Sisal is a term which refers both to a species of agave native to Central America, and to the fiber which can be produced by this plant by processing its leaves. The fiber can be used for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from papermaking to textiles. Plantations for growing sisal can be found in many areas of the world, including Latin America and the Caribbean, and the plant has sometimes been fingered as a target for environmental degradation because native plants and forests may be removed to make way for a sisal plantation and processing plant.
The plant, known formally as Agave sisalana, has origins which are a bit uncertain. Several Central American cultures have a long history of growing and using sisal, making it difficult to determine where the plant first appeared, and how much human influence has contributed to the plant's evolution. When European explorers reached the Americas, this plant was one of the many products they were introduced to.
These plants produce rosettes of sword-shaped leaves which start out toothed, and gradually lose their teeth with maturity. Each leaf contains a number of long, straight fibers which can be removed in a process known as decortication. During decortication, the leaves are beaten to remove the pulp and plant material, leaving the tough fibers behind. The fibers can be spun into thread for twine and textile production, or pulped to make paper products.
Sisal is too rough to be worn, but it can be used to make rugs, placemats, and floor mats. It is often used in doormats for its rugged and durable properties, and the coarse surface makes it ideal for trapping dirt from shoes. Floor rugs tend to be made from higher quality sisal which may be treated to be smooth, and sisal can also be used for things like wall hangings, upholstery stuffing, and ornamental items. Scrap fiber or low quality fibers can be used to make paper and cardboard.
In its natural state, sisal has a creamy to straw color. It may be bleached to be white, or dyed with various colors for the purpose of making patterned decorative products. It can also be treated to smooth it, make it more durable, or help it resist fungal growth. Sisal rugs are classically backed and edged with cotton or wool to help them cling to the floor and to prevent scratches and damage to the floor from the coarse sisal fiber.