Drying sisal fibre in the sun

Exploring Sisal Fibre in Yucatan, Mexico

by Jo Salter, Founder Where Does It Come From? Ltd, Director Khadi London CIC

In July 2023, during a family trip to Mexico, I signed up for a Sisal tour at the hacienda of Sotuta de Peon, near the vibrant city of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsular. Here are some highlights from my trip into the heart of Hanekan, a plant whose story intertwines with the history of sisal.

Built in the mid-nineteenth century, Sotuta de Peón began its journey in 1858. For a century, it flourished, prospering from its original vocation of sisal production. However, external factors hit and the hacienda, once a beacon of prosperity, faced a period of abandonment lasting three long decades.

Hanekan at Sotuta de Peon by Jo Salter
Hanekan growing at Sotuta de Peon (photo by Jo Salter)

Did you know that the port in the Yucatan region was named Sisal, giving rise to the global recognition of the term? When shipments of the fibrous material arrived worldwide, marked with the name of the port, ‘sisal’ became the label for this remarkable plant.

Sisal fibre, derived from the mature leaves of the plant, stands in stark contrast to the production of Mescal, the tequila spirit beloved by many (including my 18 year old who got a taste for it on this trip!), which originates from the young plant. Each Hanekan plant graces the earth for approximately 25 years, blooming only once in its life. Harvesting is a delicate process, allowing for the collection of about 20 leaves per plant annually, and seedlings patiently wait seven years before they are ready for harvest.

Hanekan at Sotuta de Peon
A view of the fibres in the Hanekan leaf (photo by Jo Salter)

As we explored the hacienda, once a bustling centre for Sisal production, the guide shared insights into the meticulous process. The fibrous treasure lies within the thick leaves, and Sotuta de Peon was once a powerhouse, churning out bales of Sisal. The transformation into ropes, sack cloth, and various products occurred overseas in Europe, as the industry thrived.

However, the golden era faced challenges with the advent of synthetics and shifting Mexican land ownership laws, leading to the industry’s collapse. Now, remnants of this rich history can be discovered in a small museum on the hacienda grounds, showcasing the laborious journey from leaf to fibre. The process, akin to the production of hemp, involves bashing Henequen leaves to release the fibres, which are then sun-dried. Originally a manual task, technological advancements later eased the labour.

Drying sisal fibre in the sun
Sisal fibre drying in the sun at Sotuta de Peon (photo by Jo Salter)

Our guide revealed that, in the current landscape, the price of sisal has dwindled to a point where its production alone isn’t economically viable. Consequently, the hacienda has found a new source of sustenance in tourism and the museum, offering visitors a glimpse into the past.

It’s intriguing to learn that these sisal plantations, including Sotuta de Peon, were established by Spanish Mexicans, though conversations I had with local guides throughout our journey implied that the indigenous Mayans were involved in sisal-related activities before this era. As we meandered through the remnants of a once-booming industry, the echoes of history left me with a deep appreciation for the intricate journey of sisal and its indelible mark on the Yucatan Peninsula. I hope you enjoy these photos from my trip – it really was a fascinating experience for a fibre enthusiast like me!

Sisal Fibre Sotuta de Peon
Fibre ready for spinning into rope or other use (photo by Jo Salter)

Thank you to everyone at Sotuta de Peon for your informative tour and interesting museum.

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