Rug making on hessian

Hessian (UK: /ˈhɛsiən/, US: /ˈhɛʃən/[1]), burlap in the United States and Canada,[2] or crocus in Jamaica[3] and the wider Caribbean, is a woven fabric made of vegetable fibres, usually the skin of the jute plant[4][5][6] or sisal leaves.[7] It is generally used (in the crude tow form known as gunny) for duties of rough handling, such as making sacks employed to ship farm products and to act as covers for sandbags (although woven plastics now often serve these purposes), and for wrapping tree-root balls.[8][9] However, this dense woven fabric, historically coarse, more recently[when?] is being produced in a refined state, known simply as jute, as an eco-friendly material for bags, rugs, and other products.

The name "hessian" is attributed to the historic use of the fabric as part of the uniform of soldiers from the former Landgraviate of Hesse (1264–1567) and its successors, who were called Hessians.[10] Hessian cloth[11] comes in different types of construction, form, size and color.

The origin of the word burlap is uncertain,[10][12] though it appeared as early as the late 17th century. Its etymology is speculated to derive from the Middle English borel ('coarse cloth'), the Old French burel and/or the Dutch boeren ('coarse'), in the latter case perhaps interfused with boer ('peasant'). The second element is the Dutch word lap, 'piece of cloth'.[13]


Hessian was first exported from India in the early 19th century.[5] It was traditionally used as backing for linoleum, rugs, and carpet.[5]

In Jamaica and certain parts of the Caribbean (where it is only known as Crocus),[14] many labourers who used to work on the plantations were not often given pleasant materials with which to make clothes. Some had access to cotton that was spun, woven, cut and sewn into serviceable clothing (often called homespun) while others had to make do with clothing fashioned from roughly hewn sacking. Labourers used their resourcefulness to recycle discarded sacking and fashion them into garments that, although fairly uncomfortable by all accounts, provided protection from the heat and dust. A traditional costume of Jamaican Maroons uses fabric very similar to this material as a way of drawing an affinity and paying homage to the resourcefulness and creativity of their labourers who gained freedom. For the rest of the population, it was used to make bags for carrying loads of coffee and other items, edible or not.[3]


Hessian is often used to make gunny sacks, and to ship goods like coffee beans and rooibos tea. It is breathable and so resists condensation and associated spoilage of 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 the setting of cement and concrete in the construction industry. Hessian is also commonly used to make effective sandbags; hessian sacks filled with sand are often used for flood mitigation in temporary embankments against floodwaters or field fortifications.


The transportation of agricultural products often involves bags made from hessian jute fabric. Hessian jute bags (commonly known as gunnysacks) are used to ship wool, tobacco, and cotton, as well as foodstuffs such as coffee, flour, vegetables, and grains. Hessian jute's ability to allow the contents of bags to breathe makes it excellent for preventing or minimizing rotting due to trapped moisture. In some cases, hessian can even be specially treated to avoid specific kinds of rot and decay.[15]

Hessian is also often used for the transportation of unprocessed dry 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 three 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. One major advantage of hessian jute fabric is that, because it is made entirely from natural vegetable fibers, it is completely biodegradable.[16]: 302 

This property also makes it extremely useful in landscaping and agricultural uses that require incorporating fabric support into outdoor projects. Landscape designs that include tree transplantation often rely on hessian jute to ensure that young trees arrive at the planting venue intact and unharmed. This is achieved by wrapping hessian jute fabric around the roots and soil of a tree shortly after digging it from its original location. The breathability of the fabric allows sufficient aeration of the soil, and the hessian's moisture-resistant properties prevent excess water from accumulating and allowing the growth of mold, mildew, or other types of rot. Once planted, young trees may require the protection of hessian jute to ward off mice and other rodents that might otherwise eat their bark and compromise their structure. To keep rodents at bay, landscapers often wrap swathes of hessian jute around the trunks of young trees of all varieties.

In addition to protecting from animals, hessian jute also has the capacity to protect trees from excessive sun and wind. By building windbreaks from hessian jute, landscapers can exert some control over the environment in which young trees grow, thus maximizing their chances of growing to maturity so that they can withstand more intense weather conditions.

For planting grass, on areas that have steep slopes or high levels of soil erosion, a layer of hessian jute tacked on over grass seeds can prevent seeds from being moved by rain, runoff, or wind. Landscapers can use this fabric for many uses due to its strength, durability, moisture resistance, and protective properties.


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. During the Great Depression in the US, when cloth became relatively scarce in the largely agrarian parts of the country, many farming families used burlap cloth to sew their own clothes.[17][18] However, prolonged exposure to the material can cause rashes on sensitive skin.

Owing to its durability, open weave, naturally non-shiny refraction and fuzzy texture, hessian is often used in the fabrication of ghillie suits for 3D camouflage. It was also a popular material for camouflage scrim on combat helmets during World War II. Until the advent of the plastic "leafy" multi-color net system following the Vietnam War, burlap scrim was also woven onto shrimp and fish netting to create large-scale military camouflage netting.

In art

Hessian has been used by artists as an alternative to cotton or linen as a stretched painting or working surface.[19]

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 sandbags, and these are 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: as an edge protector for rope rescue operations, for use as padding on slings used in animal rescue or used to dampen and beat out bush-fires.

In beekeeping

Hessian fabric is often used as smoker fuel in beekeeping because of its generous smoke generation and ease of ignition.[20]

Building material

In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, in Australia, hessian fabric, laid over a crude timber framework, was used to create the walls of primitive dwellings, particularly in mining towns[21][22] and in settlements of unemployed people during the Great Depression.[23][24][25]

The resulting semi-permanent structures — part way between a tent and a permanent dwelling made of conventional materials — were inexpensive to build. The durability and weatherproofing of the hessian walls were often improved by painting the hessian fabric with lime wash or conventional house paint, creating a less permeable, more rigid, rot-proof wall of a more attractive appearance.[23] Hessian fabric was also used to create simple internal partitions. Roofing was typically corrugated iron, but sometimes canvas, usually with an earthen floor.

Hessian was also used for the internal lining of some slab huts in Australia.[26]


  1. ^ "Definition of HESSIAN". Retrieved 12 May 2022.
  2. ^ "Tariff Talk Hurt Hessians of India; Traveler Tells of Blue Times in Calcutta When America Stopped Buying". The New York Times. 13 July 1913. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  3. ^ a b "Crocus Bag". CIAD. 28 March 2012. Retrieved 29 July 2016.
  4. ^ United States. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on Ways and Means (13 January 1913). Tariff Schedules: Hearings Before the Committee on Ways and Means. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 4047. Retrieved 29 July 2010.
  5. ^ a b c Woolley, Tom (1998). Green Building Handbook: A Guide to Building Products and Their Impact on the Environment. Vol. 1. London: E & FN Spon. ISBN 978-0-419-22690-1.[page needed]
  6. ^ Woolley, Tom (2000). Green Building Handbook: A Companion Guide to Building Products and Their Impact on the Environment. Vol. 1. Taylor & Francis. pp. 96, 100, 108. ISBN 978-0-419-25380-8.
  7. ^ Olson, Jane; Shepherd, Gene (2006). The Rug Hooker's Bible: The Best from 30 Years of Jane Olson's Rugger's Roundtable. Stackpole Books. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-881982-46-3. Retrieved 29 July 2010.
  8. ^ "What Is Burlap?". The Happy Burlap. 27 November 2021. Retrieved 19 June 2023.
  9. ^ "Sandbags of All Types". Dayton Bag & Burlap. Retrieved 19 June 2023.
  10. ^ a b Simpson, J. R.; Weiner, E. S. C. (1989). "burlap". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-861186-2.[page needed]
  11. ^ "Hessian Cloth". Global Trade Concern. Retrieved 28 February 2022.
  12. ^ "Oxford Dictionaries - The World's Most Trusted Dictionary Provider". Oxford Dictionaries. Archived from the original on 17 January 2013.
  13. ^ "burlap". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 9 April 2014.
  14. ^ Allsopp, R., ed. (1996). "crocus-bag/sack". Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9766401454. pp. 178–179.
  15. ^ "Landscaping and Agriculture – Hessian Fabric Importers".
  16. ^ Sauer, L. J., The Once and Future Forest: A Guide To Forest Restoration Strategies (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998), p. 302.
  17. ^ Smith, Robert W. (26 January 2006). Spotlight on America: The Great Depression. Teacher Created Resources. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-4206-3218-7.
  18. ^ Downs, Matthew L. (10 July 2014). "Great Depression in Alabama". The Encyclopedia of Alabama. Archived from the original on 21 October 2018. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  19. ^ "100 Gorgeous Burlap Projects that will Beautify Your Life". DIYnCrafts. April 2014. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  20. ^ Cushman, David A. "Bee Keeping Smoker Fuel". Dave Cushman's Beekeeping and Bee Breeding Website. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  21. ^ "Kangiara". Burrowa News (NSW : 1874 - 1951). 15 January 1915. p. 2. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  22. ^ "History – Glen Davis". Retrieved 25 April 2021.
  23. ^ a b "Neat Unemployed Hut on Torrens Bank". News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 - 1954). 20 July 1934. p. 7. Retrieved 25 April 2021.
  24. ^ "FINDING HOME FOR UNEMPLOYED". Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954). 15 October 1936. p. 13. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
  25. ^ "WHAT IS HOME?". Truth (Sydney, NSW : 1894 - 1954). 22 September 1935. p. 13. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
  26. ^ "The Village Settlements". Windsor and Richmond Gazette (NSW : 1888 - 1961). 19 August 1893. p. 6. Retrieved 26 April 2021.