Natural Bristles – Brush Fibres

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The definitive guide to natural bristles with 18 different types of eco-friendly bristles

Click here for the definition of Bristle 

Aphandra (Aphandra Natalia)

The West Amazonian Piassaba fibre Aphandra is extracted from the palm Aphandra Natalia, which grows in tropical lowland rainforests in Ecuador and Peru close to the foothills of the Andes.

This palm has been known and exploited for centuries by indigenous communities for a multitude of purposes. Its leaves are used for thatch and for darts for blowguns, its male flowers are used for feeding domestic animals, the pulp of its fruits is used for attracting game animals, its seeds are used for making figurines etc., and most importantly the fibre from its leaf sheaths is extracted and used to make various brooms and brushes. This fibre is almost identical to ?Piassaba? fibre extracted from species of Attalea and Leopoldinia elsewhere in the Amazon.

The Piassaba fibres from the Northern and Eastern Amazon have been known and amply documented in literature since they were discovered by western science in the 19th century. It was therefore surprising when in 1985 the west Amazonian Piassaba palm was discovered to belong to the group of ivory palms (subfamily Phytelephantoideae) that is distributed in the western parts of the South American continent (Balslev & Henderson, 1987).

As it turned out, all brooms made from natural plant fibre throughout Ecuador were made with Aphandra Natalia, and many indigenous communities in Amazonian Ecuador had and still have important economic incomes originating from this fibre palm ? but it was believed until recently that it was a local phenomenon restricted to Ecuador.

A few years ago our company imported some Aphandra, which was ideal for semi-stiff platform brooms, but the supply was erratic, and none has been imported recently.

Arenga [Gumati] (Arenga saccharifera Labill)

Whilst this palm is widely distributed, the only source of brush fibre is Indonesia. The fibre is harvested from the Arenga Pinnata Palm. Gumati is softer and finer than Bahia Bass, but has similar excellent wearing and sweeping qualities. It does not crush easily or rot, and is hard wearing and resilient. Brushes manufactured with Gumati are excellent for sweeping dry concrete and smooth floors such as in warehouses. Gumati has also become relatively expensive over the last few years, and is now often mixed with cheaper fibres such as Palmyra and Coir to reduce the brush fibre cost.

Bahia Bass/Piassava (Attalea funifera Martius)

Bahia comes from the state of Bahia in Brazil, and was first brought to Europe in cargo boats as packing between sugar cane. The fibre was left on the dock side, and some intelligent person realised that it would make an excellent brush fibre. Bahia?a leaf stalk fibre and is harvested from the tree and can be up to 5m long. It tapers from end to end, and therefore has to be sorted and graded before cutting. It?holds water well and does not rot when damp, and is resilient to distortion. These properties make Bahia the best fibre for semi-stiff yard brooms and platform brooms. Bahia is also widely used for chimney sweeps’ brushes.

Bahia is an expensive fibre, and is therefore often mixed with Palmyras and/or synthetic materials.

It is interesting to note the origins of the usage of the term ?Piassava? or ?Piassaba? by which Bahia is generally known. The name derives from ?piacaba? in Tupi, an Amerindian language, and modified by the alternate ?v? or ?b? in Portuguese. The name applies to the fibre and not the palm. The term is now also used in conjunction with Sherbro from Sierra Leone.

History tells of a brush maker in Liverpool, UK, in the 1840?s named Mr Bass, who was allegedly the first person to make brushes with Bahia. The fibre had been offered to him by a salesman who had brought it from Liverpool docks. This is an interesting story, but is not thought to be from where the term ?Bass? was derived.

The use of the term ?Bass? almost certainly emanates from the early 1800s, and is probably a corruption of ?Bast?, the material obtained by stripping the outer layer of phloem fibres from dicotyledenous plant stems. Such strips were widely used for tying the twig bundles in besom making.

Bassine/Palmyra (Borassus flabellifera)

Borassus Flabellimormis or the sago palm grows in the East Indies as well in Sir Lanka. The process of threshing the dried palm leaves releases the leaf fibres. These are brownish color and characteristically the bassine is softer and more fragile than other piassavas. The Colombo bassine from Sir Lanka is a more rigid type of Bassine.

This material is derived from the stalks of the Palmyra palm in Southern India mainly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu States. The best material comes from an area around Tuticorin, and is available in various grades of stiffness. Bassine is inexpensive and durable, and its sweeping qualities are fair, but it is not resilient and may distort in use especially when wet. As with most of the other vegetable fibres it has good resistance to heat and most chemicals.

Bassine is shipped in bundles ready to use in a brush-making machine, which makes it attractive to the brush manufacturer.

It is used in cheaper warehouse brooms, in mixtures for scrubbing brushes, and in cheaper household brushes and brooms.

Cane and Palmyra Mixtures natural Bristles

Much of the Cane is mixed in India with Palmyra in different percentages, and is used in large quantities by brush makers to produce low cost yard brooms. The fibre sweeps rather poorly, wears quickly and is unsatisfactory in wet conditions. It is sometimes referred to as ?Grape? or ?Apple? mixture, and these terms donate the mixture proportions. Unfortunately brushes made with this mixture are sometimes incorrectly described as Bass brooms. This is a misleading term because a Bass broom has always been a broom which is manufactured with either Sherbro or Bahia Bass, which are both good quality fibres.

As the fibres are harvested and degrade naturally, it is environmentally friendly.

Broom Grass (Miscanthidium sorghum)

This grass stalk material grows in the mountainous regions of Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) in Southern Africa at approximately 2,500m alongside mountain streams, in a rarefied cold atmosphere. It is the rarefied atmosphere which gives the broom grass its resilience. The maximum length available is about 500mm, but we purchase ready-cut bundles of 203mm and 229mm. The Broom Grass is collected from various villages by a local company, which then delivers the Grass to Cape Town, about 500 miles away, to be containerised.

Whilst brooms are made with 100% Broom Grass in Lesotho, we only mix it with other materials such as Cane, Palmyra, Polypropylene and Sherbro. The mixtures are used in lighter domestic brooms and yard brooms. The light green colour looks very attractive in the finished mixtures.

The Broom Grass has to be purchased by the container load due to the freight costs involved. Lesotho, being a relatively poor country, is largely dependent on any export which it can derive and the sale of the grass is important to them. At the moment their exports are insufficient to support the needs of the country, and substantial aid is provided by major countries throughout the world. This aid will always be needed unless they can increase their exports of items such as Broom Grass.

Split Palmyra/Cane

This material is from the mid rib of the Palmyra Palm leaf. It is not used on its own for brush production, but is always mixed with other materials. It is used to enhance the stiffness of Sherbro Piassava, and the natural cane makes the mixtures more attractive due to its creamy colour, which is a good contrast to the brown of Sherbro. Dyed Cane is also available, which is also used in mixtures.

Coco Fibre (Coir) (Cocos nucifera)

Coco fibre is the only seed fibre used in brush making, and it is obtained from the husk of the coconut palm in Sri Lanka. The husks are soaked, retted and crushed to extract the brush fibre; and the inner part of the nut is made into food products.

The Coco palm is very productive. The leaves are used for roofs of houses and the stems are bound together to make cheap local stiff brooms. The husk of the nuts produces brush fibre, mattress fibre and coir rope, and the dust from the husk is compressed into blocks for compost. The milk is extracted from the nut, and the inner part of the nut is made into ?Bounty? chocolate bars.

Coco fibre is inexpensive and has average wearing and sweeping properties and is liable to crush and distort, and is used mainly in the cheaper household and industrial brooms. Coco is mixed with other fibres such as PVC, Polypropylene, Gumati and Palmyra (Bassine) to improve its resilience, and reduce the cost of the other materials.

The tough fibre ropes of the coconut (Cocos Nusifera) beard is soaked in water for a month. In order to hasten the process of exposing the bare fibre, the ropes are beaten. After dying, the fibre is dressed and sorted. Coconut fibre is produced in India. The material is soft and not particularly elastic. It’s most common use is for yard brooms and in mixtures with other plant fibres.

Boar Bristle

Boar Bristle comes from China. For fine brushes bristle comes from the neck of the boar, and for paint brushes it comes from the animal?s flank. Boar Bristle is characterised by its stiffness and elasticity. The bristle comes from various areas of China such as Chungking, Hankow and Tsingtao, and is available generally in white, black and grey, but can be dyed any colour. The supply of bristle has become very difficult over the last few years. There are about 50 major dressing companies in China, but they have found that they can more easily supply their home market, which is booming. As the Chinese middle classes grow, so does their purchasing power. Another cause of the shortages is that the Chinese are now rearing boars more for consumption, and the boars with long bristle are not being bred so much.

The cost of bristle has risen inexorably in recent years, partly due to the shortage of supply, and partly due to the fact that the Chinese currency has increased in value, and the Chinese government has removed some export rebates.

CEREAL ROOT

Cereal root is the root of a species of grass, zacaton plant, which grows on the high plateaux of Mexico. The roots of the Zacaton are cut from the plant, washed clean from soil and transported to a preparation factory. Cereal root is a tought, elastic and water-resistant material which is used for vegetable brushes and washing-up brushes.

 
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Goat Hair

Goat hair is also sourced from China. The hair is clipped from the breast of the goat where it is soft and springy. The hair is then washed and combed. Though soft, it is also durable and resilient. It is almost exclusively used in high quality equestrian brushes for bringing the final gloss to horses? coats and for computer keyboard cleaning brushes.

Horsehair

Horsehair from Paraguay and China is durable and resilient, and is ideal for use in brushes for cleaning smooth floors and windows, and in cobweb brushes. It is also used in high quality equestrian brushes. The best horsehair is from the tail.

Madagascar Bass (Raphia Pendunenlata)

This is a leaf fibre from the Bonitra palm. The fibre is extracted by rotting. It is a rich ruby colour and is characterised by its elasticity and durability. The fibre was used for yard brooms and upholstery brushes, but is now rarely seen.

Mexican Fibre or Tampico (Agave lophantha)

Mexican fibre, or Tampico as it is also known, is a leaf fibre which comes from the spiny, cactus-like lecheguilla plant that grows wild in the semi-desert upland areas of Mexico. The fibre is extracted by scraping away the pulpy matter from the freshly cut leaves. It distinguishes itself by its great elasticity and resistance to temperature change, as well as to acids and caustic soda, and its fineness for polishing and grinding. It is also water absorbent and non-electrostatic so that the brushes remain dust free. The description ?Tampico? takes its name from the port in Mexico from which the fibre is exported.

There were problems with supply some years ago, mainly due to the rural exodus from the area where the fibre grows, resulting in a shortage of talladores (fibre pickers). This problem seems to have been mainly overcome but sometimes supplies are difficult due to weather conditions.

The fibre used to be a component part of all scrubbing brush mixtures, where it was mixed with Indian Palmyra, but due to the cost of the Mexican/Tampico, it is now often replaced by polypropylene. This has reduced the quality of the brushes, because Tampico?s best property is its capacity to hold water, which is 65% more than polypropylene.

Tampico is harvested from the wild plants, and is completely bio-degradable. The fibre is available in a natural cream colour, but is also supplied polished and also dyed black and as a grey mixture.

Mexican Whisk or Broom Root (Epicanpes Macoura)

This fibre is known as Mexican Whisk, Broom Root or rice Root, and is the root of the Epicampes macoura plant which grows in Central America. The roots of the plant are pulled from the ground and the skin is removed by rubbing them with water and stones. The best quality grows in Mexico, and it is a deep yellow colour with a natural crimp and is acknowledged as the best material for animal grooming brushes. The fibre tends to become brittle, and therefore the fibres are often soaked in water before use.

PIASSAVA/MADAGASCAR

The African piassava (Riphia Renefern), is not extracted from the leaf casing but from the stalks of palm species which grow in the swamp areas of West Africa. During preparation, the stalks are steeped in water where they rot after which fleshy parts of the leaves are removed. After the stalks are dried in the sun, they are threshed by hand with flails and flax-combs. The African piassava is light brown or reddish brown color. The length of the stalks vary, as does their stiffness and elasticity. The African piassava is used mainly for brooms, brushes on road sweepers and brushes used for raking athletics tracks.

The Bahian-piassava is obtained from the leaf of the Attal?a palm. The leaf is enclosed in a casing which seperates when the leaf is fully developed. The casing if left haning on the trunk and after some time only the dark brown fibres remain. The fibres are allowed to rot after which the 1-4 metre long fibre stalks are dried in the sun and sorted. The Bahia piassava grows in the Brazilian province Bahia. The Bahia piassava is an excellent material for road brushes as it is tough and elastic.

Madagascar is a type of piassava and comes from the leaf fibre of the Bonitra palm, Raphia Pendunenlata. The name of this raw material indicates it’s place of growth, i.e. Madagascar which lies off the east coast of South Africa. The fibre are extracted by rotting. The raw material is dark brown in color and is characterised by it’s elasticity and durability. Madagascar is used for yard brooms, mattresses and upholstrery brushes.

 
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Sherbro

Sherbro comes from Sierra Leone, in West Africa. It’s renowned for its good sweeping qualities on rugged surfaces in all conditions, as well as being crush resistant. It’s an adequate alternative to Bahia.

UNION MIXTURE

Union mixture is a mixture of white fibre and bassine. It?s a strong and water-resistant mixture which is used for vegetable brushes, deck brushes and scrubbing brushes.

 
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WHITE Natural FIBRES

White fibre, Mexican fibre or Tampico is extracted from the leaves of certain species of Agave (Agaves Sisalana, Agave Foreyodes) which grows mainly in Mexico. The fleshy leaf of the Agave plant is cut off and threshed, after which it?s beaten with sticks so that the fibres are released. On large plantations, theshing machines are used. The natural colour varies from green to yellowish-white although the fibre can also be black or brown as well as grey. The material is used extensively for making yard brooms, panel brushes, deck brushes, nail brushes and bath brushes. The fibre is also used mixed together with other materials, for example, coconut, bassine or horsehair.

 
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