According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, burlap is a "coarse cloth made of jute or hemp." Today, the words burlap, hessian, jute and gunnysack are often used interchangeably to refer to the same textile.
Jute, when fully-matured, is a 12-foot long stemmed plant that is grown and manufactured primarily in India; it's commonly known as the golden fiber, due to its natural golden and silky shine. Aside from being environmentally friendly -- it's biodegradable and edible -- jute is durable and used to make a multitude of items. Hessian fabric was originally used by German soldiers for their uniforms. It was then used for the sacking of food items, and later, around the roots of plants in gardens, woven into rugs and curtains inside homes, as a base material for artists, as a more eco-friendly way to transport groceries, and as a basic supply for many creative crafts.
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The manufacturing of burlap stems from growth and production of the jute plant, which finds its ideal climate in West India and East Pakistan. The 8- to 12-feet-high stalks shed their leaves, indicating their readiness, and are then cut. The stems are bundled and steeped, or soaked, in water. When soft, the tissues are stripped, and small bundles are made. They're washed and dried in direct sun for a couple days, ready to be distributed to a mill.
In the mill, the strips of jute are turned into the burlap you can purchase at your local craft store. The mill will batch the fibers, blending different strands together for thickness, strength, color and other specific qualities for spinning it into rope-like yarn. It's treated and pressed, to remove bulkiness, then thinned again. Finally, it undergoes roving, in which the fibers are twisted and spun, converted into a finished yarn, then eventually put into the desired form for the buyer -- spools or cops of yarn or a flat textile.
Burlap is extremely environmentally friendly. It's a sustainable, 100 percent biodegradable product and the second most important natural fiber in the world; of all reusable bags, burlap specifically has the lowest carbon and water footprint of all the options. In addition, its durability, flexibility and aesthetic make it a popular material in the crafting world. Burlap is used for wreaths because it can withstand the elements, goes with lots of decor and can be molded into numerous shapes and sizes. It's easily used as a canvas because it can be stenciled, stitched, painted, glued or sprayed. It can also serve as a fabric for totes, handbags or backpacks -- for its ability to withstand wear and tear -- or as an added decorative finish for book covers, lampshades or picture frames.