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Of the London Missionary Society



Within the last twenty years a vast extension has taken place of the economic uses to which this valuable fibre is put. The term “coir,” usually applied to this material, is the anglicised form of the South Indian kayaru cord or twine, and is not applied in India to the raw fibre, which is called in the Tamil language savuri. The fibrous husk or rind of the cocoanut is, though uneatable, a very valuable part of the tree. It is readily stripped from the nut, while yet green, by striking it on the point of a stake or iron spike fastened upright in the ground; and it is then at once steeped in salt and brackish water, large bundles of the husk being secured together by means of netting, or bambu stakes in the water. It lies for several months, until the softer portions of the husk rot away, and the strong fibre alone remains.

This is taken out, beaten with a stick to separate and clean the fibre, and twisted with a simple rope-making machine into the coir yarn, and this again is twisted with the required number of strands into rope of various thicknesses. It is also woven into webs of matting, or single mats, and the stiffer fibres made into brushes and other articles of domestic utility. The attempt has been made to prepare the fibre from the dried husk in England, but without success.

Much of the coir fibre used in England is brought from Ceylon, but a large and increasing quantity is now exported from Bombay and the Western Coast of India, especially Travancore and Cochin. The fibre is pressed like cotton for shipping into bales weighing 200 lbs. each. Where formerly the natives allowed it to go to waste, or used it as fuel, European merchants and native agents are prepared to give a price for this fibre, and the price is steadily advancing.

Of course, the supply is not inexhaustible, but as prices rice, it encourages the cultivation generally, and makes it better worth while for the cultivators to bring the fibre to market even from some distance; fortunately for this traffic, all the growth of this palm is along the sea coast, where alone the tree flourishes and where generally there is water carriage.

Factories for the weaving of Coir matting have been opened by English and American firms at Alleppey, Quilon, Colachel, Cochin, &c., and turn out a considerable quantity of goods. The buildings are in quadrangles or long ranges, with iron roofing. Spinning is not attempted in these, as it is cheaper done by hand at the place where the fibre is produced. Along the coasts of the backwaters and canals, many people may now be seen busily engaged in scraping and cleaning the fibre, and twisting it into yarn. In the factories the yam is first sorted to its various shades and qualities.

The warp is made by boys running backwards and forwards, then it is flattened and smoothed for weaving by being run through heavy rollers. The weaving is laborious work, performed by men, who earn two or three rupees a week at it. The web is again rolled to give it some finish, wound securely in a roll and marked.

Single mats are also fabricated. Large profits have been made in this manufacture in India. But it can now be carried on so much better in England with the machinery and appliances available there, that a great quantity of the plain fibre and the yarn is exported from Travancore. These are worked up, by large firms in London and elsewhere, into matting and other articles of various patterns, colours, and degrees of fineness. One firm in Lancaster have introduced steam-loom weaving of this fabric.

The various shades of fibre — cream-coloured, reddish brown, and blackish — which vary greatly according to care and skill in preparation — are first carefully separated : most of the fibre, however, is used of the natural colour. Cocoanut matting is now made of fine quality, with pretty shades of colour, and in pleasing geometrical and card-loom patterns, so as to be available for higher uses than the very coarse makes; and the material is most durable. The yarn is also plaited by machinery into cinnet or belting.

Cables made from coir bear exposure to salt water better than anything else, the tannin which it contains preventing the fibre from rotting; they are exceedingly light and buoyant as well as elastic. Coir cordage in Dr. Wight’s experiments broke at 224 lbs. weight. Even the refuse and broken fibre can be turned to account for stuffing mattresses, draining flower-pots, &c., as no insect will touch it.

The exports from Travancore of this material made from the apparently worthless husk of the cocoanut, in addition to the leaves, wood, shells, dried kernel {copra)y and oil, amount to considerable. items in the list, and form more than half of the whole. In the last year, under report, M.E. 1056 (1880-81) exports of coir yarn amounted to 137,000 cts. valued at 12½ lacs of rupees (say £ 26,000), and paying to the Sirkar a duty of Rs. 62,755. Of fibre 681 cwts. were exported, valued at Rs. 4,900; and of the cocoanuts themselves nearly nine millions, valued at Rs. 243,100, and paying customs duty Rs. 12,154.

Other products of this palm exported — as oil and copra or dried kernel —were valued, the former at Rs. 272,600, and the latter at no less than 28 lacs of rupees, making a total value of the export of products of the cocoanut palm from Travancore alone of 46 lacs of rupees (approaching half a million sterling), besides all that is used in the country itself. Some thousands of tons are also exported from Cochin. A valuable palm this !

Statistics of the quantity and value of the matting manufactured are not given in the annual Government reports.

The market price, of late, in Travancore and Cochin for fibre is from Rs. 11 to Rs. 12 per bale of 200 English lbs. In London this is sold by auction, at rates varying from £22 to £31 per ton. Coir yarn is sold in India at very varying rates, from Rs. 25 per candy of 654 lbs. for the very lowest quality, to Rs. 6j for the very best. In the European market the price for the same qualities respectively now ranges from £20 to £45 per ton. The demand in England is active, and steadily increasing. Scarcely enough of the raw material can be procured to keep the present machinery going. Good prices are given for fair qualities, but complaints of bad colour, harsh fibre, and unsatisfactory preparation, are frequent.

Cocoanut fibre is so durable, useful and economical a material that a great future is assuredly before the industry; and as prices rise, the natives will pay increasing attention to the collection of the whole amount produced, and to its careful preparation. Perhaps when, through increased demand, the fibre becomes still more expensive, it may be found possible to prepare it of greatly improved quality and appearance by steaming or boiling, so as to avoid the pollution of ponds and backwaters by the decomposing pulp of the husk, and the consequent blackening of the fibre so often observed.

The textile ingenuity of the present age of invention may perhaps devise some additional uses for this fibre; hats and bonnets made of this material, it is said, attracted much attention at the Great Exhibition in London.

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