What Is Jute? Uses and Impact of This Sustainable Fabric

Close-Up Of Jute Carpet At Home
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Jute is a natural fiber derived from the jute plant. Although you might not be familiar with its official name, you might recognize a term more commonly associated with this fabric: “burlap.”

The allure of jute is multi-faced: not only is this plant-based fabric biodegradable and produced with a minimal carbon footprint, but it also provides tangible benefits to the environment. 

Jute is the second most commonly produced plant-based fiber—the ever-popular cotton takes the first spot. Jute is well-known for its strength and durability, though this coarse fabric isn’t as commonly used in clothing as much as in industrial and storage materials.

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Plant fibers offer distinct advantages to synthetic fibers, including their non-corrosive nature, their high strength to weight, and their sustainability. For this reason, plant fibers are becoming increasingly popular as a source for clothing textiles, with corners of the fashion world taking an environmentally conscious stance.

How Is Jute Made?

There are a few different plant variations of jute. The two main types are white jute and dark jute, also known as tossa jute. The jute plant requires special growing conditions and soil, needing to be grown in warm, humid climates that have annual monsoon seasons.

Jute field in Savar in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Jute field in Dhaka, Bangladesh. STORYPLUS / Getty Images

Jute’s growing conditions are very similar to rice. A total of 85% of global jute production takes place on the Ganges Delta, particularly in the West Bengal region of India. China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand are among the other prominent jute-growing countries.

Jute fiber comes from the stem and outer skin of the jute plant, which grows in tall, single stems. The plant needs to grow for about four to six months, after which time harvesting begins. Harvest typically takes place after the plant has flowered.

Although jute is primarily known for its fiber, each part of the plant can be used. The jute leaves are cooked in water and eaten as vegetables, while the remaining stick can be used as a form of fuel or building material. 

Raw jute fiber hanging for sun drying
Raw jute fiber sun drying in Assam, India. John Sarkar / Getty Images

After the jute plant has been harvested, there is a multiple-step process to prepare the fibers before they can be used for fabric. The stalks are soaked in water for approximately 20 days, a process known as retting, which helps the fibers to separate from the stalk. After the retting process is complete, the long, shiny fibers can be separated from the stalk and are combed into long strings. The fibers are then spun into yarn on looms.

Following spinning, there are several potential finishing steps that can be taken. The jute yarn may be dyed or applied with chemical processes to make it fire or water-resistant. 

After this final stage, the jute fibers are then sent to textile factories, where they are used to make clothing and industrial textiles. Jute fibers can be woven on both power looms and hand looms to create mats, rugs, and a diverse range of other textiles, all done in unique weaves.

Jute Fabric and How it’s Used

Jute is a durable, rough fabric that can be used in a number of ways, including in apparel, agricultural, industrial, flooring, and homeware. Jute fiber is thick and easy to work with, and also happens to be highly breathable, which makes it an ideal material for hot, humid climates. 

Apparel

Due to its rough nature, jute isn’t as commonly used in apparel, especially in Western countries. In India and other South Asian countries, however, jute has held cultural significance for centuries and is more commonly used as a clothing textile.

Although most types of jute fiber are light brown, there are also white forms of jute, which are popular choices when using jute for apparel. 

In earlier Indian culture, jute fabric was typically associated with the lower classes largely due to its affordability. Jute fabric was also a major component used to create a ghillie suit, which is more or less an old military uniform that was used to help snipers blend into the natural landscape.

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Today, however, high-end designers are beginning to appreciate the environmental angle and the design appeal of jute. Advanced techniques for jute processing are also making it increasingly accessible, leading to the rise of garments like jute jackets, cardigans, and sweaters. In Indian culture, jute is being transformed into printed kurtis, tunics, and sarees. 

Crafts, Furniture, and Beyond 

There is a great diversification in the utility of jute fabric outside of clothing textiles. Hessian cloth is a lighter form of jute fabric, which is typically what is used to make burlap bags. Burlap can also be made from hemp or sisal fibers. For a long time, burlap sacks have been used to transport fruits, vegetables, grains, and other goods.

The utility of jute also extends beyond burlap sacks. Burlap material has been used as an insulator in flooring and to transport goods. In agricultural applications, jute has been used to control erosion and weeds, as well as to protect seeds. Sapling roots are wrapped in jute as protection when they are transplanted, and due to its biodegradable nature, the sapling roots can push through the jute fabric without resistance. 

Handmade natural jute knitted items for home decoration, scandinavian style, beige tones no people, sustainable decor and interior details
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Jute is used to make furniture, chair covers, rugs, curtains, and other household furnishings. Furniture wrapped in jute rope, such as a headboard, a swinging chair, or a hammock, is a fantastic addition to a bohemian-inspired space. The natural, textured style of jute is a stylish accent against soft linens and plush pillows.

Although the fibers can be dyed to almost any color, jute is commonly used in its natural shade, which is a light tan or golden hue. When mixed with other fibers, jute can make twine, string, and rope.

Jute is also a popular material used in crafts and creative DIY projects. This textured fabric can be used to make coasters, placemats, or accent a flower vase.

Environmental Impact 

Beyond its versatility, jute offers numerous environmental advantages. The plant requires minimal fertilizer and pesticide use, particularly in comparison to cotton, which lessens the environmental side effects. In addition, the jute plant is renewable and the leftover roots and leaves that fall off the plant enrich the soil and increase its fertility.

Jute fabric is easy to produce, and the process has a lesser impact on the environment than many synthetic materials. In general, natural fibers, including jute, hemp, and flax, have a much lower carbon footprint than glass and mineral fibers. Even the expired fiber from jute can be recycled more than once, making every aspect of jute— from seed to expired fiber—sustainable.

Brazil - Jute factory
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Jute is highly beneficial to the environment in many regards. Through the processes of absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen, the jute plant helps clean the air. Every hectare of jute crops absorbs approximately 15 tons of carbon dioxide and releases 11 tons of oxygen.

Environmentally conscious companies are drawn to jute as the fibers are 100% biodegradable, which means that any product made from jute fibers will fully decompose at the end of the product life cycle.

Not only is every part of the plant used, but it even offers nutritional benefits. The jute leaves contain Vitamin C, calcium, and iron, they are rich in antioxidants and are also used in ayurvedic treatments.

Alternatives to Jute

Jute is a distinct fiber with unique characteristics, although some comparisons can be drawn between jute and other natural fibers, including sisal fiber. Sisal is another plant-based fiber that is commonly used in weaving baskets and mats, as well as making liners and rope.

Jute is softer than sisal, which makes it more pliable and easier to work with. Sisal is more durable and easier to clean, however, and also grows more easily in a variety of soil types.

Although the stiff nature of sisal fiber won’t make it a viable substitute for jute fabric, this environmentally friendly fiber can take the place of jute for carpets, rugs, and more industrial products with fewer limitations on the regions in which it can grow. 

The Future of Jute

Despite its many benefits, jute fabric also has some disadvantages. The fabric can be brittle, is prone to shedding fiber, yellows in the sunlight, and doesn’t drape particularly well. For its more industrial purposes, these qualities don’t matter as much. For clothing, however, these disadvantages are more significant and may be viewed as a deterrent for designers and clothing companies who may prefer to use softer, easier to work with fabrics. 

Red White and Blue colored jute ruffled fabric arts and craft material
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Luckily, there are ways to overcome some of jute’s challenges. Castor oil lubricants can minimize yellowing and jute can also be processed with enzymes to reduce some of its stiffness. After it has been treated, jute can also be dyed more easily. The natural colors become much more vibrant in jute when dyed after the enzyme treatment. These processes make jute fabric easier to work with when it comes to creating apparel. 

With an increasing celebration of all things sustainable and a steady rise of innovation in the fashion industry, designers and clothing companies may be incorporating more and more eco-friendly practices into their apparel, including the fibers used.

Such advancements are diversifying jute products, which are becoming increasingly valuable on the consumer market. Espadrilles, cardigans, sweaters, rugs, and upscale textiles are among some of the jute products emerging on the market. Advanced processing techniques and creative designers might just make jute the fabric of the future.