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Ramie: Old Fiber - New Image
Ramie is a term appearing with increased frequency in the labeling of sweaters and some linen-look textiles. It is a plant fiber that has been used since ancient times. There are at least two acceptable pronunciations for the word. Some authorities call it ra-me (RAY-mee) while others are saying ram-e (rah-mee). It is also known as China grass.
Interest in ramie articles in the U.S. market resulted initially from increased trade with China and importers taking advantage of a loop-hole in the U.S trade laws. These laws limited the import of wool, cotton and man-made fiber textiles but did not limit the import of silk, ramie and other minor natural fiber products. Import quota regulations now include ramie and should create a leveling off of imported articles made from this fiber. China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea are considered the leading producers of ramie but Brazil, the Philippines and some Indonesian countries are also important producers.
Ramie is one of the strongest natural fibers and exhibits even greater strength when wet. It possesses little elasticity and is somewhat brittle and stiff. This causes fiber breakage and abrasion where creased or folded repeatedly. To reduce possible damage, avoid ironing sharp creases in fabrics such as napkins or skirt pleats.
The long, fine ramie fibers are naturally white and lustrous with an almost silky appearance. It is a cellulosic substance as is cotton, linen and other plant fibers. The inner structure of ramie differs from the other plant fibers in that the physical form of the cellulose is rigid and crystalline like linen but is a more porous sieve-like form providing it with even better absorbency than other cellulose fibers. The unevenness of fiber has a strong resemblance to the thick and thin appearance of linen but at a reduced cost. In addition, it is softer with better dyeability.
Like linen and cotton, ramie has poor resiliency and wrinkles easily. Application of wrinkle-resistant finishes or blending with synthetic fibers can reduce the problem in woven fabrics. Because of its high absorbency, ramie is comfortable to wear, especially during warm weather. Other properties include resistance to alkalies, rotting, light and mildew. Resistance to insects is good unless the fabric is heavily starched. Ramie is not harmed by mild acids but can be damaged by concentrated acids.
The fiber has some natural stain resisting ability with ease of stain/soil removal similar to that of linen, which is better than cotton. Dyes appear to have good wet-fastness in laundering but there can be a tendency for crocking in dark or saturated colors. Precautions such as wearing dress shields can reduce crocking problems. Dark colors may lose their vibrancy over repeated launderings.
Some variation exists in the appearance of fabrics containing ramie. Light-weight fabrics of 100 percent long, fine ramie fiber resemble fine handkerchief linens that are somewhat silk-like, while 100 percent coarser ramie fiber produces the appearance of coarse linens.
Blends are more common than pure ramie with the most typical being 55 percent ramie/45 percent cotton. The uneven linen texture is generally apparent in the blend, but the luster is lost. Blends are readily available in woven and sweater knit form. When polyester is included in the blend, it improves wrinkle resistance and helps provide easy care and shrinkage control.
Care Recommendations for Ramie Fabrics
Care procedures prescribed on the care labels of ramie products vary. Items of 100 percent ramie should not require special care. Generally, they may be laundered or drycleaned depending on individual dyes, finishes and design applications. High temperatures will not harm the fiber itself, making washing in hot water and ironing at high settings possible; however, color retention, shrinkage control or properties of blended fibers may dictate lower temperatures. Recent laboratory testing done at The Ohio State University has led to the conclusion that the best performance results when gentler or more special handling is used in care. For example, fabrics retained the best color and shape with the most wrinkle-free appearance when they were drycleaned.
Machine washing in cold water on gentle cycle with line drying was better than machine washing in warm water with tumble drying on permanent press cool down cycle. Hand washing in cool water with flat drying is the most strongly recommended home care method for both knits and woven fabrics. Until the recent influx of ramie in the apparel market, uses were in products requiring high strength especially wet strength such as ropes, twine, sails, canvas, table linens and home furnishings. Ramie is extremely versatile and can also be made into fine yarns for apparel. The range of apparel items includes dresses, suits, sportswear and sweaters. Fashion cycles emphasizing use of natural fibers will affect the popularity of ramie. The consumer who knows the strengths and limitations of the fiber can receive maximum service and enjoyment from ramie products.