A city with a history of textile production; Dundee was the largest global producer of jute in the 1800s. The city’s location at the mouth of the Tay estuary, its whaling industry and British imperialism created jute barons and employment for thousands.
The industrialisation of the textile industry in Dundee began in the late 1700s. Initially producing linen and flax in the mills, at its height in the mid-1800s the city’s jute industry was employing 50,000 people. Jute was known as the golden fibre, making huge fortunes for the few, but also contributing to the livelihoods of people across the globe.
The heritage of the Scottish jute industry can be explored at the Verdant Works in Dundee. In an internationally acclaimed museum housed in a restored jute mill, the story is told from field to fabric, entwined with the city’s social history.
Jute fibre is processed from the stems of two species, Corchorus capsularis, and Corchorus olitorius. They are both annual plants originating from the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Technical advancements have led to developments in jute cultivation on an industrial scale with production currently greatest in India and China.
Jute is second only to cotton in terms of global natural fibre production. In cultivation it has the same large water requirements but, unlike cotton, usually needs little fertiliser and few pesticides. More commonly jute is grown by individual farmers on a small scale. The seed is not drilled, but scattered by hand on prepared soil. Best suited to floodplain soils, Corchorus species are cultivated in rotation with crops requiring similar conditions such as rice. The sowing-to-harvest cycle can be as short as four months in tropical environments such as the Ganges Delta.
After harvest, the jute stems require retting to soften the strong fibres. The traditional method is to soak the stems in fresh water for several weeks, but in industrialised processes mechanical hammering and chemical retting are also used. Once the fibres are extracted, the jute-bast is hung to dehydrate fully before it is packaged into bundles for sale.
In the search for plastics replacements, 100% biodegradable jute-based packaging alternatives are on the rise. Materials research is also exploring new applications for this versatile plant fibre. The environmental benefits are obvious; and increased global demand may contribute to sustainable livelihoods in countries like Bangladesh, where more than 35 million people live below the poverty line.
Chhabilendra R 2009. The International Jute Commodity System. Northern Book Centre.
Lewington A 2003. Plants for people. Transworld Publishers.
Tomlison J 2014. Dundee and the Empire: ‘Juteopolis’ 1850-1939. Edinburgh University Press.