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Aleene's Wood Fibre

Wood Fibre Packages donated by Donna BrawdyWhile the earliest wood fibre instructions we find in the Aleene's archives are dated 1951, it wasn't until the August 1954 issue of The Petal Pusher, the official newsletter of Aleene’s Dealers, that the first full article appeared that offered the “first in a series of educational articles designed to acquaint the floral enthusiast with the many materials used in floral designing. Here is the story of how Wood Fibre was made reprinted in its original entirety from The Petal Pusher image posted to the right:

Never before has the complete story of Formosan Wood Fibre been told, nor have the Taiwannee’s allowed anyone to take pictures of the processes or bring back the actual implements that are used in harvesting and processing the fibre. On a recent trip to the Island of Formosa, the Floral Arts Studio representative brought back the fascinating story of Wood Fibre, plus the complete picture story and the tools used by the Taiwanee’s in their factories.

We don’t know when it was first used  for flowers, but it does go back 2,000 years at least. At that time it was used as part of a religious ceremony. Small flower or buds were made, placed in a cup of tea, where they opened up. Fibre paper was also used for parchment paper to do paintings on. It was not used for books or other uses, because it was too expensive and not durable enough. It is used, even today to line coffins, for they found out hundreds of years ago that the wood fibre was excellent for embalming. The fibre being hygroscopic, draws the moisture out and dehydrates the body, mummifying it.

Keeping the source a secret for hundreds perhaps thousands, of years, still remains one of the most interesting facts about fibre. It wasn’t until about 1859, that the assistant United States Vice Consul in Formosa, probed around and revealed that the Chinese were purchasing the fibre from Formosa, and shipping it to the mainland, where it was processed into this wonderful textured fibre. Wood Fibre as we know it now; the same kind as we are using in our flower making, was known in Czechoslovakia and Germany even before 1859. In fact, they had quite a flourishing flower making business going on and were fast becoming the world’s center for manufacturing other flower materials, such as leaves, stamens and accessories. The first flower materials, including fibre, that were shipped America, came from Europe. The first flower materials came over with the Czechoslovakians as they migrated, bringing their floral craft and artistry with them. And it is the descendants of these same people that are now living in this country and manufacturing the many parts that go into flower making.

The wood fibre that we use for flower making comes from the plant known as the Aralia Papyrifera. It is not cultivated, but grows wild and is considered a crop, for they harvest it each year in January, February, and March. There is no other place where the fibre grows pure white other than in Formosa. Evidently, the soil has something to do with it. The best fibre comes from the Western Slopes of the Island during January, February and March.

The Aralia Papyrifera is well known in Southern California, being used in many of the modern, oriental, and tropical plantings around homes. However, it takes too long to develop here, and the center core does not have the texture necessary for wood fibre.  The plant looks similar to the Castor Bean plant, having the large soft, spongy leaf that has fuzz on the top side and looks as if it has been flocked. The leaf shape resembles that of the Aralia Sieboldi plant, which is an extremely popular shade plant here. The plants in Formosa generally reach a height of from 8 – 10 feet. They should be cut down every 2 years, for if you wait too long, the center core begins to shrivel up like a turnip and the wood fibre, or paper, will have holes throughout it. If you cut it when it is older, you will have coarse paper with the wrong kind of grain. It propagates itself, and for each tree cut down, hundreds of little ones spring up.

The fibre is gathered high up in the mountains by the aborigines. These natives were originally headhunters, and up until 1937 the villages in the area had to have electrified barbed wire enclosures to protect them from these mountain people at night. The villagers stayed inside, if they didn’t want to end up in the stew pot. The aborigines were very adept with knives. The aborigines could be compared to the American Indians, who at one time scalped and massacred people, but who in time, became civilized.

The mountain people cut the trunk of the Aralia plant into pieces about 3 feet long. They then take a sharp bamboo pole and pop the pith out of the trunk. The pith measures about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, while the trunk around it is only 1/8 inch thick, and is just a shell. The mountain people dry, or cure, the pieces before bringing them down to the villages to sell to the factories. The 3 foot long pieces of pith are put up on racks to be cured. They sustain a loss of about 40 per cent from mildew and distortion, for the pith is just like spaghetti when it comes out. Wherever it droops over the rack, it is lost. Because it is so wet and humid on the Island, drying is a very big problem. Until recently, the natives received but 10¢ a day for their labor. When Chiang Kai Chek came over, he brought the brains and the money, and the whole Island underwent a change. Although they brought with them Unions, and slight pay increases, the fibre processes still remains as before. No machinery has yet been invented that will cut or shave the fibre into the thin sheets. There are over 60 sheets in the package that measures ¾ an inch.

After the pith has been dried, it is brought down from the mountains and the natives sell it to the factories. The factories are not big institutions, but many hire from 6 to 8 people. Fifteen employees is considered a large factory. The Taiwanee girls do most of the work. The first girl cuts the pith into 3-1/4 inch lengths, using a piece of wood that has been made into a measuring stick for a ruler, and a short, but very sharp, knife. Not only are the processes done by hand, but even the tools are hand made. Another Taiwanee girl sets at a bench and shaves the fibre off the pith. She does this in much the same way as we do veneering, but it is all done by hand and not on a lathe. They use very primitive tools. For the cutting base, they use a square stone. Along the edges of the stone they have placed a piece of tape and shim brass. The girl holds the knife in one hand and the piece of pith in the other, and begins to roll the pith, shaving it off as she rolls. The piece of shim brass holds the knife up a fraction of an inch, which determines the thickness of the fibre. She continues to shave the continuous ribbon off each piece of pith. They will measure approximately 3 feet in length. She then stacks them and sends them to a man who does the final cutting into the 3-1/4 by 3-1/4 inch squares. Before bundling the squares, one of the girls must grade each piece of fibre. The choice fibre is bundled in an interesting way, for regular string or twine would cut into the fibre, or might loosen or tighten it. A native reed is damped and wrapped around the package. It is secured by twisting, not knotting, and when dry, it holds securely without loosening or cutting.

At this stage the fibre is bundled 10 packs into a package. It is pure white and its texture is very brittle and dry. It is placed on the market in Formosa, and there, agents for people in the United States bid for it on the open market. It is then shipped to the United States to one of the very few processors of fibre. The largest of these processors is Ramont of Floral Arts Studios in Yucaipa, California.

Bringing the fibre here to the U.S., Mr. Ramont again grades the fibre, for certain dyes will take only on certain thicknesses of fibre. Using a secret process, he dyes the fibre and restores the natural oils to it in one operation. It is dyed into 100 colors and color combinations. The process used by Mr. Ramont, is one handed down to him by his father, a process that has been greatly improved, as shown by fibre processed 20 or 30 years ago. All the colors of the rainbow, and more, that until recently, could not be produced, are now made up in fast colors. The texture of the fibre is so like the petal texture, that is may be used to create beautiful reproductions of your favorite garden colors.

Since the fibre was once a living, growing plant and its texture remains the same, moist and soft and petal-like, it makes the most life-like flowers ever known. The flowers last permanently with good care. They may be cleaned by a solution of rubbing alcohol and water. The natural texture will last indefinitely, if the flowers are occasionally put into a moist place. If they are over-dried, their texture may be restored by adding glycerine and water to them.

5/15/09 Interview with Heidi Borchers about wood fibre:

When the original Aleene's business was sold to Aurora (Nabisco) in 1969, the wholesale business was sold to Malco in Lakewood, California and I took over the Aleene's mail order division. The main products that I continued to sell were wood fiber and artificial leaves. At that time, the price for wood fibre was around $2/package.  By the late 1970's, Ramont's sold to Mangelsens and the price was up to about $5/package for about 40 sheets. 

To the best of my recollection, by the late 1970's, wood fibre was being imported from China where it was being sliced and dyed. For a short amount of time after Ramont's sold to Mangelsen's, they were still dying wood fibre in the U.S. but it must have been shortly after Mangelsen’s purchase that they stopped the dyeing processing the U.S. There was a significant decline in the the quality of the wood fibre once the dyeing and processing was moved to China.  

Also, something that isn’t mentioned in the original article from 1954, is that there were scented oils that Aleene’s sold that were applied to the wood fibre flowers so that they would have even more of the appearance and scent of being real. Mom would buy the scents by the gallon and our grandpa Jackson designed the machine to fill the tiny brown glass dram bottles. I remember the scents were REALLY intense. It only took the tip of a toothpick dipped into the scent and onto the wood fibre to add scent to a flower.

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Aleene's Petal Pusher August 1954
Cover of Aleene's Petal Pusher
August 1954
Young woman cutting wood fibre pith
Young woman cutting wood fibre pith

Close up view of shaving wood fibre pith
Close up view of shaving the fibre
off the pith

Worker preparing wood fibre for dyeing
Worker (presumably at Ramont's preparing wood fibre for dyeing.

Aleene's Wood Fibre Rose Instruction Sheet - 1951
Aleene's Wood Fibre Rose Instruction Sheet - 1951
Aleene's Wood Fibre Wild Primrose Instruciton Sheet - 1951
Aleene's Wood Fibre Wild Primrose Instruction Sheet - 1951

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