By the middle of the 20th Century agave fibers were next to cotton in importance in America. By 1952 their value sometimes amounted to over 36 million dollars per year. But due to labor costs and the availability of synthetic alternatives their production declined thereafter. These plants are stemless perennials with basal rosettes of erect fleshy leaves. The leaves contain fibers that are removed either by hand or machine. There are numerous species of local occurrence. They are very drought tolerant and flourish in dry sterile soils. Several kinds of commercial importance are discussed as follows:
Henequén or Mexican Sisal (Agave fourcroydes)
Amerindian groups have used this native Mexican species since ancient times. By the mid 20th Century Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula produced most of the crop. The leaves bear spines that make them difficult to handle. The light straw colored fiber is scraped out from the leaf tissue. It is hard, elastic and wiry, measuring 2-5 ft. in length. It was used mainly for binder twine, lariats and durable mats. It is not suited for marine or hoisting cables, as it is heavy and weak. Tablemats constructed from this fiber have a beautiful luster and are resistant to stains. Agave letonae from El Salvador is a related species. Production declined dramatically by the 21st Century.
Sisal (Agave sisalana)
This is very similar in appearance to henequén but the leaves bear few spines. Native to Mexico and Central America it was cultivated in Hawaii, the East and West Indies and in several parts of Africa. The plant is very drought resistant and will grow where other species fail. Little cultivation is required. The coarse, stiff, light yellow to white fibers are removed, cleaned, dried and packed in bales for shipment. Synthetic fibers also largely replaced sisal by the 21st Century.
In ancient times there were several fibers used in Mexico under the names of Istle, Ixtle or Tampico Fiber. Three species of most importance are Jaumaveistle, Agave funkiana, Tula Istle, A. lecheguilla, and Palma Istle, Samuela carnerosana. Several species of Yucca were also grouped under the category of Istle. The fibers are obtained from immature leaves of wild plants. Although these fibers are shorter than those of sisal and henequén, they are very strong and durable. They were formerly used for brushes and as a cheap substitute for sisal and abacá to make bagging, twine and rope.
Manila Maguey or Cantala, Agave cantala, is a species from Mexico that was introduced into India and Southeastern Asia. It was grown commercially in the Philippines, Java and elsewhere as a substitute for sisal. Mexican Maguey is obtained from different species of Agave and the fibers are valued only locally by the inhabitants of the region in which it grows. It was nevertheless a highly valued plant by Amerindians who used it to make the fermented beverages of Pulque and Mescal.
Leaves of the green aloe, Furcraea gigantea, are the source of Mauritius hemp. The plant is native to tropical America but is grown worldwide, where local inhabitants use its fiber. It has been grown commercially in Mauritius, Madagascar, St. Helena and South Africa, India, Venezuela and Brazil, where it is know as Piteira. The plant resembles an agave but has larger, less rigid leaves and a very long peduncle or flower stalk that can reach of height of 20-40 ft. The fibers are very long, 4-7 ft., and they are white, soft, very flexible and elastic. They are not as strong as sisal and are used either alone or in a mixture for making bags, hammocks, coarse twine and other cordage.