It’s impossible to talk about hemp without referring to the famous book by Jack Herer, “The Emperor has no clothes”. This cult classic tell the sad story of the history of hemp and the conspiracy against cannabis. The campaign to demonize hemp – the most cultivated plant at the start of the 20th century – was led by powerful American lobbies; it brought about the downfall of textile hemp. Was there really a plot at the highest levels of government to promote synthetic fibers and nylon?
What we know for sure is that in 1937, a year before Du Pont de Nemours registered the trademark for nylon, the Marihuana Tax was adopted, heavily penalizing the industrial use of hemp.
A virtuous fiber
Eighty years have passed since prohibition was enforced on this plant. Truly robust, textile hemp endured in Europe during the Second World War, but it was limited to a few canvas fabrics for tents, ropes, and bags. Meanwhile, in China, things have been evolving: for thirty years now, the Chinese have learned to work with hemp, a traditional pastoral crop, by using different “rouissage” techniques than those used in Europe (“rouissage” is a complicated step that allows for the dissolution through maceration of the gum that binds together the plant’s fibers). The Chinese now offer hemp jerseys that are much suppler. Now the top producer of industrial hemp, with 40 000 hectares in 2014, China’s use of hemp is essentially for textiles, while in Europe, the number 3 producer in the world with 14 500 hectares (behind Canada), its use is much more technically oriented: for construction, insulation, paper, and automotive use.
This noble plant with a multitude of uses requires little water and no pesticides. Few plants are as eco-friendly: it adds value to poor soils and uses up CO2 in massive quantities as it grows. Textile hemp, Cannabis Sativa L, is antibacterial in terms of its chemical properties and uniform surface. Its moisture wicking and thermoregulation properties are truly stunning: it absorbs up to 7 times its weight in water and releases more than it retains. With antistatic properties, it also protects from UV rays.
Full of promise
Though most European hemp is still being used in construction, new opportunities are opening up in the food industry, alternative medicine, and the fashion world. An indisputable eco-alternative, it is nevertheless crucial to allow this industry time to develop and re-energize production in Europe. Though the area used for hemp production in Europe continues to expand and has tripled within the last 4 years, according to EIHA (European Industrial Hemp Association), it is clear that the materials market is still leading the way. Still, there is clearly a demand for textile hemp: specialized in the hemp fabric business, French company La Cantate du Chanvre has seen its sales multiplied by 10 for its hemp products over the past 15 years. Created in 2002, this company has just been bought out in October 2018 by Macasports, a supplier of technical and added-value fabrics for events, artistic and acrobatic sports, and showbiz. “We want to stand out with different products. The selection of eco-fabrics matches our vision.
This new hemp supply complements our assortment of organic cotton fabrics”, explains Caroline Rousset, CEO of this venture. Hemp nevertheless remains an expensive fiber, with a price level that is 3 to 4 times higher than that of organic cotton. Three European spinners are already working with wet hemp, a spinning technique that involves immersion in 60°C water and soaking to obtain the very finest of yarns for use in apparel. Some spinners are looking for less-costly alternatives, with organic cotton and hemp blends, as with Spanish company Intercot, which offers several yarns from 5 to 12 Nm. What remains to be constructed is a whole marketing structure to restore the image of hemp, which truly has everything manufacturers and consumers are looking for: durability that prevents a garment from losing its shape, and a hand that is similar to that of raw silk, with a softness that is enhanced with each and every wash.