Pineapple Textile: The New Sustainable Industry

Gone are the days when pineapple leaves are tossed into the compost pit or buried in the landfills. For from its thorny leaves come fine and sustainable textile.

First, there was a fabric from which a type of clothing became a distinctive mark among Filipinos. The Barong Tagalog.

In retrospect, way before the pre-Hispanic period, the locals of Aklan, Central Philippines were already weaving the fine fibers of the leaves of the Red Spanish pineapple. They called it piña. From this fabric, came the Barong Tagalog, the Filipino men’s formal wear. Its naturally beautiful characteristics easily appealed to the aristocrats of the time. Before long, the piña textile saw trading as far as the western world.

Pineapple textile
From leaves to fine textile (Photo courtesy of WSI magazine)

Over time, the piña clothing material evolved from Barong Tagalog to other purposes. Today, it’s no longer uncommon to see ladies wearing formal dresses and gowns made of piña. In fact, the textile has captured many international designers’ interest. So much so, that it has now become part of their choices in making formal wear for both men and women. Many celebrities are now seen wearing piña on their special occasions.

The piña textile has indeed come a long way. And even as the pineapple leaves continue to clothe people with Barong Tagalog and formal dresses, it also poses competition to animal leather.

Piña leather

Pineapple textile
samples of the pineapple textile (Photo courtesy of Piñatex)

At least two decades ago, a Spanish scientist and designer visited the Philippines. Dr. Carmen Hijosa came to consult with the people from the leather industry in the country. Finding the local material poor in quality and unfriendly to the environment, she decided to look for alternatives. She turned to plant sources, like banana, sisal, and pineapple. Of these sources, however, she found the pineapple leaves most viable. She realized that its leaves are fine, strong and flexible, the qualities she looks for in making a non-woven substrate.

Hijosa was so convinced of the potential of the pineapple leaves that she abandoned her work in the traditional leather industry. Instead, she opted to spend her time studying the qualities of the plant and developing the new-found material into a patented product. And her labor paid off. She’s proven that the pineapple leaves make a sustainable alternative to animal leather and petroleum-based textiles.

Photo courtesy of Footwear News

The beginning of a new industry

Dr. Hijosa presented her discovery at the Ph.D. graduate exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London in December 2014. And based on the people’s positive response to it, the piña textile industry sees a bright future. Since then, Hijosa devoted her time producing and distributing natural textile. Her focus is particularly set on the production of material for shoes, seat coverings, bags, and other furnishings, among others.

Hijosa is aware that in the Philippines, the pineapple leaves are just discarded after the fruits are harvested. And so, she decided she might as well utilize the otherwise waste material. She then moved to meet up with the Philippines’ Secretary of Agriculture, Emmanuel Piñol, to present her idea and express her intention of helping local pineapple farmers. She believes that buying the waste pineapple leaves from them can augment their income.

The designer was not disappointed. Secretary Piñol saw Dr. Hijosa’s proposition a great opportunity for public-private sector coordination. He considered the country’s approximately 44,000 hectares of land planted with pineapple. Sharing Dr. Hijosa’s conviction of utilizing the waste material to help support small-scale pineapple farmers, Piñol agreed to the leather expert’s proposal. Following their agreement, the Department of Agriculture committed to providing a modern decorticating machine to the Philippine pineapple farmers. This equipment will help them produce the local materials that Dr. Hijosa’s manufacturing company needs.

Considering these developments, I believe there’s a great opportunity for the piña textile industry to move forward. The fact that the international fashion industry recognizes piña as one of the finest clothing materials is already a big factor. Although the weavers are yet to cope with the growing demand for piña cloth, I believe it wouldn’t take long for them to find a solution to the problem. And at the rate that Dr. Hijosa’s piña leather production is going, the conventional leather industry will soon find stiff competition.

Aside from being a sustainable resource, the pineapple plant is inherently disease resistant. You don’t need to protect it with pesticides, making it environmentally friendly.

Having said all these, I think it suffices to say that the pineapple does not only run a rivulet of health-enriching benefits. It also covers a man with clothes and shoes.

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