What is burlap fabric?

Written by joanne thomas
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What is burlap fabric?
Burlap is familiar as a sacking material. (bag it. image by bluefern from Fotolia.com)

Burlap fabric is perhaps most familiar as sacking material, if not from potato or rice sacks then from childhood sack races. The rough, sometimes hairy texture and familiar brown colour associated with "gunny" sacks belies burlap's versatility. In addition to its industrial and agricultural uses, burlap has applications in craft projects and home decorating. The properties of the natural fibres used to weave burlap fabric add an environmentally friendly appeal.

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Definition

Burlap is a rough-textured, loosely woven fabric that is usually made from jute fibres. Jute is a natural plant fibre and a member of the hibiscus family. The fibres come from the inner part of the plant's stem. Burlap is also known as hessian and jute hessian.

Properties

Burlap fabric is heavy, strong and hard-wearing. Jute fibres are naturally resistant to stretching, and the porous weave of burlap makes it breathable. Burlap varies in its texture and appearance, from hairier, heavier and rougher fabrics for industrial use to more smoother, more tightly woven burlap sold in fabric stores. The latter is available in a wide range of colours and resembles heavy linen. Jute burlap is 100 per cent biodegradable, naturally resistant to fire, flexible and absorbent. It readily accepts dye and stands up to heavy handling.

Common Uses

Burlap is often used to make potato, grain, onion or rice sacks. Agricultural uses include packaging for bales of wool, and wrapping tree roots and trunks for protection during transit. It is used as a carpet backing and as a cover for wet cement to slow down the drying time. Burlap can be laminated, bleached or dyed, and sometimes it is treated with chemicals to be rot-resistant. As a decorative fabric for home sewing projects, burlap comes in a range of colours and offers a rustic, hand-loomed look that complements a country-style decor. When evenly woven, burlap works well as a backing fabric for cross stitch and needlepoint.

Working with Burlap

When you want to use burlap fabric in a sewing project, be aware that its tendency to fray at the edges means you need to use bound seam finishes. Use bias tape to encase the cut edges of a seam or use an overlocking stitch along the seam edges. This will enhance the finished appearance of the project and prevent unravelling. Painter's tape will temporarily prevent unravelling along the edges. If you want to use burlap fabric for needlework, align the straight and cross grains before cutting the backing piece. To do this, pull one of the threads running along the edge of the fabric, gently teasing it out. Use the line of the pulled thread to cut a perfectly straight square.

Versatility

The rough texture and heaviness of burlap limits its use somewhat. It is not commonly used for garment making, for example. It does have a place in fashion and home decor, though, as in the form of casual purses and simple curtains. While the tendency to fray at the edges when cut makes burlap unsuitable for some projects and requires special sewing techniques, it can also be used for decorative effect, for example, by creating a fringe.

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