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Hemp’s Hip New Status

Posted on February 15, 2004

Fabric made from a variety of the cannabis plant is a natural for the home.

The decor and atmosphere at The Hempest, a shop in Boston whose inventory is mostly hemp-related products, might conjure memories of the 1960s. But this Newbury Street store is catering to the hip and environmentally conscious crowd of today. While the merchandise is predominantly soft, natural clothing, the shop also carries products such as hemp table runners and napkins, luxurious towels, hammocks, candles, and rugs.

“People are trying to switch to a more healthy lifestyle and to be more eco-conscious,” says Mitchell Rosenfield, who co-owns The Hempest with Jonathan Napoli. “And, once they get started living with hemp products, it gets addictive. It gives a good feeling. It’s nice to know that the fabric you spend so many hours of your life with…is natural and free of chemicals.”

Hemp is a fast-growing, weedy plant that grows in most soils and climates. Because it is not very susceptible to pests and disease, it is usually cultivated without the use of pesticides or herbicides. When spun into fibers and woven into fabric, it is stronger and more durable than cotton, doesn’t wrinkle, and is soft, absorbent, and warm. In addition, Napoli explains, it is the strongest vegetable fiber on earth. At its Northampton store, The Hempest carries hemp-upholstered chairs and ottomans, sofa covers, and fabrics by the yard.

While local retailers say that hemp home products have long been popular in Western states, they have been slow to catch on in New England, according to David Sheaffer, business administrator of Hemp Sisters Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company that sells hemp products through its website and via seven Hemp Hut franchises, including one in Waterbury, Connecticut. Although Sheaffer says Hemp Sisters has been growing steadily since it opened in 1996, “this business hasn’t received the attention it is due.” He attributes that to hemp’s mistaken association with marijuana. Industrial hemp is a different variety of the cannabis plant from the one that yields marijuana. Nevertheless, there is a long-standing ban on growing the fiber in the United States. Thus all hemp for manufacturing must be imported, mostly from China, eastern Europe, and Thailand.

The crop’s illegal status is a far cry from its prestigious past. Columbus’s ships could never have made it across the Atlantic without hemp sails and cordage. Betsy Ross fashioned the first American flag of hemp, the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and the USS Constitution’s original cordage was made from hemp.

Once upon a time in America, Napoli explains, landowners were required to grow hemp, because the plant’s strong fibers were essential for 17th-century colonists. Patriots like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations.

Hemp materials have even been found in 10,000-year-old tombs in Mesopotamia.

But you wouldn’t have felt cozy sleeping on sheets made of Columbus’s sails or felt pampered while drying yourself with a circa 1600 Colonial hemp towel. The fibers were favored for their durability, not their texture, which was harsh. Today’s hemp fabrics are softened through an enzyme rinsing process, and they continue to soften further with added use and washings. Large, fluffy towels at The Hempest are about $35; smaller sizes are $15. Shower curtains sell for $89, and a set of six napkins costs $14.

The Green Store, with locations in Belfast and Damariscotta, Maine, and an online outlet, carries knitted square potholders for $10 and reusable hemp tea bags and coffee filters for less than $10. At its website and franchise stores, Hemp Sisters Inc. sells flags, hammocks, beaded door curtains, and coffee filters.

What would those Mesopotamians think?

Copyright © 2004, Globe Newspaper Company. All rights reserved.