“Coir is known as the golden fibre, it’s a natural fibre extracted from the husk of the coconut…”
Alappuzha is a land with a large network of inland canals. And it is called the Venice of the East because it has many canals that connect to the backwaters of Kerala. These canals were the lifeline and were the busiest centre of trade in the past. Once upon a time, it was one of the best ports along the Malabar coast. Alappuzha owes its modern existence to the efforts of Diwan Raja Kesava Das in the second half of the 18th-century. He was instrumental in making Alappuzha a major port city in his time. And for developing the system of inland canals that was used for transportation and navigation. It is a land between the sea and the network of rivers flowing into it.
The coconut palm has always played a vital role in the Kerala economy. Coir industry is still the largest source of non-farming employment for rural people. Processing fibre and spinning coir yarn employment are spread across the coastal belt. Manufacturing of coir products is localized in and around Alappuzha and Cherthala. Coir is known as the golden fibre, it’s a natural fibre extracted from the husk of the coconut. Nearly 80% of the coir workers in the fibre extraction and spinning sectors are women. Women are involved right from peeling the coconut husk to making ropes and the rope making is done on rudimentary spinning wheels. The coir sector involves households, cooperatives, NGO’s, manufacturers and exporters. The people who work in the coir industry are from rural areas and they belong to the economically weaker sections of the society. The husk can also be used as fuel and as surface and seeding pit. It can also be used as fertilizer. The most important use of a husk is for the manufacturing of coir. Coir is used to make a wide range of products such as ropes, brushes, mats, mattresses, baskets etc. India is the largest coir producer in the world. The world top two producers are India and Srilanka.
In India, the coir industry flourished in Kerala which had a long coastal line with lakes, lagoons and backwaters. The natural conditions were apt to carry out the retting process. The preparation of coir is a lengthy process after soaking in water for about a month, the softened husk is beaten to separate the fibre from the husk. The quality of coir is in its strength and sheen and that depends on how long it is soaked. It is then woven to make coir. Coconut husk is the basic raw material for coir products. This uniqueness makes the golden thread an important material for floor and outdoor mats, carpets etc. There is a lot of scope for the growth of the coir industry. This renewable resource is underutilised as only a fraction of available husk is processed. Cleaned fibre is ready for spinning into yarn using a simple one-handed system or a spinning wheel. The husk, the long fibres are removed and used for various industrial purposes, such as rope and mat making. The remaining material, composed of short and medium-length fibres as well as pith tissue, is commonly referred to as waste-grade coir or coir pith.
The coir industry is divided into two major segments—white fibre and brown fibre. White fibre, also known as retted fibre, is extracted from the husk of matured coconut after a process known as retting. It is more suited for spinning coir yarn. It is further processed to get products like doormats, mattings, carpets, geo-textiles, etc. Brown fibre is also extracted from the coconut husk and is soaked in water for many days. By mechanical means, it is further processed to get finished products like rubberised coir, curled coir and coir products. The fibrous husks are soaked in pits or in nets in a slow-moving body of water to swell and soften the fibres. The coir fibre is elastic enough to twist without breaking and it holds a curl as though permanently waved. Twisting is done by making a rope of the hank of fibre. And twisting it using a machine or by hand, the longer bristle fibre is washed in clean water and then dried before being tied into bundles or hunks. Coir bristle fibre can also be bleached and dyed to get hanks of different colours.
The coir industry has its pluses and negatives. Even though the marketing conditions have improved. And profits have increased, there has always been an unrest in the industry. In the beginning, there was a boom in the exports in the industry but it declined in the late fifties. Since the 80’s there has been a steady increase in export. The rise in demand brought about changes in the market for natural products and demand for geotextiles increased. The slow pace of modernisation process in the coir industry has been a reason for the increase in the cost of production. The traditional and outdated methods of production and processing should be replaced. The other problem faced by the small-scale producer is the difficulty of receiving raw materials like fibre, yarn, dye and chemicals at reasonable prices. There has been a grip of a shortage of raw material during the past few years.
A great sign of development that the coir industry has turned up with, is the use of coir, in the field of soil engineering to solve problems due to soil erosion. Various types of geosynthetics are used. Coir, jute and other natural products have started gaining popularity as an eco-friendly substitute for synthetic products in many areas of bioengineering applications. The different manufacturing process is handled by thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers in different units. The spinning of coir yarn and manufacturing of products are done in cottage industries which is widespread along the coastal areas and it’s not easy to achieve the standards in quality. The export of coir is managed by a medium number of exporters. The drop in the fibre production has prompted of setting up of defibering and decorticating mills in Tamilnadu and Karnataka. The big advantage we notice in this process is that the labour is cheaper in Tamilnadu. The coir industry of Kerala is getting fibre from states like Tamilnadu Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The only ray of hope that is seen at present is upcoming of modern factories with the latest technology in tufting, printing and blending of coir fibre with other natural fibres etc. I hope a new horizon would arise in the coir industry. And bring back its past glory in full form. I wish Alappuzha retains its charm in the coir carpet industry.