house! You could make short work of plying agave.

Agave twine is incredibly strong. The staple length of usable fiber is easily over 12". Is does go from thick at the base of the leaf to much more thin at the tip. Some attention would have to be paid to make the twine consistent in weight. The next time you need some strong cord for a project, you might just want to look in your own backyard, if you live in the desert that is.

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