Why Aren't We Making More Hemp Textiles in the U.S.?

Hemp is a plant of seemingly magical proportions that we are finally bringing into the mainstream after a prohibited past. It has been on everyone’s lips for the past year as a way to solve some of our climate issues related to soil depletion (hemp is a carbon sink and heavy metals trap) and water consumption (using less on average per pound of fiber generated than cotton). But why haven’t we turned our attention to utilizing hemp more fully for all of its potential applications: food, paper, medicine, building materials, plastics and, more specifically, textiles? 

Women wearing Jungmaven Hemp clothing

Women wearing Jungmaven Hemp Clothing

Fashion accounts for a considerable amount of waste and carbon emissions. Conscious consumers are starting to look at personal fibersheds (how far away all components of our clothing come from) and asking if it’s even possible to wear nothing but locally sourced clothing in the United States. As an interior designer for hospitality and commercial spaces, I have found that my clients are also starting to ask for organic and natural fibers in upholsteries and wall coverings, but they are hard to find, expensive and don’t always perform as well as their synthetic counterparts. Additionally, as a CBD/hemp topical company founder with a family cannabis farm, I find myself wondering more specifically why hemp isn’t making its way into other industries now that it’s legal to grow and harvest industrial hemp in the United States. 

Understanding the landscape takes going back in history a bit, understanding the challenges specific to hemp fibers, and then taking a look at how our consumer habits drive demand.

It’s Political

In the late 1800s in the United States, hemp was a popular fiber for paper, rope and string, but when manufacturers started using sulfites to help easily extract lignin, and chlorine to whiten, Americans turned to more prevalent sources of fiber such as resinous tree species that already grew throughout the country. Low-THC hemp was grouped with high-THC strains of cannabis and faced an attack in the media by the William Hearst Group, which happened to be connected to a group of North American forest owners looking to expand wood product use. After they drew attention to the pharmacological effects of THC, hemp production began to decline, paving the way for wood products to step into the limelight.

The Marihuana Tax Act was the final nail in the coffin, making it uneconomical to produce hemp in the United States.

In the early- to mid-1900s, our textile industry also saw a massive advancement in petroleum-based synthetic fibers. Petrochemical giant Dupont patented such fibers as Nylon and Dacron during those formative years and was looking to replace hemp for the production of rope, string and denim. In 1930, the Federal Narcotics Bureau was created, and Harry Anslinger was appointed director. Anslinger’s wife happened to be related to Andrew Mellon, Secretary of State to the U.S. Treasury, who lobbied for cannabis prohibition and helped finance Dupont through his work as a banker. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was the final nail in the coffin, making it uneconomical to produce hemp in the United States. Other countries followed suit, catering to American demand, and hemp textile production was eliminated in the U.S. and dramatically reduced throughout the world.

It’s Challenging

In addition to the political landscape, hemp is not an easy fiber to extract. Between 2018 and 2019, the amount of hemp acreage planted in Oregon grew from 7,000 to 50,000 acres. Grown primarily for its flower or for extraction, hemp is the fastest growing crop in the state. With all the new supply, are we missing an opportunity for greater environmental impact by not harvesting for multiple outputs? The answer is, not exactly. The varieties we grow to cultivate high-end flower (for smoking or CBD extraction) are different than the qualities we look for in hemp grown for fiber. Hemp textiles are known to be durable and hardy, but that’s based on the ability to harvest long, clean fibers. When we grow to promote the best flower or highest concentrations of cannabinoids, we give more space for a bushier, multi-stalk plant and encourage the plant to concentrate on robust flowers. In contrast, hemp for textiles needs a higher sowing density to coax the plant to grow quickly and as a single stalk.

The varieties we grow to cultivate high-end flower (for smoking or CBD extraction) are different than the qualities we look for in hemp grown for fiber.

Butler Hemp Farm produces Hemp for PatagoniaButler Farms has the first U.S. contract to supply Patagonia, a global outdoors company, with organic hemp.

The process of extracting fiber involves cutting the stalks and bundling them, then dew retting in the field or soaking in retting baths to help break down lignin (the glue-like substance that holds the fiber to the woody hurd). Once separated, the long, strong fibers can be spun and then woven. During the retting process, microbial agents help with the breakdown of the lignin but leave traces of their presence as allergenic microorganisms in the resulting fibers. When creating upholstery for high-performance interior textiles, it is critical to consider the impact on indoor air quality in order to achieve a sustainable interior environment. The trace microbes in the fibers make additional processing required for hemp to be a true material alternative.

Although hemp softens over time, it tends to be a heartier, stiffer and itchier textile at the outset. The best all-around hemp-based textiles tend to have a blended fiber composition. Blends are preferred due to the added softness, but during manufacture and processing, there are challenges in maintaining consistency and a low enough cost to meet market demand. 

Due to the history of prohibition, the United States is 80 years behind in research and manufacturing.

Jungmaven Hemp/Cotton blend sweatshirt

Jungmaven Hemp/Cotton Sweatshirt

I had the opportunity to talk with Rob Jungmann of Jungmaven, who has been working with hemp for over 20 years. He says hemp production has come a long way since he began sourcing. Hemp textile manufacturers in the fashion world struggled to compete with alternatives in terms of performance: drape and feel and maintaining shape and form—all significant challenges to selling a consistent, desirable product. What kept Jungman pursuing hemp was its unmatched durability and environmental impact. Now many of those problems have been solved by advances in production technology abroad, but limited options exist inside the United States. Due to the history of prohibition, the United States is 80 years behind in research and manufacturing.

It’s All Tied to Demand

We know that research and manufacturing will always follow consumer demand so we must continue to vote with our dollars.

Being willing to spend a little more for a hemp t-shirt because of the lesser environmental impact, and favoring clothing and home goods with natural fibers grown, processed and manufactured in the United States are conscious ways to drive the industry towards changing practices and expanding the footprint of hemp.

Written by: Britni Jessup, NCIDQ, LEED AP BD+C, is the Owner, Founder, Creative Director and CEO for Hatshe Blends, an Oregon-based full spectrum CBD topical company focused on using CBD to help us all stay active. As an interior designer, she designs experiences and spaces for commercial, retail, hospitality and institutional clients focused on the human connection to our interior environment. She holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Oregon and two undergraduate degrees from the University of Washington in Business Administration (Finance) and Spanish.

3 comments

The rarest commercial fiber available, most sold as hemp isn’t but is ramie, sisal, jute, etc. The processing infrastructure is very expensive, and will take an enormous commitment by farmers and co-ops if it’s going to happen.

Richard Rose February 11, 2020

In general a very good article although quite obvious the writer does not have broad knowledge of textile development.

Barbara Filippone February 11, 2020

It is an infrastructure problem plain and simple. We spun a 20% US grown and processed hemp cotton 20S yarn two years ago with Cap Yarn.

John Lupien February 11, 2020

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