Hemp – The New, Old Fiber Makes a Comeback for Clothes, Fabrics, and Home Furnishings

The use of hemp is increasing. Hemp fiber is used in a wide range of products including textiles and clothing, carpeting, home furnishings, construction materials, auto parts, and paper. Hemp seed, an oilseed, likewise has many uses, including industrial oils, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food.

Let’s All Get on the Same Page for Terminology

Common terminology, although not necessarily used consistently by all sources, uses “hemp” to refer to industrial hemp, “marijuana” (or “marihuana” as it is spelled in older statutes) to refer to the psychotropic drug (whether used for medicinal or recreational purposes), and “Cannabis” to refer to the plant species that has industrial, medicinal, and recreational varieties.

Hemp is characterized by low levels of the primary psychoactive chemical (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) in their leaves and flowers. The European Union (EU) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, which includes Canada) use 0.3% THC as the dividing line between industrial and potentially drug-producing varieties.

In these countries, cultivars having less than 0.3% THC legally can be cultivated under license, cultivars having more than that amount are considered to have too high a drug potential. A THC concentration of 1% is considered sufficient to have a psychotropic effect.

Hemp is among the oldest industries on the planet, dating back more than 10,000 years. The Columbia History of the World states that the oldest relic of human industry is a bit of hemp fabric dating back to approximately 8,000 BC.

Currently, more than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity. About 14 of those sell part of their production on the world market. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not recognize the value of industrial hemp and permit its production.

Hemp History in the U.S. – The Short Version

Hemp was widely grown in the United States from the colonial period into the mid-1800s. Presidents Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp. Ben Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

Due to its importance for sails (the word “canvass” is rooted in “cannabis”) and rope for ships, Americans were legally bound to grow hemp during the Colonial Era and Early Republic.

Both fine and coarse fabrics, twine, and paper from hemp were in common use. However, by the 1890s, labor-saving machinery for harvesting cotton made the latter more competitive as a source of fabric for clothing, and the demand for coarse natural fibers was met increasingly by imports.

Between 1914 and 1933, in an effort to stem the use of Cannabis flowers and leaves for their psychotropic effects, 33 states passed laws restricting legal production to medicinal and industrial purposes only.

In 1937, Congress passed the first federal law to discourage Cannabis production for marijuana while still permitting industrial uses of the crop (the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act). Under this statute, the government actively encouraged, and subsidized, farmers to grow hemp for fiber and oil during World War II. U.S. farmers grew about a million acres of hemp as part of that program.

After the war, competition from synthetic fibers, the Marihuana Tax Act, and increasing public anti-drug sentiment resulted in fewer and fewer acres of hemp being planted, and none at all after 1958.

However, hemp growers can not hide marijuana plants in their fields. Marijuana is grown widely spaced to maximize leaves. Hemp is grown in tightly-spaced rows to maximize stalk and is usually harvested before it goes to seed.

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. Strictly speaking, the CSA does not make Cannabis illegal. Rather, it places the strictest controls on its production, making it illegal to grow the crop without a DEA permit, which have been near impossible to obtain. All hemp products sold in the United States are imported or manufactured from imported hemp materials. Under a state law passed in 1999, North Dakota became the first state to authorize industrial hemp production within its borders. More than 25 states have passed laws calling for economic or production studies.

In February 2007, Representative Ron Paul introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007 in the 110th Congress (first introduced in the 109th Congress in June 2005 as H.R. 3037). This is the first legislative proposal at the federal level intended to facilitate the possible commercial cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States.

The bill would amend the Controlled Substances Act to add language stating that the term “marijuana” does not include industrial hemp. The measure was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and to the House Committee on the Judiciary. If enacted, the bill would permit industrial hemp production based on state law, without preemption by the federal government under the Controlled Substances Act.

Hemp Farming

Hemp has incredible environmental benefits. It doesn’t pollute the air, water, and soil. On the contrary, it builds soil composition.

Hemp is commonly grown organically. Hemp is most often grown without pesticides including herbicides and fungicides, and without synthetic fertilizers. Hemp is also a natural weed suppressor due to fast growth of the canopy.

Hemp is an extremely fast growing crop. It produces more fiber yield per acre than most other sources. Therefore, the amount of land needed for obtaining equal yields of fiber places hemp at an advantage over other fibers. Hemp can produce 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more fiber than flax using the same amount of land.

The bark of the hemp stalk contains bast fibers, which are among the Earth’s longest natural fibers. Hemp fiber is longer, stronger, more absorbent and more insulative than cotton fiber. Hemp grows best in warm tropical zones or in moderately cool, temperate climates which makes it very suitable for growing in many areas in the U.S.

Unlike other crops, such as cotton, hemp doesn’t exhaust the soil. Hemp plants shed their leaves all through the growing season, adding rich organic matter to the topsoil and helping it retain moisture. Farmers have reported excellent hemp growth on land that had been cultivated steadily for nearly 100 years.

Hemp leaves the soil in superior condition for any succeeding crop, especially when weeds may otherwise be troublesome. Where the ground permits, hemp’s strong roots descend for three feet or more. The roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff while building and preserving topsoil and subsoil structures similar to those of forests.

Hemp Harvesting and Processing

To turn the plant into a textile, hemp must go through several stages including harvesting, retting, and fiber separation. These are environmentally friendly processes. The main drawback is the use of a great deal of water in one of the retting processes described below. Hopefully this will be further improved upon over time. However, compared to the environmental damage caused by other textiles, hemp is still a far more ecological choice.

Although there are variations on the practices, a generic description includes the following steps. First, a tractor-drawn harvester-spreader cuts the hemp stems and lays them in windrows for field retting. The bast fibers of the plant must be separated from the rest of the stalk. Retting is a microbial process that breaks the chemical bonds that hold the stem together and allows separation of the bast fibers from the woody core. The two traditional types of retting are field and water retting.

With field or dew retting, plant stems are cut or pulled up and left in the field to rot. Farmers monitor the process closely to ensure that the bast fibers separate from the inner core without much deterioration in quality. Moisture is needed for the microbial breakdown to occur, but then the weather must be dry enough for the stalks to dry for bailing. Although varying weather conditions affect the quality of fiber, field retting has been used extensively for hemp because it is inexpensive, mechanized, and does not use water.

Water retting produces more uniform and high-quality fiber, but the process is very labor- and capital-intensive. Stems are immersed in water (rivers, ponds, or tanks) and monitored frequently. Not only is this labor intensive, farmers and/or workers must be knowledgeable about fiber quality. Also, the process uses large volumes of clean water that must be treated before being discharged. Water retting has been largely abandoned in countries where labor is expensive or environmental regulations exist.

Once the stalks are retted, dried, and baled, they are brought to a central location for processing. With mechanical separation, in a process called breaking, stalks are passed between fluted rollers to crush and break the woody core into short pieces (called hurds), separating some of it from the bast fiber.

The remaining hurds and fiber are separated in a process called scutching. Fiber bundles are gripped between rubber belts or chains and carried past revolving drums with projecting bars that beat the fiber bundles, separating the hurds and broken or short fibers (called tow) from the remaining long fiber (called line fiber).

After retting, a second machine is used to gather and tie the stems into bundles for pickup and delivery to the mill. These systems are designed to maintain the parallel alignment of hemp stems throughout harvest and processing in order to maximize the recovery of long textile fibers.

Hemp Properties as Fiber for Fabrics

Hemp is a great fiber for eco-friendly clothing, fabrics, and home furnishings. It’s stylish, long lasting, anti-bacterial (odor resistant), and good for the environment. Hemp fabric is very resistant to degradation from mold, bacteria, salt water, sunlight, abrasion, and chemicals. Who could ask for anything more?

Hemp’s fiber molecule has a shaft-like structure that allows it to:

  1. Wick moisture off the body and dry quickly
  2. Allow the wearer to feel warmer when wet, even in cold conditions
  3. Keep the wearer cool, comfortable, and fresh, even in very hot and/or humid conditions

Hemp is anti-bacterial so clothing is resistant to developing odor even after wearing a shirt for days or a week at a time. This makes it especially great for travel. Hemp is hypoallergenic and non-irritating to the skin.

Hemp fiber is longer, stronger, and more absorbent than cotton fiber. Hemp has excellent insulative and conductive qualities. When compared to cotton, for example, hemp is warmer yet breathes better.

Hemp is fully biodegradable (unlike synthetic fibers). Production items made from hemp are biodegradable as long as it is 100% hemp or blended with other fully biodegradable crops, such as organic cotton or bamboo, that don’t use toxic chemicals in their farming and production.

Hemp textiles have tremendous strength and durability. Plant fibers breathe much better than leather and synthetics and hemp breathes better than other plant fibers. Hemp is an excellent ecological alternative to environmentally destructive non-organic cotton cultivation and synthetics.

Hemp makes a strong, durable, comfortable, healthy, and high-performance fabric that’s great for all seasons and for use indoors and out. Hemp clothes are also good for individuals with multiple chemical sensitivities.

Hemp for Energy and Paper

According to the Department of Energy, hemp as a biomass fuel producer requires the least specialized growing and processing procedures of all hemp products. The hydrocarbons in hemp can be processed into a wide range of biomass energy sources, from fuel pellets to liquid fuels and gas. Development of bio-fuels could significantly reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Hemp produces more pulp per acre than timber on a sustainable basis, and can be used for every quality of paper. Hemp paper manufacturing can reduce wastewater contamination. Hemp’s low lignin content reduces the need for acids used in pulping, and its creamy color lends itself to environmentally-friendly bleaching instead of harsh chlorine compounds. Less bleaching results in less dioxin and fewer chemical by-products.

Hemp fiber paper resists decomposition, and does not yellow with age when an acid-free process is used. Hemp paper more than 1,500 years old has been found. The long fibers in hemp allow hemp paper to be recycled more times than wood-based paper. Hemp can yield 3-8 dry tons of fiber per acre. This is four times what an average forest can yield.

Hemp Future

The United States is the only developed nation in which the production of industrial hemp is not permitted. Great Britain lifted its ban in 1993 and Germany followed suit in 1996. The European Union subsidizes hemp fiber production under its Common Agricultural Policy. In 1998, Canada authorized production for commercial purposes.

The leading exporters of raw and processed hemp fiber to the United States are China, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Canada, and India. The leading exporters of hemp oil and seed are the United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland, and China.

There’s no reason the U.S. shouldn’t join the more than 30 countries that grow hemp. It’s a crop that’s environmentally friendly and sustaining to our soil, air, and water. It’s experiencing an economic growth that would help the U.S. economy.

Ed Mass is President and Founder of Yes It’s Organic (YesItsOrganic.com), an online store for Organic, Fair Labor, and Eco-Friendly goods including clothing for women, men, children, and baby, bedding, towels, mattresses, organic logo wear, and promotional products for organizations wanting to improve their environmental footprint, sustainable furniture and more. After being an environmentalist for over 40 years he decided to participate more directly in growing the organic, fair labor, and eco-friendly industries by educating consumers and influencing their buying habits.

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