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Notes from the Field: Should Fashion Embrace Hemp?

Notes from the Field: Should Fashion Embrace Hemp?

Hemp wear has come a long way from its early rough-around-the edges look, when it was associated with the less flattering and ill-fitting variety of eco fashion. Though hemp still carries a hint of environmental activism, hemp wear runs the gamut today from delicate hemp underwear to a hemp version of adidas Stan Smiths.

Various studies show that hemp is a more sustainable alternative to the increasingly controversial textile staple we know and love as cotton. [1] Naturally resistant to pests, hemp only uses a third of the amount of water needed to grow cotton. Hemp fabric is also said to be softer, warmer, more durable and more water absorbent than cotton fabric, with anti-bacterial benefits, flame retardant properties and UV protection to boot.  

The growing popularity of hemp in fashion notwithstanding, shares of hemp in the textile industry have only risen from 0.15% to 0.2% in the past decade (cotton, by contrast, currently makes up 36% of global textiles). [2] China, Korea and Romania are the largest producers of industrial hemp at present, followed by Russia and the Netherlands.

For several months now, I've traveled throughout Romania studying hemp textile traditions. My interest in the material is twofold. Firstly, hemp has become a star in the sustainable fashion movement in my home country of the Netherlands (as a result, people ask if I know where to buy organic hemp whenever I mention that I'm researching textile traditions). [3] Second, I've been collecting vintage and antique hemp cloth for quite some time. I love the way that hemp connects people – when I find hemp cloth in local Romanian flea markets, for instance, I always ask who made it, and the answer is often “my grandmother or great grandmother.”

While Romania has a long history of hemp production, I’ve discovered that hemp textiles are no longer manufactured in Romania today. As the third largest producer of hemp fiber, Romania funnels the majority of its hemp into the automotive industry. I toured the Romanian-based Dutch firm HempFlax in Sebes earlier this year in search of new hemp cloth, only to find hemp composite for car panelling. Sympathetic to my predicament, manager Oana Suciu invited me to attend a hemp conference in the botanical gardens of Jibou so that I could learn more and meet like-minded people with a penchant for Romanian hemp cloth. [4]

The hemp conference was held this past August. There, I learned that the tradition of manually processing hemp – incredibly labor-intensive ordeals known as “retting,” where hemp stalks are left in either dewy fields or water basins, lakes or river to rot before being beaten and separated into hemp fiber by hand – is deeply ingrained in Romania’s rural areas, and that many passionate people are focused on bringing it back to life. Romanian hemp specialist Sebastian Linta, one of the organizers of the hemp conference, described the philosophy behind the modern day revival as “following what the plant itself teaches us, that is, to be sustainable, local and versatile.”

The challenge lies in how the ancient benefits of this plant can serve a new generation of sustainability-minded entrepreneurs and designers. This rite of passage, as Linta likes to put it, is particularly focused on reviving hemp by bringing traditional wisdom into modernity without making any harmful compromises.

Nowadays, those compromises seem inevitable as chemicals are used to expedite traditional methods of hemp processing. Certain brands and business do use organically processed hemp, but certified organic hemp textile does not yet exist. Parts of the supply chain remain difficult to verify, or the costs of certification can be too high, especially for small-scale hemp farmers. Fraudulent certification is a further problem, and materials can be marketed as hemp when they actually contain only a percentage of hemp mixed with linen and flax.

Hemp holds immense potential, so, rightly, a great deal is being invested to improve the industrial processing of hemp for textile applications. Since 2011, the University of Arad in Romania has been conducting experiments with bio-enzymes, seeking to replace traditional retting methods, while the Dutch company StexFibers is exploring the process of steam explosion to replace the traditional retting process. The College of Ghent in Belgium has just launched a two-year international research program on how to improve the process and supply chain of hemp. Hemp has the future, but we are not quite there yet.

  

Notes

[1] See, for instance, J. Averink, “Global water footprint of industrial hemp textile,” Student Thesis, University of Twente, September 2015, http://essay.utwente.nl/68219/; Benjamin Rietz, “Dethroning King Cotton,” Presentation for Environmental Studies Research Seminar, Fall 2010, https://csbsju.edu/Documents/Environmental%20Studies/curriculum/395/2011/rietz.pdf; N. Cherret, J. Barrett et. al., “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester,” Report for The BioRegional Development Group, 2005, https://www.sei-international.org/publications?pid=1694. 

[2] Jan E.G. van Dam, Food and Biobased Research, Wageningen UR The Netherlands, July 14, 2014.

[3] The following sites for hemp-based fashion are especially popular: http://hempcollective.nl/, http://hempie.nl/kleding, http://www.hempshopper.com/nl/hennep-kleding, and http://www.duurzamekleren.nl/info/hennep-kleding/hoe-wordt-hennep-kleding-gemaakt/.

[4] During my regular visits to small villages in Transylvania, every linen cupboard would inevitably contain stunning pieces of homemade cloth. Eyes wide, beaming with great pride and passion, women would tell me the whole story behind their cloth. But when I asked if such items were still being made somewhere, assuming this process would exist on a larger scale, the answer was inevitably, “No, we don’t do this anymore.” If I then asked if anyone could teach me how to do it, they would shake their heads, shrug their shoulders and smile. I did, however, learn how to pickle gherkins and bake plum pie. 

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