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Hemp: Historic fiber remains controversial

Posted on November 1, 1997

Use of hemp in yarns and fabrics grows as debate ensues over legalizing U.S. cultivation of the versatile plant

Hemp is a great deal more than just an alternative textile fiber. It is one of the few plants whose byproducts can either be eaten, sat on, written on, worn, slathered on your body, painted on a wall or squirted into a machine. It is also the subject of a worldwide controversy that involves such disparate factions as farmers, government enforcement agencies, environmentalists, supporters of legalized drugs and manufacturers of textile, food and paper products.

Historians say that hemp has been used in textiles since the 28th century B.C., so there is no question about its viability or desirability for that end use. The controversy, which is particularly acute in the U.S., stems from the fact that the hemp plant, whose horticultural name is “Cannabis sativa” comes in several varieties, one of which is the source of marijuana. The dispute is about whether or not the fiber plant, which is different from the smoking plant, should be, or can successfully be, grown at the same time that the hallucinogenic plant is legally banned.

This heated embroilment has not prevented hemp yarns and textiles from gaining a relatively small but growing place in the U.S. apparel and home textiles market. During the past year and a half or so, the industry and consumers have become increasingly aware of hemp thanks to the efforts of a number of importers and promoters, most notably Hemp Textiles International (HTI), an ecologically conscious manufacturer and importer of Cantiva hemp fiber, based in Bellingham, Washington.

Although not yet a serious rival to any other natural fiber, Dept. of Commerce import statistics confirm a recent surge of interest. From 1995 to 1996, imports of hemp fiber (tow and waste) into the U.S. increased 415.8% by quantity, imports of yarns increased 57.7% and woven fabric imports increased 31%. In quantity, 52,870 kilos of hemp fiber were imported in 1996, as were 5,871 kilos of hemp yarn and 132,230 kilos of woven hemp fabric.

China was the chief supplier of fiber with the Philippines in second place and showing the largest import growth, going from 16 kilos in 1995 to almost 18,000 kilos in 1997. Turkey was the chief supplier of hemp yarns, followed by Rumania. For woven hemp fabrics, China provided the greatest quantity, followed by El Salvador, Hungary and Romania. A total of 423,239 sq m of hemp fabric were imported into the U.S. in 1996, and as of June, 1997, the year-to-date imports are 225,674 sq m.

In recent years there has been a general increase in the imports of alternative bast fibers, which includes jute, raffia and other vegetable fibers, says Maria Corey, an economist with the Dept. of Commerce. By comparison with flax imports, hemp is not so very far behind and is increasing in areas where flax is declining. In 1996, 81,182 kilos of flax fiber (tow and waste) were imported into the U.S., an increase of 22.8% from 1995. During that same period, 724 kilos of flax yarns were imported, a decrease of 39.1%, as were 6,465 kilos of woven flax fabrics, also showing a decrease of 2.3%.

“During the last year, hemp sales have grown steadily,” reports David Gould, president of HTI. “Business hasn’t taken the huge ‘J’ curve that we had been anticipating, but there will be a critical mass once the right players get involved.”

With big names such as Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Adidas already dabbling in hemp products, the momentum is building. Klein was quoted in a New York Times article saying, “I believe that hemp is going to be the fiber of choice in both the home furnishings and fashion industries.” In that same article, Ralph Lauren confessed to being a long-term hemp user, saying that he had quietly included hemp fabrics in his collections since fall 1984.

Adidas sells more than 150,000 pairs per season of its Gazelle Natural field shoe, made in Taiwan with Chinese hemp upper and bottoms made from trims recycled from other shoes. Spring 1998 will be the fourth season for the hemp footwear, which retails for $55. It was developed as a result of consumer requests for natural and recycled materials.

At the same time that fashion designers are jumping on to the ecological trend, farmers are looking for alternative crops to replace tobacco and other waning products, and environmentalists are supporting hemp’s eco-friendly characteristics. As a result, there is a small but spirited and very verbal group of hemp enthusiasts whose passion for the fiber is becoming infectious. So much so that the ground swell of interest begun at the grass roots is rising to environmentally concerned business. The network of “hempsters,” as they call themselves, includes several national and international industry associations, importers and distributors, industry consultants, publishers and retailers. A number of interest groups have been introducing bills into state legislatures with the intention of legalizing hemp growing in this country.

Currently, it is legal to import hemp fibers and processed seeds into the U.S., but it is illegal to grow the plant here. The U.S. is reportedly the only member of the G7 alliance and the only industrialized nation that does not permit the cultivation of hemp. Canada’s first commercial crop in 70 years will be ready for harvest in 1998, following recently passed legislation legalizing its growth.

In the U.S., the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency does not distinguish between the subspecies of Cannabis plants. The subspecies used for making fiber, colloquially known as “industrial hemp,” reportedly contains too little of the hallucinogenic substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), between 0.1 and 0.4%, to have an effect when smoked and, according to a number of sources, would make one quite ill. The marijuana plant contains as much as 20% of THC.

Contradicting the DEA’s belief that the two plants are indistinguishable, Steven DeAngelo, CEO of Ecolution, a manufacturer of hemp apparel, says that “the growing method is different. In the field, the recreational plants are spaced wide apart, while the hemp plants are close together. The hemp stalks shoot straight up and there is no room for foliage to grow, which is the part you smoke.”

Hemp is often referred to as an “ecological cousin” to linen (flax), since both are bast fibers and have similar, but not precisely the same, appearance, growth and processing requirements. Under the microscope and in finished textile products, they may look very much alike. In reality, the fineness and quality of the two fibers overlap depending upon growing conditions, seed variety and how the crop is handled after harvesting. Though the two fibers have more in common than not, there is no consensus as to how closely their market potential may be allied.

“In the past, some flax marketers and producers were feeling threatened by hemp, but this has faded,” says Gould. “HTI can foresee close alliances between Cantiva (HTI’s name for hemp) and flax producers and users. From our end, there is a natural instinct to learn from the successes of the flax industry. They are very synergistic in a marriage in a yarn or fabric. We expect to be closely linked as we go forward.”

(Photograph Omitted)
Captioned as: Hemp jeans are included in the 1998 spring/summer jeans collection by Armani.

“Over the centuries, not just since the contemporary ban on growing it, hemp was never developed to make fine sheeting, like linen was,” points out Pauline Delli Carpini, Director of Operations for North America for the Europeanbased Confederation Europeenne du Lin et du Chanvre (hemp). Some years ago, hemp was dropped from the organization, simply because there was no demand for it, says Delli Carpini.

“It’s a niche market, but niche markets in the U.S. are big,” says John Howell, editor and publisher of Hemp Times, published by The Hemp Company of America. “Linen in the U.S. has 1% market share. Hemp has the potential to be at least the equivalent.”

Interestingly, most textile and apparel manufacturers currently working with hemp do not compare it to linen, but to cotton, where the performance, environmental and price differences are quite dramatic. The pollution of soil and water by the pesticides used in growing cotton has been a battle ground for environmentalists. Because hemp is naturally resistant to mold, bacteria and pests, it is grown without pesticides, herbicides or agricultural chemicals, except some fertilization, and is receiving the full support of the green movement.

Another eco-friendly aspect to the fiber is that its dense growth makes it a prime contributor to weed control and elimination. Hemp is a high-yield crop, maturing in 120 days average, and producing significantly more fiber than flax or cotton in equivalent space. Flax grows once every six or seven years on the same land, while hemp can be grown every two or three years. Also, the entire plant can be used, from seed to foliage, for use in such diverse products as building materials, paper and foods.

“Water quality can be significantly improved by planting hemp because it doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides and has no toxic runoff from the fields,” says Yitzac Goldstein, vice-president of HTI. “Using more sustainable and less chemically intensive methods will save farmers money.”

Simply put, as a cellulose rich plant, it is considered a core crop in the model for sustainable agriculture.

The “cottonizing of hemp” is what Eric Steenstra of Ecolution, calls the current interest for the fiber. “Hemp will be better and stronger when it isn’t cottonized. But all the equipment out there is for cotton. To make sense and be usable for the mainstream industry, it will have to be workable on equipment made for cotton.”

Steenstra had a hemp twill fabric tested for tensile and tear strength at Greenwood Mills, and compared the results with Greenwood’s 12-oz cotton denim. Hemp beat cotton every time. Overall, the 100% hemp fabric had 62% greater tear strength and 102% greater tensile strength. In tensile strength tests, the hemp warp endured 266 lb of pressure while the cotton only 204 lb, and the hemp filling endured 178 lb of pressure while the cotton fill only 100. In the test for tear strength, the hemp warp tested at 19.9 lb of pressure with the cotton at 12.7, and the hemp filling tested at 22 lb with the cotton filling at 7.6.

Patagonia, the California manufacturer of outdoor apparel, also conducted similar tests, with the results showing that hemp has eight times the tensile strength and four times the durability of other natural fibers.

The high cost of the multi-stage processing of hemp, the limited quantities available, and the fact that there is little processing of the fiber in this country, is responsible for its high price, about 100% higher than cotton, and about on par with linen when comparing similar qualities. But Hemp Times Howell believes that the “green rate,” the premium that people will pay for a product with an environmental story attached to it, is about 25-30% above market price. HTI’s Cantiva fiber, which is controlled for quality, notably the absence of wood residue, sells for about $1.67 per pound, baled and ready for blending with cotton and other fibers. The price for finished fabrics range from $4 to $12 a meter for 60 in. width, depending upon the quality.

The Hemp Co. of America is a privately funded, venture capital company which has developed five vehicles for marketing hemp: a bimonthly consumer magazine, Hemp Times a stand-alone mail order catalog called, Planet Hemp, that is also bound inside the magazine; a cyberstore on the web; and a real store, also called Planet Hemp, located in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood.

Many hemp products are offered in natural colors because dyeing becomes an issue in maintaining its all naturalness. For mass production, there are only two choicesusing natural colors or low impact reactive dyes. Ecolution, whose main products are hemp jeans and jackets for men and women, has recently developed yarn-dyed hemp striped and plaid fabrics for shirts using low impact reactive dyes. It has also recently begun knitting with 100% hemp yarns.

(Photograph Omitted)
Captioned as: Woody Harrelson joined with Deep E Co. to market a hiking shoe with a hemp campus upper.

Updating the processing of hemp fiber is the key to its future success, and because it has not been grown locally for 60 years, there is much catching up to do.

“In many ways, hemp is like Rip Van Winkle. It has been asleep for 60 years in terms of technology and processing equipment,” explained John Roulac, president of Hemptech, an industry consultant and author of several books about hemp. “The challenge for hemp right now is, how do we make the fiber work in the Western economic model where you need high speed production and high quality.”

Roulac says that retail sales of hemp product in the U.S. are now in the $50-million range, up from just a few million in 1993. He projects that annual sales of hemp products will reach several hundred million dollars in the early part of the 21st century and could shoot up to $5-10 billion within a decade, depending upon technology advancements.

Crescent Woolen Mills is optimistic about hemp’s future. The company spins hemp yarns for carpets, sweaters and T-shirts. Kevin Webster, vice president of marketing, says Crescent mixes black wool with the natural hemp to create gray and brown shades with a heather effect.

“If hemp can be spun fine enough, it can compete against cotton fairly successfully,” Webster believes. “It could even be a competitor to linen. But I’ve heard of people having problems spinning on certain open-end systems.”

Yarn Mavens is new to the hemp business and has just started developing products with Stonecutter Mills. They are currently offering: 50-50 cotton-hemp blend in coarse counts, from Ne 6 to 14, with either regular or organic cotton; 50-50 Tencel-hemp blends in the same finer counts containing less hemp.

Beyond the problems of technology, hemp has an obvious image problem, not least of which is its hard-to-break association with the pot-smoking, hippie culture of the 1970s. These days, every cause must have its celebrity proponent in order to be heard, and actor Woody Harrelson has volunteered to play this role for hemp.

A life-long environmental activist, Harrelson has proven to be a very visible and effective spokesperson. He even went to the extreme of being jailed in Kentucky, purposely staging a planting of several hemp seeds in support of farmers lobbying for legalization. In more Hollywood style, Harrelson was seen at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards events wearing custommade Giorgio Armani hemp tuxedos accessorized with hemp shoes.

Many observers expect hemp growing to be legal in the U.S. within five years, following pressure from American farmers. Even with only Canada’s involvement, the repercussions for hemp are expected to be significant, with increased fiber availability leading to lower prices. But manufacturers insist that hemp should not rest on its ecological laurels alone to become a factor in the fashion market.

(Photograph Omitted)
Captioned as: Actor Woody Harrelson and friend wear hemp outfits to 1997 Golden Globe Awards.

Sidebar:

Hemp vs Linen: Close Cousins

Linen and hemp share many properties, both being bast fibers, but there are some important differences.

Similarities: Both are cellulosic fibers, exhibit high luster, withstand high temperatures, highly moisture absorbent, easily damaged by strong acids, high resistance to alkalis, difficult to bleach, highly resistant to moths and other insects. Both use their seeds for oils, cosmetics and food products.

Differences: Their natural colorations are slightly different, flax described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown. Flax fiber grows from 6 to 40 in. with the best averaging 20-in. and not less than 12. Hemp fiber is somewhat longer, growing from 4 to 16 ft in length. Hemp is even less elastic than linen, but it is up to eight times stronger according to some tests.

(Information excerpted from: Modem Textiles, 2nd Edition by Dorothy Siegert Lyle)

Copyright © 1997, Textile World. All rights reserved.