In praise of hemp – as textile, as paper, as food source

Seeing the above graphic on Facebook recently (source wasn’t credited) reignited my longstanding frustration over our global failure to switch (back) to hemp as a major source for textiles, paper and food. (This article is about the hemp plant, not the marijuana plant. See more comments on this at bottom.)

I use hemp fabric in my textile work, but I find it far too difficult to source. Hemp is in some ways similar to linen, though I find that it’s less wrinkly, it’s very strong, it improves with washing, and it has a more modern look. I use it as the backing for geometric quilts that I produce as well as for other purposes. But if I want to order it, I usually have to buy fabric that’s imported from China. And the selection of colours and suppliers is small.

I find hemp’s rarity extremely disturbing considering that hemp production could solve many of the environmental problems we now face. Hemp is an extremely productive plant with a small carbon and environmental footprint. Its seeds are remarkably nutritious, it produces some of the best and strongest fibre around for both textiles and paper, it is extremely insect and disease resistant (unlike cotton), and requires far less irrigation and energy to grow. And yet it has been the victim of idiotic legislation and (apparently) lobbies from competing industries.

As someone commented on Facebook about the above graphic, “With record drought and water bans throughout North America this summer, growing hemp requires a tiny fraction of the water that cotton does. So it’s a great crop in coping with the consequences of climate change.” Not to mention helping with the causes of that climate change.

On a related note, people in the developed world need to stop buying throwaway clothes made from poor fabrics with no longevity. On average, we each buy and discard 60 kg each of textiles each year, and almost all of them are made in an extremely toxic and energy-unsustainable manner. 60 kilograms! I have never understood why the textile industry gets such a free ride on this in the arena of public opinion. Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion deals with this topic. If you’re interested there is an very good Metafilter thread on this topic, full of resources.

There is a working farm near Grand Forks, BC where they have been slowly hybridizing hemp for their own local climate, and promoting hemp fabric and clothing. I have written about Joybilee Farm before. The owners also host North America’s only English-speaking hemp festival (which means there must be one in Quebec too). The two photos of hemp here are courtesy of Joybilee Farm. The photo below shows the old hand method of “rippling” hemp plants.

NOTE: for those who don’t know, the hemp used to produce textiles, paper and nutritional seeds does not contain THC or at least any amount that’s chemically significant or can produce mind-altering effects. However, it has long been suspected that the relationship between the hemp plant and the marijuana plant acted as a deterrent to the domestic hemp industry. It is worth reading this discussion by David P. West, a US plant expert and author of Fiber Wars: the Extinction of Kentucky Hemp. The discussion was commissioned by the North American Industrial Hemp Council.

Hemp growing is now technically legal in Canada, but they don’t make it easy. The Government of Canada has put out a FAQ on hemp production. If you look closely, it’s not nearly legal enough:
“Hemp production was prohibited in Canada in 1938 under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act as part of a combined international battle against the abuse of THC and other controlled substances. Although the prohibition was relaxed briefly during World War II when traditional sources of fibres were unavailable, the prohibition was renewed after the war. Since 1961, Health Canada has allowed limited production in Canada for scientific research purposes.”

If the close relationship between hemp and marijuna is preventing serious agriculture of the former, it’s yet another reason to legalize marijuana. This post isn’t a thinly disguised personal mission to legalize pot for personal reasons (I’m allergic to it and would always rather have a cocktail). But I believe strongly in its legalization—and so do the former mayors and police chiefs of Vancouver. The fact that marijuana is B.C.’s 2nd largest industry but cannot be taxed is producing problems of epic proportions for our province. You can’t have an illegal industry of that size without experiencing high levels of organized crime, related political corruption, the distorted policy of building money-laundering casinos everywhere as a form of covert taxation, fantastically expensive police and court costs, and an empty treasury.

I have a question for people who know about this: were marijuana production to be legalized in Canada, could some of its byproducts also be used in the textile and paper industries, or are they ill-suited to that use? The marijuana crop in BC is huge yet only a portion of the plant is used in drug production. What about the rest? Anyone?

Hemp shirt, hemp pants by design label Kuyichi

Hemp fabric by Ecoki. This is a traditional rough milled look; hemp can also be very fine.

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3 Responses to “In praise of hemp – as textile, as paper, as food source”

  1. Jack Stub Says:

    Excellent post. Hemp was railroaded out by the DuPont Corporation, many think, back in the 1930’s. It’s frustrating as it’s a superior plant in so many ways.

    I love your blog.

  2. LB Says:

    Thanks Jack! I have heard from others who also blame DuPont – it’s interesting that no seems to have properly investigated this story. Or has anything substantial been written on it that I don’t know about? I’m involved in another long research project so I don’t have time to delve into it.
    PS I loved your post on Hood Canal. I’ve always wanted to visit the HamaHama oyster company.

  3. Matthew Kahl Says:

    All of the other “byproducts” of marijuana cultivation can be used for many of the same uses as industrial hemp. Most recreational and medical cultivars will not be so useful for bast fibers, but will produce much more hurd. All of the other byproducts of marijuana production can also be used for the same purposes as industrial hemp. Hemp leaves and flowering tops (usually a waste product) can be used for extracts rich in various cannabinoid fractions, as well as being a great natural source of medicinal terpenes and plant sterols. Washed hemp and marijuana seed both contain little to no THC, but are a rich source of essential fatty acids like ALA, GLA. Their expressed remains are an extremely rich source of powder rich in proteins providing the complete suite of amino acids necessary for human life, one of the only complete plant sources extant.

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