Twine has been a part of agriculture for a relatively short period of time in North America: Natural fiber since the 1870s and polypropylene since the 1960s. Yet, the impact it's had on the harvesting of grain and hay has been phenomenal. So we thought you'd enjoy learning a little about how and why twine really got started . Our thanks go out to baler and twine expert historian, Ivan Glick of Lancaster, Penn., and many others who provided insight into “The History of Twine.” Hope you enjoy it.
For thousands of years grain was harvested by hand with sickles. Changes were few and improvements gradual, such as the addition of cradles to sickles. But that all began to change in the early 1800s when Robert McCormick designed a grain reaper. This crude machine was made up of a reel and rotary saw that cut the grain and deposited it on an apron where it was conveyed onto the ground beside the machine. It became the starting point for the lifework of McCormick’s son, Cyrus.
With all the improvements that Cyrus McCormick and other competitors, such as Patrick Bell and Obed Hussey made, it was still hard work to harvest grain. A worker had to walk beside the reaper and rake the grain off the platform behind the sickle when enough had accumulated to form a small pile — called a gavel — which then had to be tied by hand into a bundle. This was usually done by women who walked behind the reaper and tied the gavels with wire. The reaper’s ability to actually bind the grain into a bundle took many years. In fact, as late as the mid-1860s, men would sit or stand on the reaper where they would gather the grain and hand bind it with wire. The reaper required three men — two to bind the grain and one to swear at the horses.
It wasn’t until 1872 that the first reaper (also called a binder at this point in history) using a knotter device was invented by Charles Withington. In 1874, McCormick purchased the rights from Withington to mass produce this reaper. Its design was highly ingenious for its time. Two steel arms caught each bundle of grain, whirled a wire around it, fastened the ends of that wire with a twist, then cut the bundle loose and dropped it to the ground.
But the reaper harbored a fatal defect with its use of wire. It fell into straw and killed cattle. It became mixed with wheat and sparks burned several flour mills down. It lacerated fingers of handlers. In response to this problem, John Appleby devised a knotter device that used twine rather than wire. Shortly after, William Deering & Company reached an agreement in 1879 to commercially produce a reaper using the Appleby knotter. The reaper went into full production in 1880. Not long after, Cyrus McCormick’s company also began production of this reaper using the Appleby knotter. The reaper and knotter device speeded up harvest and eliminated all workers except the driver and horses. It served as the catalyst to develop even better equipment to harvest grain, and eventually hay.
The first harvester company to build a mill to manufacture binder twine (that’s what it was called then), was William Deering & Company, in 1886. Within the next few years, nearly all harvester companies found it necessary to build twine mills because the future of the new twine binder depended largely on their ability to supply purchasers with sufficient quantities of twine at a reasonable price. In those early years a manila fiber was used extensively. Other manufacturing companies who operated twine mills were McCormick, D.M. Osborne and Aultman-Miller. By 1902 many of those companies had merged under the name International Harvester Company. McCormick, Deering and Osborne were part of the original merger that formed International Harvester Company. All three continued to produce huge amounts of twine into the early 1920s. At this same time International Harvester Company also operated four other U.S. plants, a Canadian plant and three European plants for the sole purpose of twine production.
Eventually, new ideas and equipment were introduced for the production of hay bales, but it didn't come easily. Until the 1930s, hay was harvested simply by cutting, raking and manually making large hay stacks. But that all began to change in 1936 when a man named Innes, of Davenport, Iowa, invented an automatic baler for hay. It tied bales with binder twine using Appleby-type knotters from a John Deere grain binder. The machine was a grand idea but didn't work very well. Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania Dutchman named Ed Nolt, had sold his threshing rig and purchased one of the first Allis Chalmers All-Crop combines ever produced. The combine worked fine except that farmers wouldn't let Nolt into their grain fields because there was no satisfactory way to gather the straw. It was too slippery to handle like hay and eastern farmers needed every last bit of straw for livestock bedding.
It was then that Nolt traveled to Iowa to purchase the Innes baler that could pick up the straw in the windrows left by the combine and produce bales. Innes never revealed that there were major flaws in the machine. When Nolt got it back to Pennsylvania, it didn’t work. Out of desperation, he built his own baler, salvaging the twine knotters from the Innes baler. Nolt's first baler didn't really work too well either, but well enough to point the way for more improvements.
By 1936, sisal was the primary twine used. A somewhat thicker version of this twine tied the bales made by Nolt’s New Holland balers before World War II. The twine wasn’t very satisfactory, but with New Holland's encouragement, better baler twine was developed. Then the war came and imported sisal twine, which had been primarily used, was less available and the limited supply was used in the war effort. Domestically grown hemp fiber replaced the imported sisal and related natural fibers. The hemp was not very satisfactory for twine. It was lumpy and caused knotter problems. Baler operators hated it. Sometimes they even poured oil down the center of the twine balls. The lubrication helped the twine go through the knotter with less hold-up.
But the war was only a minor set back. Nolt's innovative patents pointed the way by 1939 to the mass production of the one-man automatic hay baler. His balers and their imitators revolutionized hay and straw harvest and created a twine demand beyond the wildest dreams of any twine manufacturer.
By the late 1940s Nolt redesigned the basic Appleby binder knotters to work far more reliably and better quality twine again became available.
However, with the start of the Korean War, all of a sudden twine supplies again became very tight. It was even worse in Germany where most grain was still harvested by binders that needed twine. They panicked for twine. Someone even invented a paper twine that was strong and worked in binder knotters. German farmers grabbed it up and some bought a supply to last a few years into the future because they expected the Soviets and the U.S. to be at odds for many years and they’d be stuck without twine. The paper twine worked fine until it rained on their grain shocks. After a soaking rain, the paper twine disintegrated and they were left with bunches of untied, loose grain.
Meanwhile, in the 1940s, ’50s and into the ’60s, much of the U.S. baler twine was supplied by Plymouth Cordage of Plymouth, Mass. Cheap labor in the Yucatan and elsewhere finally led to their demise.
By the 1950s most of the sisal baler twine was coming out of five competing Mexican factories. Quality was inconsistent. Then the Mexican government decided to take over distribution of the twine. Cordemex was formed by the Mexican government and twine buyers dealt with them or went without twine. As it turned out, the necessity could be “lived with” because twine fiber plants were also grown in Africa, and the assumed Mexican monopoly turned out not to be. In any case, Mexican twine stayed available at a bearable price and the quality was even improved after Cordemex.
Competition in selling sisal twine also came from prisons in the U.S. During the years in which state prisons made and sold twine, most traditional mills and distributors were not able to compete until a prison's supply was sold out for the season.
A significant change came in the 1960s when polypropylene twine was introduced to the U.S. and Canada. Producers in the western regions wanted to produce larger bales because:
Although polypropylene twine had the potential in those days, it was inconsistent in performance. Sometimes its lack of uniformity caused it to break easily and other times it stretched so the producer ended up with loose bales. But still, its strength potential was far superior to that of sisal. The long-filament, untwisted twine that was held together by an encircling filament presented some problems at first because knotter twine knives were not sharp enough to cut it. The cut-off knives on round balers needed more careful adjustment to cut cleanly when the wrap was completed. The biggest problem in the first few years, however, was the lack of ultraviolet inhibitors that could prevent the polypropylene twine from prematurely breaking down in sunlight.
Performance problems continued to plague polypropylene twine manufacturers throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s. As a result, many producers who were baling large bales used wire, while some took their chances with polypropylene. In 1975, however, Bridon Cordage entered the polypropylene twine market when it opened a modern manufacturing facility in Albert Lea, Minn. It was a time when California hay producers were tiring of twine produced by companies such as Eastman Kodak that stretched and broke. In response to that, in 1977, Bridon Cordage developed a new, heavy-duty twine named SR-240 that proved to be stronger than competitive twine. It was even stronger and less expensive than wire. It was a major advancement in the polypropylene twine industry that quickly began changing producers' attitudes toward polypropylene twine.
Gradually, polypropylene twine has become accepted across the U.S., Canada and the rest of the world thanks to the research and quality control efforts of Bridon Cordage.
Species Agave sisalana, or sisal, as it's commonly called, is a member of the Agavaceae family. Its fiber has been recognized as the most important of the leaf fiber group. This group consists of hard, coarse fibers. Such fibers, often referred to as “hard fibers,” are usually long and stiff and are typically used in the cordage industry to produce ropes and twines.
Where does it grow?
Sisal grows best in warm, moist climates in moderately rich soil with good drainage. Brazil and Tanzania are two of the largest producers of sisal. It is also grown in Africa, the Philippines, Costa Rica and Haiti.
What is sisal’s life cycle? In the field, sisal bulbils are planted 4 to 8 feet apart. Depending on environmental conditions, the plant will mature in 3 to 5 years. At this point, the plant is mature enough to be harvested for 7 to 8 years thereafter. Within 8 to 10 years after planting, the mature plant will send up a central flower stalk reaching up to 20 feet (six meters) in height. Yellow flowers form at the end of branches growing from the stalk. As the flowers begin to whither, buds begin growing out of the axil (angle between the stem and flower stalk) and develop into small plants or bulbils that fall to the ground and take root. The old plant then dies when flowering is complete and the new bulbils continue the cycle.
Is it sisal or is it hemp? Sisal fiber is sometimes referred to as “sisal hemp”; however, sisal is not related to true hemp. Compared to hemp, sisal — as it is used in baler twines — is stronger, more durable, and less flexible.
Are there other uses for sisal? Other than its agricultural uses, sisal is also employed by the marine, shipping and industrial sectors to produce rugs, matting, brushes and marine-type ropes.
UCI do Brasil is the sisal twine manufacturing facility of Universal Cooperatives and sisal twine supplier to Bridon Cordage. Currently, Brazil is responsible for over 80% of the sisal twine shipments to North America. UCI do Brasil, producing over one-third of Brazil's baler twine, manufactures more than one million bales a year, making them the largest manufacturer of sisal baler twine in the world.
The UCI mill is located in the city of Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia. The interior of the state of Bahia, located in Brazil’s semi-arid northeast region, is where the majority of sisal fiber is grown. Sisal is a perennial plant that is ready for harvest when it is three years old and the leaves are over four feet long. Fiber lengths range from 35 to 45 inches.
Leaves are harvested every six months, year-round. The plant will produce for up to 10 years at which time it sends up a stalk that drops seedlings. Once cut, leaves are collected and taken to a central processing point in the field. At this point, rudimentary machines shred the vegetable matter from the raw fibers. The remaining vegetable pulp is used as fertilizer on the same sisal fields. It takes about 800 leaves to make a finished bale of twine. The raw fibers are hung in the sun to dry. After drying, they are taken into the small towns for the next step, where they are checked for imperfections, prior to brushing. The brushing process is accomplished by steel paddle drums that beat the fibers clean of dust and impurities. Once clean they are graded and packed into bales weighing approximately 550 pounds for transportation to the twine factory.
The sisal fiber is unloaded at the UCI do Brasil twine factory and goes through a series of inspections to insure the quality of the fiber, its length, humidity level and that it is free from bark and other impurities. The manufacturing begins with the raw fiber being sifted down to manageable bunches so it can be placed on the moving conveyor belt of the First Goods machine. It is at this stage that the fibers are coated with an emulsion that makes the fiber more malleable, gives it its color, and protects the fibers against mildew and rot.
Following the coating is the first of eight steps that the fiber must go through before it will be spun into twine. These machines have steel needles which space and comb the fibers, each step making them more uniform. When the fiber has reached the ideal thickness and uniformity, the sisal sliver is fed into the spinning frame where the fibers are combed one last time, fed through the yarn-dye, drawn taunt by the haul pulleys, and spun onto the bobbin.
It takes a bale of 9,000 feet of twine over 90 minutes to be produced on a spindle and 16,000 feet of twine takes over three hours per spindle! Once spun, the twine is uniformly wound onto a spool. When finished, the spool is marked with a pull-tab that identifies the runnage, the operator responsible for production, and on which spinning frame it was spun.
The UCI mill is the only sisal twine mill certified by the International Organization for Standardization for its ISO 9001 Quality Assurance procedure. This means that every bale of twine produced is in accordance with rigorous standards to ensure uniform, consistent quality. The twine is subjected to many tests, including runnage, twists-per-feet, humidity, oil content, and tensile and knot strength.
The finished, quality-approved twine spools are packed in their sleeves, weighed, married two spools to a bale, packed into their brand-name labels, palletized and shrink wrapped for extra protection during shipment. Twine pallets ready for shipment are loaded onto trucks destined for the docks. At the port, the twine is loaded onto break-bulk steamships that sail the high seas for over two weeks to reach North America.