We wish to inaugurate the Learning Section on our blog by discussing a very special fiber, often praised by sustainability experts:
Closely related to the cannabis plant, they both share similar origins and are both part of the Cannabaceae family. Therefore, their properties are very different.
The main difference between hemp and cannabis is the THC percentage found in cannabis, which is the psychoactive component. If marijuana contains over 20% of THC, hemp barely contains 0,3%. Therefore, there are over 2000 varieties of cannabis plants, and over 90% of these do not have the notorious euphoric properties. This confusion leads to a certain economical interest, as hemp culture is an extremely controlled one.
Hemp, for textile purposes, was avidly cultivated in North America up to the 20th century. Due to American drug laws and regulations, such as the Control Substance Act initiated by Congress in 1970, its’ culture was banned at the beginning of the 20th century.
Historically, in Quebec, the culture of textile hemp was operated in Valleyfield. Every step of the process prior to spinning was done here, and the fiber was then sent to Korea to be spun and transformed. Hemp was grown along the St-Lawrence River, mainly to be used for boat ropes.
Since 2018, the American legislation authorizes the culture of cannabis plants containing less than 0.3% of THC, which allowed many research projects to be led and developed. It also seems logical that the legalization of cannabis in Canada as of 2018 encouraged the development of research in the area.
I often hear that hemp would be an excellent candidate to be a 100% Canadian fiber. It’s true, therefore a few obstacles need to be considered along the way.
The first would be that we no longer have the proper infrastructures to process the plant into fiber ready to be spun. Same goes for the United States. The transformation process itself is complex and involves many steps, some of which are still solely done by human hand today. Furthermore, the adequate machinery no longer exists on the North American territory nowadays. As it is for any type of machinery, it requires qualified staff to be operated, which seems impossible to find. Among the other crucial steps of the process is the degumming of the fiber, allowing it to be extracted from its’ natural case. For this to be done naturally, a lot of patience and time is required. For this reason, nowadays this step is often done chemically and requires a lot of water. Not to mention that hemp must be blended with other fibers such as cotton. In 2020 in the United-States, the maximum percentage of hemp that was eligible for spinning was 30%.
In North America, the system currently in place for textile spinning is meant for cotton, therefore hemp yarn is made through the same process, which is why we say the fiber is “cotonnized”. Therefore, as opposed to the cotton fiber that is short, hemps fiber is long, and many of its’ properties and qualities are lost through this inadequate process. The hemp grown on our territory is not long enough to be spun for industrial knitting, but is appropriate for thicker threading, perfect for making ropes or weaving.
If hemp is already being harvested for other industries (construction or food), farmers would have to be convinced of the economical advantages offered by cultivating hemp for the textile industry. It necessitates steady quality, an important volume and agricultural expertise. The seeds provided by interesting varieties for this use are also very expensive and cannot legally be replanted from one year to another (as it is the case for many seeds).
Colossal investments would be needed in North America to create the hemp faculty that would operate with an adapted system allowing the production of finer yarn for knits. The use of hemp in the textile industry is still vain, which doesn’t appeal to companies or investors of the industry. Therefore, as of 2022, the global hemp market is expected to rise from 4.6 billion US$ to 32 billion dollars . (Source).
Some projects are also taking place in the US to develop hemp yarn through viscose process. This implies an artificial thread where the cellulose in the plant is dissolved to create the yarn. This process is easier than the previous one but involves chemical agents that can be toxic to humans and the environment if they aren’t used correctly. Furthermore, the hemp itself would lose some of its’ properties.
Nowadays, most threads and fabrics containing hemp come from Asia. If hemp figures in the top three most eco-friendly fibers, it’s still important to note that most of it comes from China.
Why shouldn’t we give up?
Because hemp contains fabulous properties, here are a few:
- Mold resistant
- Resists UVs and doesn’t wrinkle
- Antistatic and antibacterial
- Good insulation
- Easy to maintain
For farmers, producing hemp requires much less water and pesticides than cotton. It also offers an interesting alternative for active wear as opposed to synthetic fabrics and opens a gateway to move away from microplastics and pivot toward regenerative systems. If the project is challenging on an industrial level, it is still worth observing what could be done on a local scale, to support a smaller supply chain.
If this topic interests you, I highly recommend you read the articles surrounding the One Acre Exchange.
Based in California, the One Acre Exchange project supports the development of local and sustainable hemp agriculture by supporting research projects and experiments.
Montloup is currently on the hunt for an interesting North American alternative, but like any research project, some time is required. In the meantime, I have the pleasure to announce that we will receive some new hemp and organic cotton yarn this September. They originate from China and are certified OCS (Organic Content Standard). The following fabrics will be offered at the next collaborative presale in September:
To plan a custom production (500 meter minimum) in September, feel free to write us!
Have a blissful summer!