Hemp has many uses. The stalk of the plant may produce around 1500 – 2000 lbs of textile-grade fiber per acre, compared to about 600-1200 lbs per acre for cotton, the flowering head can be used to produce CBD, and the remaining woody core can be turned into products such as building materials and bio-fuels.
After nearly 50 years of prohibition, cultivation of hemp began a process of legalization in December of 2018 with the ratification of the 2018 Farm Bill. Since 2014, Fibershed has engaged in active research on hemp to support and develop agroecologically sound methods for cultivating and processing this textile fiber in the US.
Downloadable reports on our research partnerships:
(Photo by Donnie Hedden)
Fibershed has carried out research in the emerging hemp systems in Kentucky, Colorado, Minnesota, and California.
For example, in 2017 we completed a two-year textile-focused research project in collaboration with farmers in Eastern Kentucky and South Central Colorado. We evaluated hemp varietals sourced from three different countries, and analyzed processes to create a mill-able fiber via five different softening strategies (softening removes the lignin and other materials that make the fibers initially stiff). We coordinated with researchers in a range of international academic settings, from Germany to Canada, and settled on a softening solution that is ecologically sensitive and can be replicated at a relatively low cost. The second stage of our textile research was focused on blending, combing and spinning the hemp fibers. To accomplish this without having to invest in highly capital-intensive long staple bast fiber equipment, we chose to work with existing American manufacturing equipment—specifically woolen equipment. By blending the wool and hemp at a 50/50 blend, we’ve been able to create a mechanically spun yarn that is capable of functioning on mechanized looms.
Historically, protein fibers (wool, alpaca, mohair) and cellulose fibers (hemp, cotton, nettle, linen), were blended together to create fabrics that would be strong and soft to the touch, but insulating for humans hard at work in the fields and out on the land (pre-fossil fuel fiber system). Old textile ‘recipes’ show great potential for merging field crop and pasture farming into heirloom quality cloth. Our hemp wool blending research harkens to traditions of function and ecological wisdom, which we see as having great use for modern textile development.
Why Hemp & Wool: We understand that wool, as a grass-fed fiber, can be produced by sheep that are converting grass to protein on rangeland systems that can be managed for the enhancement of soil carbon stocks. A hemp crop can produce about 1500 lbs of textile grade fiber per acre, and wool (in arid regions on rangeland) produces 70-100 pounds per acre. While infrastructure for hemp textiles is not yet in place in the United States, hemp can be blended with wool in existing US wool infrastructure, providing an immediate opportunity for utilizing the fiber. We know that wool is an abundant and underutilized resource in many communities throughout the United States. Thus, finding ways to put wool to good use, in a manner that makes the most of its attributes (insulating & anti-microbial), and to simultaneously make it stronger and more wearable within contemporary garments (by blending it with strong plant-based fibers that have no scales to irritate human skin), is a strategy that merges our land-use and ecological goals with our material needs. (Illustrations by Amanda Coen and photo by Sara Dunham)
To date, Fibershed has developed regional hemp textile recipes in Kentucky, Colorado, Minnesota, and California. With the Kentucky Cloth Project, for example, Fibershed supported the cultivation of cloth samples blending Kentucky bast fibers (hemp) and protein fibers (wool and alpaca) in collaboration with farmers, engineers, mills, spinners, and weavers.
(Photos: Donnie Hedden, below, Nicholas Wenner, right)