Marijuana is certainly enjoying its time in the limelight. State regulatory frameworks are changing daily. Our current administration is throwing shade, stifling the growth of our budding industry. It seems as if there is an inexhaustible pool of newsworthy headlines – most are concerning, to say the least, but there is a glimmer of hope out there… a thread of continuity carried over from the Obama administration. The return of industrial hemp is now a serious conversation. On June 28, 2017, a team of Congressmen led by Rep. James Comer (R-KY) introduced the 2017 Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which seeks to federalize non-narcotic industrial hemp as a commodity that is used in “tens of thousands of legal and legitimate products.” The viability of industrial hemp as a useful commodity was recognized by the passage of the 2014 Federal Farm Act, which permits universities and agricultural departments to conduct research and cultivate industrial hemp so long as the dry weight THC content remains at or below .3%.
The bipartisan congressional support of the reintegration of hemp as an agricultural commodity is essential to the successful advancement and sustainability of the industry. Sure, we may have a history of cultivation, manufacturing and utilization of hemp to use as a blueprint, but those processes were used many, many moons ago and there are some serious kinks that need to be worked out before we dive headfirst into a different kind of green rush. And the only way to smooth out these kinks is to research, develop, use and learn.
Today we will focus on the kinks in the hemp textile industry. Hemp is often cited as the superior fiber for textiles, from clothing to rugs to car upholstery. It’s stronger than cotton, versatile and durable. From an agricultural perspective, the hemp plant requires much less water than cotton, is an excellent rotation crop, thrives in a variety of different climates and requires no pesticides. Truly, this should be the fabric of the future. Or should it?
You see, the crop may be easy to deal with and cheap to cultivate, but processing the plant into usable textiles presents an array of problems that may prove to be prohibitive to manufacturing the product on home turf. Processing hemp fibers into fabric is expensive: its labor intensive, requires specific machinery and – depending on the method of fiber extraction – can be damaging to the environment. Which is why China and Eastern Europe – where cheap labor is a way of life and environmental regulations don’t exist – currently dominate the hemp textile industry. North America will have a hard time competing unless it finds a more efficient and affordable way to refine and manufacture the fabric.
And hopefully that’s the intent of the pro-hemp legislation. To improve our environment and our economy. A brief examination of how the hemp fiber is extracted sheds light on the need for improvement (and subsequently, the need for research and development). The bast fibers from the hemp plant are extremely long, which is why they are so durable. When woven together, the long fibers create an incredibly strong fabric. The “finished product” does have a tendency to be rough and abrasive, so 100% hemp fabric is more utilitarian and rarely used for clothing unless extremely refined. You’re more likely to see hemp blended with other, softer natural fibers when used for clothing. Either way, to begin the process, the long hemp fiber, known as the phloem, needs to be extracted from just under the bark. The universal extraction process is known as “water retting” or, sometimes, “dew retting”. First, the harvested hemp plant is submerged under water in outdoor drainage ditches – or in instances of “dew retting”, left in a moist environment outdoors – where it can decay and rot. Once rotten, the soft exterior plant material is sloughed off to loosen to inner woody core from the fibers. The stalks are broken and the fibers are separated. Water retting significantly separates the long fibers from the other plant matter, and is therefore the most effective way of extracting the long, silky phloem fibers, which are the most desirable. There are shorter fibers to the plant, but they don’t carry the same benefits as the longer fibers. Hemp production countries such as Canada don’t separate the long fibers from the short fibers, partially because water retting has been abandoned as environmentally destructive; partially because extracting only the long fibers is labor intensive; and partially because the spinning of the long fibers into fabric requires special machinery, which is also expensive. The length and diameter of the phloem fibers is so different from traditional textile fibers that the universal textile production machines are unable to process them. And so countries such as Canada, which have a mature hemp industry, a well-paid labor pool and environmental regulations, tends to use what is called the “whole fiber” of the plant, which includes the long, phloem fibers as well as other, less beneficial shorter fibers. Whole hemp fiber is rough to the touch, but can be processed in universal textile machinery – the end result is a less refined, less comfortable, less durable, but more affordable fabric. Is it more affordable than cotton? No. But agriculturally and environmentally, the benefits have potential to equalize the cost of production. And a healthy bottom line is essential if the goal is to reintegrate and revitalize the dormant hemp industry of the U.S.A. Businesses will avoid incurring additional costs to produce hemp textiles for what continues to be a limited, niche demographic of hemp textile consumers, and continue to outsource production to other, more affordable countries. And this is nothing new. The low cost of textile production in China has been a pervasive problem for years, regardless of the hemp fiber’s inclusion. Competition in this textile space is almost impossible so long as laborers abroad continue to be underpaid and other methods of refinement are not explored.
Despite the current issues, there is no doubt hemp as a universal commodity is a sleeper. The focus here may be on fabrics, but hemp clothing and textiles currently accounts for a small minority of the hemp-based products (with a majority being industrial applications and personal care. The possibilities are endless, and Congress appears to recognize this. So remain educated. Focus on all aspects of the industry. Exercise your power to contribute and vote. Notwithstanding the marijuana movement, hemp could be revolutionary from an economic and environmental perspective, but we have a lot of work to do to bring hemp products back to the marketplace.