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Coming to America: It’s high time for hemp’s return

Posted on August 1, 1997

Hemp came to America on the Mayflower — woven into the ship’s sails and rigging. It covered Conestoga wagons trudging West. According to legend, Betsy Ross stitched it into that famous flag, and Levi Strauss sewed it into the first pair of gold miner’s jeans. Hemp was a cash crop for rope, twine, canvas and cellulose in the United States until 1937, when it was outlawed by the federal government, largely because major chemical companies — competing for the war industry with synthetic fibers — lobbied for the Marijuana Tax Act.

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Captioned as: An American cash crop until 1937, industrial hemp is now illegal to grow in the United States. Raw and processed fibers are imported from Eastern Europe, above left, and China, above right and immediate left. Currently under censure from the U.S. textile and apparel industry for violations of trade and human rights agreements, China continues to reap the benefits of this fiber — while the United States remains the only industrialized nation that is not growing hemp.

And now is the time for its comeback as a sustainable industrial fiber, according to David R. Gould, president of Hemp Textiles International Corp. (HTI), which is developing hemp textiles from fiber to fabric. “The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that is not growing hemp,” says Gould. He believes commercial farming of industrial hemp — one of the 400 varieties of Cannabis sativa, and now lawfully imported as both raw and processed fiber — will be legal by the end of the century. “Hemp is here to stay,” he says, “and it will be a major part of the American textile industry. Anyone who learns to work with it now will be ahead of the game.”

Working with the coarse fiber, similar to flax, is labor-intensive because hemp technology has not evolved in half a century, and because U.S. weaving and spinning machines are designed for cotton rather than hemp. “But that’s changing,” says John Roulac, founder and president of Hemptech in Sebastopol, Calif., which conducts and promotes research and development of hemp textiles. According to Roulac, a German company is refining a steam process which explodes and shortens the long fibers, resulting in a hemp flock that can be spun on traditional cotton machinery with only minor adjustments. Gould’s company is also working with U.S. clients to improve spinning techniques, producing the first hemp yarns in this country in 60 years. In collaboration with Kraemer Textiles Inc. of Nazareth, Pa., HTI has perfected processes to blend hemp with cotton and wool, introducing its trademark Cantiva yarns at New York City’s Yarn Fair International last July.

Although fewer than a dozen spinning and weaving mills in the United States are currently handling hemp, negotiations are underway with approximately 20 more. And it’s worth the effort, say supporters, as hemp is an ideal fabric for home furnishings and apparel. According to tests by California apparel manufacturer Patagonia, it has eight times the tensile strength and four times the durability of other natural textiles.

“Hemp is the strongest natural fiber known to man,” says Jill McKenzie of Alternative Import & Export, an Atlanta-based single source supplier of hemp clothing and accessories. It absorbs less ultraviolet light than cotton or linen, is naturally resistant to mold and mildew, and dyes better than virtually any other natural textile, says McKenzie. “And it’s warm in winter and cool in the summer,” she says, showing off her hemp skirt, blouse, vest and shoes.

Hal Nelson, COO of American Hemp Mercantile, sees textiles and apparel as one of the three major U.S. markets for hemp, in addition to jewelry cordage and heavy twines. “We’re seeing a lot of expansion in the fashion direction,” he says, listing designers such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, who have already introduced hemp in apparel and home furnishings collections. At a recent fashion and boutique trade show in New York, Larry Miesse of Ecolution Solution in Fairfax, Va., counted 30 booths selling wholesale hemp products, compared to eight just two years ago. “This industry is growing 100% to 200% a year,” says Miesse. “It is not a fad.”

More versatile than other natural textiles, hemp is woven in a variety of weights, from sheer to canvas, and in a galaxy of textured finishes from slub to basketweave and herringbone. Rather than one or two shades of ivory, its natural colors range from ecru to khaki. Hemp’s price is currently comparable to that of linen and wool. According to Kris Johnson, director of sales and marketing for Hemp Textiles International, wholesale rates for 60-inch fabric in commercial yardage range from $3.07 a yard for a hemp/cotton blend to $11.39 a yard for a 100% hemp houndstooth.

Another reason for its growing popularity is hemp’s viability as a renewable resource. “We’re running out of natural resources,” says McKenzie, “and we’ve got to find alternative solutions.” Hemp is a high-yield crop, producing 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more than flax. Hemp plants, which mature in four to five months, are naturally resistant to fungus and insects, and can be grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizer — a stark contrast to cotton, which soaks up 50% of the pesticides used annually in the U.S., according to Nelson.

Finally shedding the stigma of “pot” or “weed,” industrial hemp has attracted the attention of some impressive organizations, from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the Wisconsin and Colorado Departments of Agriculture and the Oregon Natural Resources Council. “The support is just staggering,” says Gould, “especially from farmers of oversubsidized commodity crops and tobacco.” Hemp is also gaining support from all political parties, with legislation introduced in at least 15 states to legalize the industry-encouraged perhaps by Canada’s new legislation allowing farmers to grow hemp.

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Captioned as: Hemp Textiles International Corp.’s vice president, Yitzac Goldstein, left, and president, David R. Gould, model clothing made from Cantiva hemp. The company works with American spinners to develop blends of hemp with a variety of natural and synthetic fibers such as wool, cotton and polyester.

Contrary to popular belief, industrial hemp is not a drug, but a non-psychoactive variety of Cannabis. Industry standards require levels of THC lower than 0.3%, compared to 15% in its smoking-variety cousin, marijuana. When David Gould exhibited at Yarn Fair International, he was impressed that no one asked him about the drug issue. “That was a tribute to the level of education and sophistication in the textile industry today,” he says.

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Captioned as: Hemp produces 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more than flax. Plants mature in four to five months and can be grown without pesticides, fungicides or chemical fertilizers.

Copyright © 1997, Apparel Industry Magazine. All rights reserved.