The History of Sisal: From Ancient Utility to Modern Style

The History of Sisal: From Ancient Utility to Modern Style

Sisal is a popular material for the modern rug shopper for lots of reasons: it’s affordable, it’s durable, and best of all, it’s made from natural fibers. But sisal’s appeal is not unique to the tastes of the 21st century. In fact, sisal as a material has a history longer than that of the United States, or even the concept of the New World itself! Read on to learn more about the history of sisal and discover its truly impressive pedigree.



What is sisal made of?

Sisal is the name for both the plant and the material spun from the plant's fibers. So, the answer to the question, “What is sisal made of?” is simple: sisal is made of sisal. In other words, when talking about sisal as a material, we are referring to the woven fibers as opposed to the whole plant. 

The scientific name for the plant called sisal is agave sisalana, which is closely related to blue agave, the plant that gives us tequila. The designation sisalana, comes from the Mexican city Sisal in Yucatán, Mexico, where sisal fiber goods were first shipped for international trade in the 19th century. 

Sisal Has Ancient Roots in Mexico

Of course, sisal as a plant and as a useful material did not start in the 19th century. Prior to Spanish conquest, sisal was known by the Mayan name Yaxci, and the Mayans and Aztecs both used it to make ropes. Sisal ropes are still among the strongest made today.

A few centuries after the Spanish invaded what is now Mexico, sisal became more and more popular as a material to make things other than ropes and twine. Its fibers eventually found their way into other products, such as paper, hats, and, yes, even rugs. Before long, sisal products were being exported from Mexico, and a few decades later, sisal plants themselves were being exported. 

In 1893, German agronomist Dr. Richard Hindorf brought 1000 sisal plants from Mexico to Tanzania. Of those 1000 plants, only 62 survived—enough to plant the proverbial seeds of sisal’s eventual foothold in Africa. Around this same time, sisal was brought to many other countries with warm, arid climates, such as Brazil, Cuba, and other Caribbean and East African countries. 

Sisal in the 20th Century

The first half of the 20th saw a rapid expansion of sisal crops in arid countries around the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, sisal became increasingly vital to the economies of East Africa. At the time of its independence in 1961, Tanzania was the world’s most prolific commercial grower of sisal. 

But East Africa was not the only region that saw tremendous economic benefits from sisal production in the 20th century. While sisal had been introduced as a crop decades earlier, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that Brazil started producing significant amounts of sisal. By the middle of the 20th century, Brazil was a leading producer of sisal, coming in second only to Tanzania. 

The economic boom of sisal in Tanzania, Brazil, and other countries lasted until the 1980s, when it was cut short by the advent of cheap synthetic materials such as nylon. In the 1980s and 1990s, competition from synthetics caused production to slow considerably, prices for sisal plummeted, and many plantations went out of business. 

Modern Resurgence 

In 1997, Tanzania’s parliament established the Tanzania Sisal Board to oversee and expand the production of sisal. This was led by Gulamabbas Dewji’s MeTL Group, a Tanzanian industrial conglomerate that was able to purchase many shuttered plantations and shepherd a revival of the sisal industry there. 

Today, sisal as a crop and as a material for making many different products has regained popularity. Production continues to be steady or increasing in places like Brazil, China, and other locations with hot, arid climates. This allows sisal products, including sisal rugs, to continue to be affordable and sustainable options for consumers around the world. 

Bring Home a Piece of History

While a new sisal rug may not be an heirloom (yet!), it is still steeped in tradition and history that spans the globe. Our sisal rugs are available in modern designs as well as more simple, traditional styles. Shop our wide selection of sisal rugs today. 


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