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Hemp on the high street

Laura Sevier

21st January, 2009

It’s versatile, environmentally friendly and has a 5,000-year-old pedigree in the fashion world. Laura Sevier can’t understand why it’s taken so long for hemp to hit the shops

Not so long ago, while browsing in shop near to our office in East London, I was asked by a curious shop assistant: ‘Are you an environmentalist?’ ‘What makes you think that?’ I replied, keen to know what it was that gave it away. He said it was a combination of factors: rosy cheeks, scruffy shoes and my hemp bag. While I don’t consider his first two observations to be obvious badges of environmentalism, he was right about the hemp.

It was my (much- loved and frequently used) ‘Real Eco Bags Are Made From Hemp’ bag that marked me out as a greenie. Unlike organic cotton, hemp in its rough and raw state has a distinct, easily recognisable personality, one that has long since been linked with hippies and eco warriors. Organic cotton is now trickling on to the high street, however, while hemp clothing is still relegated to the margins, only worn or carried by the fanatical few who are forced to buy it from online stores. So why is hemp not taken more seriously when its potential as a sustainable, low-impact eco textile is enormous?

A true wonderplant

As a crop, hemp grows thick and fast (up to 10ft in a year), shooting out leaves that smother surrounding weeds. Insects don’t seem to bother it, meaning it can be grown without pesticides, and because the plant’s roots penetrate deep into the ground, drawing up to the surface minerals buried in the soil, little or no fertiliser is required. In essence, hemp is a low-input and low-impact crop that is easy to grow organically and which actually benefits the soil, enriching it with nutrients (making it an ideal break crop to be grown in crop rotations). Hemp is not as thirsty a crop as cotton. It does not generally require much irrigation – if any – because its long tap roots are efficient at extracting water from deep in the soil.

Hemp can be grown in areas where cotton can’t – anywhere in the world. On the same amount of land it is possible to produce three times the amount of hemp fibre as cotton. UK-grown hemp could cut down on clothes miles, provide an alternative to importing cotton, create employment and reduce the UK’s dirty clothing footprint on other parts of the globe.

As a fibre hemp ‘breathes’, keeping you cool in hot weather, and it is soft, comfortable and yet hard-wearing. It also blends well with other fibres, such as silk or organic cotton.

As various eco designers, including Enamore and THTC, are proving, hemp doesn’t have to be relegated to the baggy vests and draw string trousers either – it can be cool, sexy and hip.

So what are we waiting for? Why aren’t we seeing more UK-grown hemp on the high street? Since 1993, when it became legal to grow it again, hemp has been cultivated on approximately 2,000 hectares every year, but this is mainly to produce animal bedding, cigarette paper pulp, fibre and recyclable car interiors. Most of the hemp clothing available in Britain is produced in China or Eastern Europe.

There are signs that this could be about to change, however, if the efforts of one company bears fruit. BioRegional (of BedZed fame) is an independent environmental organisation that develops sustainable products and services, and which has invested eight years of research in hemp textiles. Along with Hemcore, the UK’s largest hemp-growing organisation, and with help from the University of Leeds and funding from what was formerly the Department of Trade of Industry, BioRegional has been pushing to get UK-grown hemp textiles back on the market.

The project involves 1,214 hectares of hemp fields grown by 50 different farmers, mainly in south-east England. Climatic conditions in the south-east, where BioRegional is based, are the most suited to growing the crop. As a result of its practical trials, BioRegional succeeded in producing what is probably the first machine-processed, UK-grown, 100 per cent hemp apparel fabric this century, later made into a lightweight summer blazer by Katharine Hamnett.

‘In the short term it would be possible to establish hemp textile production in southern England to produce high-quality hemp yarn and fabrics at a similar cost to linen,’ says Sue Riddlestone, director of BioRegional. ‘However, if hemp is to be grown and processed in cooler climates or at a more competitive price, various technical problems would need to be overcome.’

Hurdles to hemp

The first obstacle is weather-related. Once the hemp has been cut it needs to be laid out on the ground to allow the natural fungi and bacteria to loosen and separate the bast fibers from the woody core. (Hemp, like its close cousin flax, is a ‘bast fibres’ plant, meaning the fibres are contained in the stem). For this process, known as ‘dew-retting’, the conditions need to be just right – not too dry and not too wet – or the hemp goes mouldy. If the weather isn’t right the whole crop can be lost.

‘What we really need is a processing system that works for farmers,’ says Sue. ‘A way to process hemp that makes it economically viable, that is suitable for our temperate climate or bypasses the need to depend on the weather.’ There are other ways to ret hemp but these carry their own set of problems. In Eastern Europe they often use retting ponds, for instance, which result in polluting effluents.

Then comes the problem of actually extracting the fibre from the stem. Adapted flax machinery can be used but it is not entirely suited to hemp, which is strong and hard-wearing, and has been known to get tangled up in tractors and mills. Hemp requires a larger, more robust machine – a problem that could rapidly be solved if the market demands the final product. They’ve looked at the possibility of stripping off the fibre with machines in the field, but then the fibre contains too much moisture and would need to be quickly treated or stored to prevent degradation. As well as being expensive it doesn’t necessarily result in a better-quality fibre.

So far, so tricky, but if Hemcore, BioRegional’s project partner, can manage successfully to produce hemp fibre on a commercial scale, why can’t this be used for textiles?

‘They produce fibre suitable for non-woven applications such as car parts and building insulation,’ says Sue. ‘Some of our recent work has focused on methods to upgrade this “composite grade” fibre from Hemcore to a finer, textile-grade fibre through the use of enzymes or chemicals.’ In China the fibre is boiled in caustic soda – a fairly standard chemical – and it’s one of the best ways to produce the finest fibre, but BioRegional wants to create a system that uses less energy, water and chemicals.

The obstacles don’t end there, though. Next, the fibre needs to be spun. In 2004 there were only three short staple spinning mills in the UK – now there is only one left and that may cease spinning very soon. Hemp could also be spun using the wool spinning system, but as there is an issue with hemp fibres contaminating the spinning mill it is difficult to gain support for the project and difficult to carry out trials. The good news is that BioRegional foresees no particular problems in commercial weaving, dyeing and finishing the hemp fibre.

So the key is to find a way of harvesting and processing the hemp to produce a fibre of the right quality and price, and to find mills that are willing or able to spin it. ‘If it can be processed, spun and woven in the UK there would be increased commercial potential for hemp as a mainstream clothing fabric,’ says Sue. ‘We haven’t found the answer yet, but we don’t want to give up on it. ’

Emily Stott, BioRegional’s hemp textiles project manager, also remains determined. ‘We’d like to see hemp on the high street, as a mainstream fibre that can be blended with other fibres. We want people to take it up more widely,’ she says. ‘After all, hemp has a much lower ecological footprint than cotton, and far lower than polyester. Organic cotton is okay, but there is not enough around.’

BioRegional is not alone in its quest. With research projects in Italy, North America, Canada and New Zealand, Emily says in the next five years we’ll be seeing a lot more of hemp.

It looks as though it will be a few years before we’ll be able to buy UK-grown hemp jeans but we can help the cause by generating a market for the products. I for one will continue to carry my hemp bag with pride.

For further information, see www.bioregional.com and www.eiha.org

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The highs and lows of hemp

For over 5,000 years people have grown hemp for its fibres and the nutrients contained in its seeds.

• In the 16th century hemp was grown by every farmer in the UK by order of an act of parliament introduced by Henry VII to ensure the supply of sails and ropes for Royal Navy ships. Farmers who failed to grow the crop were fined.

• During the first 40 years of the 20th century, approximately 2.5 million acres of land were devoted to hemp production. In World War II, hemp was used to make American soldiers’ uniforms. It is said that the first jeans, manufactured by Levi Strauss, were made of hemp.

• The once-major hemp textile industry has now almost wholly disappeared from the west, struggling as it is to compete with cotton imports and synthetics – as well as to shake off its association with narcotics. Hemp is Cannabis sativa, the leaves and flowers of which are a well-known drug. However, since low-narcotic cannabis varieties have been developed a number of countries have permitted the cultivation of this ‘industrial hemp’, which contains so little THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) that you’d need to smoke a joint the size of a telegraph pole to get stoned.

• More than 30 nations currently produce industrial hemp, including Australia, Austria, Canada, China, the UK, France, Russia and Spain.

• It is illegal to grow hemp in the United States without a special permit from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The situation is changing, however: eight states have removed barriers to producing or researching hemp, and others have introduced legislation (see www.votehemp.com).

25,000 uses

There are an estimated 25,000-plus uses for hemp, including everything from mushroom compost and machine-part lubricants to nets, nappies and superfood salad oil. It is one of the most versatile plants on the planet. With multiple co-products, nothing goes to waste.

The ‘bast’ fibres are used to produce textiles, twine, geotextiles and paper; the woody core – or hurds – are also fibrous and can be used for animal bedding, making paper or in building materials. Hemp seed is used for fish, bird or human foods, or for oil production.

Haute couture hemp - Jane Pasquill

My hemp yarn has been grown and processed in Europe without any pesticides or herbicides. It’s spun using potato starch liquid instead of a petroleum-based substance that many spinners use to ease the action. The end result is a fibre that is natural and retains its lustre. The main difference between linen (flax) and hemp is the natural lustre, or shine. Linen has to be buffed to create the shine. Our customers, for the most part, thought hemp would be like rope. Our challenge was to create designs to show the possibilities provided by using hemp yarn.

We have worked with all the craft disciplines to help people understand the possibilities of this beautiful fibre (weaving, knitting, crochet, lace-making, braiding).

I have been collaborating with designers for many years to help establish an interest in agricultural hemp being grown in this country. We require a UK processing plant to supply fibre for the textile industry… as well as an investment in the textile industry. It’s time for the UK to re-establish its work in textiles.


Jane Pasquill is a designer at House of Hemp

This article first appeared in the Ecologist January 2009


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