The word Coir is derived from Malayalam kayaru - cord. It is a coarse fibre extracted from the fibrous outer shell 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 ( a chemical compound that is an integral part of the cell walls of some cells, example tracheids, xylary fibres and sclereids of plants) is deposited on their walls. Mature brown coir fibres contain more lignin and less cellulose than fibres such as flax and cotton and so are stronger but less flexible. They are made up of small threads, each about 1 mm long and 10 to 20 micrometres in diameter. White fibre is smoother and finer, but also weaker.
The coir fibre is relatively water-proof and is one of the few natural fibres resistant to damage by salt water.
Green coconuts, harvested after about six to twelve months on the plant, 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 (De-husking). Machines are now available which crush the whole fruit to give the loose fibers.
Brown fibre: 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 and packed into bales. Some mattress fibre is allowed to retain more moisture so that 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 hunks. 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 colors.
White fibre: 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.
Uses Brown coir is used in floormats and doormats, brushes, mattresses 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 (rubberized 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.
In horticulture, coir is recommended as substitute for peat because it is free of bacteria and fungal spores, and is sustainably produced without the environmental damage caused by peat mining.
Total world coir fibre production is 250,000 tonnes. The coir fibre industry is particularly important in some areas of the developing world. India, mainly the coastal region of Kerala State, produces 60% of the total world supply of white coir fibre. Sri Lanka produces 36% of the total world brown fibre output. Over 50% of the coir fibre produced annually throughout the world is consumed in the countries of origin, mainly India.