Bast Fiber

fine strands from the inner bark of plants and trees


Bast fibers are plant fibers found inside stems or bark. They are generally recovered by smashing the plant material with a stone or other weight. Once separated, they can be twisted together to make cordage, or, if fine enough, spun into thread or yarn. Here are a few of the more famous plants that provide bast fiber. Interestingly, they all have other uses.

WILLOW. The tree bark provides cordage fiber to make fairly strong string. Willow bark is also used as an analgesic tea.

PURPLE MILKWEED. Also called “heartleaf”, it produces tough string and cordage. Other kinds of milkweed have bast fiber of differing strengths. Purple milkweed is used as a contraceptive and an abortifacient.

LINDEN. The inner bark of the tree produces durable fiber that softens with use. In spring, the sweet sap can be tapped. The fragrant flowers are used in herbal teas. The young leaves are eaten in salads. Also known as “basswood” or “European lime”, linden splints are prized in basketry.

STINGING NETTLE. Nettle fiber is hollow, making it especially valuable for clothing: when wetted, it does not lose all of its insulative properties. It keeps the wearer cooler in hot weather, warmer in cold. Nettle is also used as an herbal medicine. Carefully prepared young nettle shoots are edible and nutritious.

FLAX. Flax is the durable fiber found within the long stems of a plant with pretty little blue flowers. Flax seeds are edible but faintly bitter. Once called “linn”, this plant is also the source of edible nutritious linseed oil. Flax seeds produce tasty spicy sprouts.

YUCCA, LECHUGUILLA, AGAVE. These plants in the arid American Southwest all provide valuable nourishment, as well as tough useful fiber.


Dyed flax fibers that date to 30,000 BCE were found in a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia. In medieval times, growing and processing flax was a major industry. The fiber was extracted by leaving the stems in ponds where bacteria would rot away the other material. It was such a foul-smelling business that some towns made ordinances that “retting ponds” had to be outside of heavily populated areas.

The Miwok people used purple milkweed extensively for making clothing and nets. A 40-foot-long deer net contained about 7,000 feet of cordage, requiring the harvesting of approximately 35,000 plant stalks. The work was done without any tools, just fingers. To stimulate growth of this plant, the Miwok would burn patches of fields.

Bast Fiber