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Burlap, hessian - or what?

Hessian/Burlap bags, used every week for the supermarket shop. Image © (all rights reserved)
The sleepy teenager on the checkout at my local supermarket looked at the bags I’d brought with me for my groceries (above, click to enlarge). She picked up one of them and said: “What’s this made of?” “It’s burlap” says I. “What’s burlap?” she asked. Hmmm… Good question. And is it the same as hessian – which is the word we use for this rough sacking material in Britain?

This is one of those things that I must have known in my student days – well, I presume I did - but now I can’t even remember whether I never knew it all or have just forgotten. Surely it’s not made of hemp, that seems vaguely familiar…

Anyway, I had a rummage through my thousands of plant books… then I looked a bit harder and I finally came up with the answer.

First off, hessian and burlap are the same thing. Secondly, it’s made from the fibers in the skin of the jute plant (we’ll get to that) although it was once also made from hemp or sisal fibers. Hemp is cannabis sativa, while sisal is Agave sisalana – another species of which brings us tequila! So it has good connections.

Jute is derived from two species of Corchorus (right, click to enlarge), which are loosely related to mallows and hollyhocks. And it Corchorus olitorius, Tossa jute, is related to hollyhocks. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. out that the areas of the world in which it can be grown are limited by the fact that it needs both a tropical climate and standing water. But the amount grown in India and Bangladesh is so huge that it’s second only to cotton as the world most grown fiber plant.

Combining strength with being permeable to air and moisture – says he in text book mode – hessian/burlap sacks have long been used for packing and carrying potatoes, coffee beans and other bulk agricultural crops. In North America, but rarely now in Britain, burlap is also used to wrap the rootballs of field grown trees and shrubs – hence the term B&B – balled and burlapped. In Britain container growing has largely taken over. But burlap/hessian has found a new use in re-useable shopping bags.

And the two bags in the picture? One from Terrain, the stylish American garden store, and one from Marshalls, the British vegetable seed company.  Both bags are in use every week at our local supermarket.


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Sara k.

Funny, the logo of the UK Marshalls looks not unlike the one of the American discount chain of the same name.


There was an interesting program a while back on BBC Scotland about the links with jute mills and the people who ran them usually from Dundee, hence the phrase the 3 "J's" Jute, Jam (Marmalade) and Journalism to describe Dundee.

It showed some the mills still producing in much the same way as they were set up by the Dundee jute barons.

tammy sons

those kinds of things sell for a mint on ebay.I really like the burlap organic natural looks. We sell plants and use this burlap to protect the roots of plants we B&B. Crazy of all the new trends.

Graham Rice

Yes, David, Dundee was once described as the jute capital of the world, I think.

I never thought of selling those bags in eBay! Too late now - to be honest, they've been used so often they're getting a little ragged.

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Yes, David, Dundee have been described as jute capital of the world, I think.
I never thought in sold on eBay these bag! Too late now, to tell you the truth, they have been accustomed to such, they tend to be a little rough

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