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Joint Venture

Posted on June 13, 2000

Alex Benady Meets The Woman Who Has Won A Scholarship To Develop Her Interest In Cannabis

By Alex Benady, The Guardian

As the heavy sweet smell in the corridor of any hall of residence will testify, many students are more than happy to invest considerable amounts of their own time and money in exhaustive private study of hemp and its properties.

Not so Louisa Wood, a freelance fabric weaver from Southampton, who last week persuaded the Queen Elizabeth trust to part with £33,000 in the form of a scholarship to finance a month-long trip to the Chinese province of Yunnan, where she plans to study hemp production first-hand.

Her interest, needless to say, lies not in the weed’s psychotropic properties, but in its potential as an up-market designer textile. On her return, she will spend three months putting together an experimental hand-woven collection of hemp fabrics.

Within a few years, she hopes to have single-handedly revived the long since defunct British hemp weaving industry, and to be churning out hemp pashminas, scarves and gorgeous hemp fabrics of every variety.

Her initiative has drawn applause from the fashion world. “About time too,” says Bryony Toogood, fashion editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.

“Hemp is so bloody hippy dippy and boring. Political correctness is not a consumer proposition, so any attempts to make hemp beautiful have got to be welcome.”

But before Wood gets into swanky fabrics and the absolutely fabulous world of haute couture, she needs to learn all the mucky details of how to actually manufacture hemp yarn from raw materials.

Specifically, she hopes to find out from her Chinese mentors precisely how hemp fibres should be handled to get the best out of them. “There are many technical issues involved in producing a material. You need to gum and wax the fibres to weave them and then remove some, or all, of it. Silk, for instance, needs to be degummed in boiling water. How do you treat hemp? No one knows in the UK,” says Wood.

She has worked as a fabric designer since leaving the Royal College of Art five years ago. She first encountered hemp as a fabric in 1997, while working as a textile designer for an American firm in Hong Kong.

“I happened to visit a Chinese factory and saw them making hemp fabrics for jeans and T-shirts. I thought, immediately, this is going to be a trend and how interesting it would be to do something more creative with it.”

Her enthusiasm grew when she realised that hemp also has impeccable environmental credentials. “It’s an amazing fabric. The plant grows very fast in poor soils and, unlike cotton, where the fibres are often only an inch long, the fibres are up to seven feet long, which makes them very strong. This means that insects can’t eat it and it doesn’t need fertilisers or insecticides.”

Hemp fabric is also extremely practical. “It is three times as absorbent as cotton. It is very soft, it has the drape of linen, but it’s much easier to iron,” she enthuses.

In short Wood wants to reclaim hemp from its primary twentieth century associations as a recreational drug. The cannabis variety indica, used to make yarn, is legal in most countries because it has only a fraction of the THC (the active ingredient) of the more potent Cannabis sativa. “You would have to smoke a joint the size of a telegraph pole to get any kind of effect,” she jokes.

Historically hemp in the west was a just a workaday source of yarn. “The American Constitution was written on hemp. And for centuries hemp was an important part of our domestic culture, used in the manufacture of sail cloth and ropes,” she says. But the result of hemp first being displaced by cotton and then being associated with narcotics was that gradually the craft skills associated with the production of hemp yarn and manufacture died out. “The hemp fibre only disappeared 100 years ago, after being used as a staple for cloth for the previous 4,000 years. Now we have to relearn all those skills,” explains Wood.

With such obvious enthusiasm it’s easy to see why The Queen Elizabeth Trust, which specialises in helping people develop craft skills which will contribute to the UK pool of talent, was so taken with Wood’s application. And before you ask, yes, she was at art school, but no she didn’t inhale.

Copyright © 2000, Guardian Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved.