Yucca Retting

Discussion in 'Other Skills' started by OrienM, Aug 11, 2018.

  1. OrienM

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    In my continued search for less labor-intensive methods of processing yucca fiber, I've been testing out retting methods, rotting the leaves in a controlled way to make extracting the fibers easier. Both these bundles of yucca have been retting underwater for two weeks, one in an irrigation ditch and one in a bucket in my yard. Interesting to compare the two...the leaves left in the ditch (right side in the first pic) bio-degraded more quickly and thoroughly than the batch in the bucket.

    I also tried some different methods of scraping off the soft, sludgy cortex; stone and antler blades both worked OK, but in the end the quickest method turned out to be pulling hanks of fiber through the pointy ends of a snapped-off branch on a dead tree. It only took two hours to process up the whole bundle, faster than I expected.

    The major downside of the retting process is that all the yucca smelled pretty foul :26: . The batch from the ditch smelled a bit more natural, though, with sort of a beach overtone that made it more tolerable. The bucket batch was truly gross, lol...I left it in the ditch to finish retting for a few more days. After I finish air drying and combing the fibers out I'll leave them outside for a few more days, hopefully the smell will dissipate.

    A herd of cows showed up to watch me work, lol...they approached pretty close, stayed for about 20 mins, then got bored and wandered off.

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    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
  2. Jim L.

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    I've often wondered if something like a laumdry roller or even a pasta machine would crush it down with out breaking down the fibers.
     
  3. OrienM

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    I've heard a pasta roller works well, but haven't had the chance to try one yet. I'm considering putting the next batch in a bag, laying it out on some plywood, and running over it with my car a bunch of times... ;)

    Yesterday eve I combed out the fiber (using a wire-toothed dog comb), rinsed it thoroughly, and laid it out to dry and air out. The smell seems to be going away (or possibly, I'm just getting used to it, lol...:4:).
     
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  4. NWPrimate

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    Great post @OrienM . Does the decomposition process weaken the fibers themselves? When I have tried to use semi-rotten nettles or bark in the field, the fibers are usually laughably weak. Does the fact that they are submerged make them break down differently than they would in nature?
     
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  5. OrienM

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    It seems not to, at least, I can't tell any strength difference yet from fresh-processed fiber. The limited decay time might be helping some, or the large diameter of the individual fibers.

    I imagine retting acts a little different here than where you live; the climate here is so dry, it seems to require full immersion to keep the process working. If you leave stuff outdoors, dew-retting style, it just dries out and slowly turns to dust, rather than rotting in place.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
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  6. OrienM

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    Here's the fiber as it appears today...nice and clean, and a fairly soft texture. The bright white color is typical for sun-dried material. It smells a bit funky to me up close, but really not too bad (my wife may disagree, lol :D). It's not totally dry yet, either.

    Also shown is my favorite dog comb...this tool works really well for final cleaning and softening of natural fibers. I use it for dogbane, etc as well as yucca.

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    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
  7. NWPrimate

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    That is beautiful stuff!
     
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  8. OrienM

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    Thanks! I'm very pleased actually, the quality of this batch is excellent for the limited time I spent on it. If I can get a good handle on this process, I should be able to pile up quite a fiber supply during the summer months. :dblthumb:
     
  9. CowboyJesus

    CowboyJesus Supporter Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    i'm curious-you plan on hand twisting all of this, or you going to be spinning with spindle or wheel? i've been intrigued about the possibility of spinning wild fibers, hence the curiosity...
     
  10. OrienM

    OrienM Guide

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    I mostly do hand-twisting, but I may use some of this to practice my leg-rolling, too. Some may get woven into sandals; they take quite a lot of fiber, but most of it is used untwisted.

    My mom actually does both drop- and wheel-spinning of wool...she's showed me drop spindle technique before, but I never got very good at it. In our very limited experience yucca was tricky to spin up with the drop spindle, the coarseness of the fiber made it not bind together very well. Nice clean dogbane fiber worked OK...wool and cotton were definitely the easiest to spin.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
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  11. CowboyJesus

    CowboyJesus Supporter Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    i'd love to hear more about dogbane on the drop spindle! how'd you prepare it and twist, etc. but i don't want derail this thread, we can move to PM if you'd like.
     
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  12. OrienM

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    No worries...we only tried it once, and it worked, but not amazingly well. As I recall, we lightly dampened a hank of dogbane, held it in the left hand with a strand hooked to the drop spindle, and used the right hand to pull fibers forward at the correct time to keep the strand consistent as it lengthened. I could never get it consistent enough to suit me, and went back to hand-twisting pretty quickly. I know people spin flax on a drop spindle, so I'm sure it's possible to do good work with dogbane if you put some effort in.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
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  13. Jim L.

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    @CowboyJesus said,"I'd love to hear more about dogbane on the drop spindle!" "Dog bane on the Drop Spindle" sounds like a title to a Brothers Grim story dunnit?
     
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  14. Brew-Jitsu

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    Great post and follow-up discussion. I'll be watching this thread to see what you make.
     
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  15. CowboyJesus

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    flax was the reason i've been wanting to try it. last question (maybe) when you had a hank of dogbane, were you spinning from the end, from the fold, or did you make it like a rolag? thanks for all your answers!
     
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  16. OrienM

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    I had to go look up what a rolag is, lol :p...we were working off the ends of the dogbane and yucca hanks, which (I think) is how my mom generally does for wool. I should give drop spindle another try, I didn't put in enough effort at the time to get very good at it.
     
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  17. OrienM

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    I did up a batch of retted yucca in a bucket this last spring, and used it to make a couple pairs of Pueblo-style sandals...the retting process was only semi-sucessful that time, with lots of cortex material remaining stuck to the fiber, but it was good enough for footwear. The pair on the right is mostly retted material; you can see where I ran out halfway through the right one and started using fresh-processed, green fiber instead. I still wear these occasionally and they're super comfy; the main drawback is that the patches on the heels have to be replaced every 10 miles or so.

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    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
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  18. Walking Crow

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    @OrienM would you clarify for me whether the yucca was cut green or if it was partially dried before being submerged? I see some green at the base of the leaves especially on the "bucket" batch but but on the, mostly ornamental, yucca I find in Ohio, its not uncommon to find that much green on a fairly well dried "dead" leaf at the base of the plant.

    Thanks for the info....
     
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  19. OrienM

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    All this stuff was cut green, bundled, and immediately submerged for two weeks. I've not tried retting dried leaves, although I sometimes use dried-and-rehydrated yucca strips in basketry. I don't see why it shouldn't work fine, though. The green on the one batch is just material that hasn't quite rotted; a bucket is apparently a less than ideal environment to ret in.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2018
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  20. GreyOne

    GreyOne Elder Lifetime Supporter

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    Anyone tried simmering in wood ash solution like is done for willow?
     
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  21. OrienM

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    I've not tried it with ash, but boiling leaves for 3-4 hours softens them up pretty good (smells nicer than retting, too). I suspect pit-roasting was the common method prehistorically, steaming the leaves underground for several days along with the edible plant cores.
     
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  22. NWPrimate

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    I have never been able to get fibers as fine as the yucca that @OrienM posted, but I have experimented with boiling in ash. Like you mentioned it works great for willow, but when I tried boiling fireweed fibers they lost a lot of strength.
     
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  23. OrienM

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    I processed the second batch of retted yucca yesterday; this batch spent two weeks in the bucket, then a third week submerged in the ditch. It still had a slightly different quality than the first batch, smelled worse (more carrion-like :26:), and retained slightly more fleshy material in the fiber despite the extra retting time. Good material for sandals, anyhow.

    The fiber from batch #1 has now dried fully, and had to spend 3 more days outdoors airing out before it could be brought inside. The smell now is very minimal, but it gets stronger if the fiber gets damp. After playing with it some more, this fiber does seem a little weaker than freshly-processed stuff, but only very slightly. It shouldn't make for any problems in use.

    Interesting how the batches of material have differed...sometimes whatever grows in the bucket seems to almost pickle the yucca flesh instead of breaking it down. The ditch, with likely a much more diverse array of micro-organisms, seems to work quicker and do a better job of retting.
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2018 at 3:31 PM
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  24. lowtidejoe

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    Yep! That was the same conclusion I came to as well. I tried a bucket which stunk to high hell. Then tried some in a pond and that batch was much better in quality. I think a running stream would also be interesting to try but would probably take 1-2 months instead of weeks! I assume the nastier the water the quicker the process. Great work buddy!
     
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