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Rug making on burlap

Hessian, or burlap in the US and Canada, is a woven fabric usually made from skin of the jute plant or sisal fibres, or may be combined with other vegetable fibres to make rope, nets, and similar products. Gunny cloth is similar.

Hessian, a dense woven fabric, has been historically produced as a coarse fabric, but more recently it is being used in a refined state known simply as jute as an eco-friendly material for bags, rugs, and other products.

The name "burlap" appears to be of unknown origin, although the word could mean "coarse piece of cloth". The name "hessian" is attributed to the use of the fabric, initially, as part of the uniform of soldiers from the German state of Hesse who were called "Hessians".


Hessian was first exported from India in the early 19th century. It was traditionally used as backing for linoleum, rugs and carpet.


Shipping and construction
Hessian is often used to make sacks and bags to ship goods like coffee beans and rooibos; these can be described as gunny sacks. It is breathable and thus resists condensation and associated spoilage of the contents. It is also durable enough to withstand rough handling in transit; these properties have also led to its use for temporary protection as wet covering to prevent rapid moisture loss in setting of cement and concrete by the construction industry. Hessian is also commonly used for making sandbags, empty hessian sacks that, when filled with sand, are used for flood mitigation when building temporary embankments against floodwaters or field fortifications.

Hessian is also often used for the transportation of unprocessed "green" tobacco. This material is used for much the same reasons as it would be used for coffee. Hessian sacks in the tobacco industry hold up to 200 kg (440lb) of tobacco, and due to hessian's toughness, a hessian sack can have a useful life of up to 3 years.

Landscaping and agriculture
Hessian is used to wrap the exposed roots of trees and shrubs when transplanting, and also for erosion control on steep slopes.

Due to its coarse texture, it is not commonly used in modern apparel. However, this roughness gave it a use in a religious context for mortification of the flesh, where individuals may wear an abrasive shirt called a cilice or "hair shirt" and in the wearing of "sackcloth" on Ash Wednesday.

Owing to its durability, open weave, naturally non-shiny refraction, and fuzzy texture, Ghillie suits for 3D camouflage are often made of hessian. It was also a popular material for camouflage scrim on combat helmets of World War II. Until the advent of the plastic "leafy" multi-colour net system following the Vietnam War, burlap scrim was also woven onto shrimp and fish netting to create large-scale military camouflage netting. During the Great Depression in the US, cloth became relatively scarce in the largely agrarian parts of the country. Many farmers used burlap cloth to sew their own clothes. However, prolonged exposure to sensitive skin can cause rashes.

In art
Hessian has been used by artists as an alternative to canvas as a stretched painting or working surface. In horror fiction, it is commonly used as a mask and as a mask for victims of beheading.

Emergency flood response
Hessian bags are often deployed as sandbags as a temporary response to flooding. Because of their material they can either be reused or can be composted after use. Agencies like the State Emergency Service in Australia, and Technisches Hilfswerk in Germany often deploy the use of sandbags and are often found in the majority of their emergency response vehicles. Plastic bags have been used as a substitute but SES units have found hessian bags to be more versatile as they can be used in a variety of rescue applications, mainly as an edge protector for rope rescue operations, or to use as padding on slings used in animal rescue.

In beekeeping
Hessian fabric is often used as smoker fuel in beehive-tending because of its generous smoke content and ease of ignition.

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