Coir // is a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconut and used in products such as floor mats, doormats, brushes, mattresses, etc. Technically, coir is the fibrous material found between the hard, internal shell and the outer coat of a coconut. Other uses of brown coir (made from ripe coconut) are in upholstery padding, sacking and horticulture. White coir, harvested from unripe coconuts, is used for making finer brushes, string, rope and fishing nets.
The English word "coir" comes from the Malayalam word 'kayaru'.
Ropes and cordage made from coconut fibre have been in use from ancient times. Indian navigators who sailed the seas to Malaya, Java, China, and the Gulf of Arabia centuries ago used coir for their ship ropes. Arab writers of the 11th century AD referred to the extensive use of coir for ship ropes and rigging.
A coir industry in the UK was recorded before the second half of the 19th century. During 1840, Captain Widely, in co-operation with Captain Logan and Mr. Thomas Treloar, founded the known carpet firms of Treloar and Sons in Ludgate Hill, England, for the manufacture of coir into various fabrics suitable for floor coverings.
Coir fibres are found between the hard, internal shell and the outer coat of a coconut. The individual fibre cells are narrow and hollow, with thick walls made of cellulose. They are pale when immature, but later become hardened and yellowed as a layer of lignin is deposited on their walls. Each cell is about 1 mm (0.04 in) long and 10 to 20 µm (0.0004 to 0.0008 in) in diameter. Fibres are typically 10 to 30 centimetres (4 to 12 in) long. The two varieties of coir are brown and white. Brown coir harvested from fully ripened coconuts is thick, strong and has high abrasion resistance. It is typically used in mats, brushes and sacking. Mature brown coir fibres contain more lignin and less cellulose than fibres such as flax and cotton, so are stronger but less flexible. White coir fibres harvested from coconuts before they are ripe are white or light brown in color and are smoother and finer, but also weaker. They are generally spun to make yarn used in mats or rope.
The coir fibre is relatively waterproof, and is one of the few natural fibres resistant to damage by saltwater. Fresh water is used to process brown coir, while seawater and fresh water are both used in the production of white coir.
Green coconuts, harvested after about six to 12 months on the palm, contain pliable white fibres. Brown fibre is obtained by harvesting fully mature coconuts when the nutritious layer surrounding the seed is ready to be processed into copra and desiccated coconut. The fibrous layer of the fruit is then separated from the hard shell (manually) by driving the fruit down onto a spike to split it (dehusking). A well-seasoned husker can manually separate 2,000 coconuts per day. Machines are now available which crush the whole fruit to give the loose fibres. These machines can process up to 2,000 coconuts per hour.
The fibrous husks are soaked in pits or in nets in a slow-moving body of water to swell and soften the fibres. The long bristle fibres are separated from the shorter mattress fibres underneath the skin of the nut, a process known as wet-milling. The mattress fibres are sifted to remove dirt and other rubbish, dried in the sun and packed into bales. Some mattress fibre is allowed to retain more moisture so it retains its elasticity for twisted fibre production. The coir fibre is elastic enough to twist without breaking and it holds a curl as though permanently waved. Twisting is done by simply 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 hanks. It may then be cleaned and 'hackled' by steel combs to straighten the fibres and remove any shorter fibre pieces. Coir bristle fibre can also be bleached and dyed to obtain hanks of different colours.
The immature husks are suspended in a river or water-filled pit for up to ten months. During this time, micro-organisms break down the plant tissues surrounding the fibres to loosen them — a process known as retting. Segments of the husk are then beaten by hand to separate out the long fibres which are subsequently dried and cleaned. Cleaned fibre is ready for spinning into yarn using a simple one-handed system or a spinning wheel.
Researchers at CSIR's National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram have developed a biological process for the extraction of coir fibre from coconut husk without polluting the environment. The technology uses enzymes to separate the fibres by converting and solubilizing plant compounds to curb the pollution of waters caused by retting of husks.
Because coir is high in sodium and potassium, it is treated before use as a growth medium for plants or fungi by soaking in a calcium buffering solution; most coir sold for growing purposes is pre-treated. Once any remaining salts have been leached out of the coir pith, it and the coir bark become suitable substrates for cultivating fungi. Coir is naturally rich in potassium, which can lead to magnesium deficiencies in soilless horticultural media.
Coir does provide a suitable substrate for horticultural use as a soilless potting media. The material's high lignin content is longer lasting, holds more water, and does not shrink off the sides of the pot when dry allowing for easier rewetting. This light media has advantages and disadvantages that can be corrected with the addition of the proper amendment such as coarse sand for weight in interior plants like Draceana. Nutritive amendments should also be considered. Calcium and magnesium will be lacking in coir potting mixes, so a naturally good source of these nutrients is dolomitic lime which contains both. The addition of beneficial microbes to the coir media have been successful in tropical green house conditions and interior spaces as well. However, it is important to note that the microbes will engage in growth and reproduction under moist atmospheres producing fruiting bodies (mushrooms).
Bristle coir is the longest variety of coir fibre. It is manufactured from retted coconut husks through a process called defibring. The coir fibre thus extracted is then combed using steel combs to make the fibre clean and to remove short fibres. Bristle coir fibre is used as bristles in brushes for domestic and industrial applications.
Red coir is used in floor mats and doormats, brushes, mattresses, floor tiles and sacking. A small amount is also made into twine. Pads of curled brown coir fibre, made by needle-felting (a machine technique that mats the fibres together), are shaped and cut to fill mattresses and for use in erosion control on river banks and hillsides. A major proportion of brown coir pads are sprayed with rubber latex which bonds the fibres together (rubberised coir) to be used as upholstery padding for the automobile industry in Europe. The material is also used for insulation and packaging.
The major use of white coir is in rope manufacture. Mats of woven coir fibre are made from the finer grades of bristle and white fibre using hand or mechanical looms. White coir also is used to make fishing nets due to its strong resistance to saltwater.
In horticulture, coir is a strongly recommended substitute for sphagnum moss because it is free of bacteria and fungal spores, and produces good results without the environmental damage caused by peat mining. Coir is also useful to deter snails from delicate plantings, and as a growing medium in intensive glasshouse (greenhouse) horticulture.
Coir is also used as a substrate to grow mushrooms. The coir is usually mixed with vermiculite and pasteurized with boiling water. After the coir/vermiculite mix has cooled to room temperature, it is placed in a larger container, usually a plastic box. Previously prepared spawn jars are then added, spawn is usually grown in jars using substrates such as rye grains or wild bird seed. This spawn is the mushrooms mycelium and will colonize the coir/vermiculite mix eventually fruiting mushrooms.
Coir is an allergen, as well as the latex and other materials used frequently in the treatment of coir. This should be noted specially for people with allergies using mattresses and other furniture made with it.
Total world coir fibre production is 250,000 tonnes (250,000 long tons; 280,000 short tons). This industry is particularly important in some areas of the developing world. India, mainly in Pollachi and the coastal region of Kerala State, produces 20% of the total world supply of white coir fibre. Sri Lanka produces 36% of the total brown fibre output. Over 50% of the coir fibre produced annually throughout the world is consumed in the countries of origin, mainly India. Together, India and Sri Lanka produce 90% of the coir produced every year.
Waste and byproducts
Coir fibres make up about a third of the coconut pulp. The rest, called peat, pith or dust, is biodegradable, but takes 20 years to decompose. Once considered as waste material, pith is now being used as mulch, soil treatment and a hydroponic growth medium.
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