I was reading a poem this week written by David Knowlton, entitled “Cloth”. As good poems do, it caused me to think beyond the words. I began to wonder about bayeta. What fibers do people use in Peru?
I was looking up the word ‘fiber’ in Quechua and discovered the word “phique” or ppique and fique. It intrigued me, so I began to search further. What were these threads that had sheltered and protected people? How long had they been used, and were they still useful? The answers were interesting and even surprising.
Fique is a fiber drawn by hand from the Furcraea andina a plant adapted to low water conditions. It is grown all along the Andes mountains, in Peru and in Columbia. It has been used since ancient times for clothing, bags, sandals and rugs. (1)
The Inca wore sandals made of fique fibers. Besides their beautiful headdresses, intricately woven clothing and their general appearance of wealth, their shoes were also soft and beautifully colored. (2)
The oldest suspension bridge in the New World was built with its fibers. The bridge, spanning the gorge of the Apurimac River was west of Cusco on the Chinchaysuyo road,
“achieved fame and literary renown in Thornton Wilder’s novel, the Bridge of San Luis Rey for the beauty of its setting and the fear it struck in the hearts of travelers. The approach is an extremely steep, zigzagging trail, while on the opposite bank the trail passed through a tunnel carved into the living rock and pierced by light shafts.” (ibid)
Fique was an important part of the Inca world, but what about today?
Fashionable sandals are being made from the wonderful fique fibers. Also beautiful bags are made from fique, which are quite exquisite in their design. (3)
Beyond fashion accessories, there are also rugs that are made into beautiful designs. These are done with aluminum or copper. It is also an important fiber in making the bags for coffee beans and panela. (4)
I had expected to find fique used for clothing. It was durable, and renewable. Fique is even touted as a replacement cash crop for coca by the USAID (United states Agency for International Development and MIDAS (More Investment for Sustainable Alternative Development). (5)
What did surprise me was the new uses that are being found for the fiber. By processing the fibers into sheets and then mixing them or coating them with cement, it has been found that durable and cheap housing materials can be manufactured with less impact on the environment and fewer manufactured products. According to GHD Tonoli et al, writing in Cement and Concrete Composites, the “use of composites reinforced with vegetable fibers in flat sheets, roofing tiles and pre-manufactured components can represent significant contribution to the infrastructure in developing countries. It has been demonstrated that fique fiber is appropriate for low cost housing applications when incorporated into a matrix based on Portland cement.” (6)
Besides bridges, houses, and cities can be built utilizing the fibers of the fique plant.
There was more. When the fibers are extracted, a considerable amount of biomass is left. This pulpy like residue is called fique bagasse or FB. It turns out that FB can be converted into methane using microbes that break it down. As a biomass, it has a 60% methane return for volume. That means that not only can the cities be built, but the fuel needed to run them can also be created using the fique plant. (7)
However, the most surprising research I found that is being done with fique fibers is the desalinization of water. Fique has an ability to remove both sodium and chlorine from water. We know that salt, NaCl, is composed of both elements, but many commercial ion exchange resins are only able to remove the sodium, leaving a water with excessive amounts of chlorine. Research funded by Universidad de los Andes and Universidad Libre, found “Fique fibers … may offer an alternative as biosorbents in desalination processes as they exhibit high removal capacities (13.26 meq/g for chloride ions and 15.52 meq/g for sodium ions) up to four times higher than exchange capacities commonly observed in synthetic resins. (8)
From water desalinization to reinforcement for cement roofing tiles, to use as a biofuel, fique is a thread running from the past to the future.
(2)Encyclopedia of the Inca Gary Urton Adriana von Hagen https://books.google.com/books?id=jEqwCQAAQBAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=how+fique+was+used+by+the+Inca&source=bl&ots=zkzyuHNzhD&sig=pXTEcbGZiziWdUAU3YP8s3IBYsQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj88bTM64_NAhUITFIKHdFJCBYQ6AEILDAC#v=onepage&q=how%20fique%20was%20used%20by%20the%20Inca&f=false
(4) Special Agent Series – Vol. 206 P.H. Bell pg. 182