FredHatt and I started to look into this after I developed a bad case of acne 6 months into discovering rope. Since the acne appeared hours after passing my PhD Viva and at a time where I was working 3 different jobs, I am not convinced this was directly the result of being in extensive contact with jute, but that certainly didn’t help at all. Every time I was around jute rope, even if I wasn’t actually in the rope, my skin would flair up. It would get substantially worse after Kinbaku Days at Resonance13 due to the jute rope fuzzies in the air, and was at its worse during the 5 day Kazami workshop in Paris – in fact, I was in a lot of pain and my skin even bled.
So, we did some research into ‘jute rope allergies’ and ‘jute rope sensitivities’ and discovered I was in fact not alone. I even read a rather extreme account of a girl who fainted immediately after being in contact with jute rope on her skin. Wow.
So what’s this all about?
Well, it seems the problem is not the jute itself which is a natural vegetable fiber, but the oil that is used to process it. It turns out that that most jute produced around the world is processed using a mineral oil called Jute Batching Oil (or JBO), which is an aqueous emulsion derived from crude oil for spraying over jute fibers in order to soften them for the manufacture of jute textiles. This is done in the batching department of jute mills where the jute fibers are segregated into different batches according to their length, texture, colour and tensile strength before preparation of jute textile yarn. The oil is not so much there for the benefit of the jute itself, but is meant to protect the machines that process the jute fibers into yarns. In other words, it allows for affordable large scale manufacture of jute products. And I don’t just mean rope. In case you didn’t know, jute is one of the world’s most affordable and most produced natural fibers, second only to cotton. It’s used mainly to make sacks and coarse cloth but the fibers are also woven into all sorts of other products such as curtains, chair coverings, carpets, area rugs, and even backing for linoleum.
But the thing about JBO is that it’s rather toxic… In fact, numerous scientific articles since the 1960’s have reported evidence that JBO is a cancer promoting agent. One study for example reports that the application of JBO to the skin of mice produced poor hair growth, baldness, acne and ulcerations. Interestingly enough though, this study also reports that over extended periods of time, the acne and ulcers healed despite continued application of the oil. Another study suggests that jute mill workers, whose skin is exposed to JBO during the batching process, develop skin conditions such as acne, dermatoses, and ‘premalignant degenerative changes’. There is even evidence that JBO can also contaminate food, because jute is also used for packaging foods for worldwide distribution (such as bread, chocolate, nuts, coffee and rice). However, the extent to which it is dangerous to human health is not well understood, and even its carcinogenic properties seem to be dependent on other variables (such as pre-existing conditions, amount of oil present and type of JBO exposed to).
Due to these undesirable characteristics, there has been some effort to try to find a friendlier alternative for JBO (like the more eco-friendly caster oil for example) that satisfies the requirements for a good batching oil:
1. It must have no harmful effect on either side the jute or the machine.
2. The colour must be acceptable.
3. There must be no danger of spontaneous combustion.
4. It should not go rancid or sticky on standing.
5. It should not have an objectionable odour.
6. It must be cheap and in plentiful supply.
7. It should not change its state under any atmospheric condition.
However, I wouldn’t bet on these alternatives to catch on anytime soon, simply because none seems to be as cheap and effective as JBO.
So what does this mean?
Well, in short, it means that treating your brand new raw jute rope is probably a very good idea! Importantly, treating the rope in such a way that it promotes the oil to leave the rope (such as through boiling, baking or steaming for example). If you’re hyper sensitive to it like me, then I recommend asking your rope seller about their treatment process and requesting that the ropes be rid of the oil as much as possible.
Another alternative to this is to buy jute ropes that are made by hand (i.e. hand woven), because these are less likely to contain JBO (as this is applied before the rope is spun into yarns). In fact, due to its texture, jute could only be processed by hand until the mid 1800’s when it was discovered in Dundee (Scotland) that by treating it with whale oil, it could be treated by machine. M0co jute and Knot Knormal, for example, advertise their ropes as being hand spun and as having no machines involved in the process, so they might be a good alternative. They do however describe their ropes as being made from a high quality jute yarn, so I am unsure whether the yarns themselves have been machine spun, in which case I am guessing they could contain JBO. But this is something that only m0co and Knot Knormal themselves would be able to explain, as the source of the jute is typically a well guarded secret in the rope community.*
There are likely other sources of hand made rope out there (I would be interested to know if, for example, some of the Japanese rope might be), so if you’re really trying to avoid JBO all together it might be a good idea to do some research on sources of good quality hand made rope.
I don’t personally think this is absolutely necessary though. In my case, as long as the rope is treated to get rid of the oil my skin doesn’t seem to react at all to the rope.
In the end, I did have to go on antibiotics for 4 months, but my skin is now completely healed. I try to stay away from untreated raw jute rope as much as possible, so I’m hoping my skin stays clear for good 🙂
*Edit: I have heard from a reliable source that m0co jute’s rope is indeed 100% JBO free.