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Hemp textiles made in U.S. will take time, experts say

By
Jean Lotus
This is a hemp field in Minnesota, where the plant grows well. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Hemp Farms
This is a hemp field in Minnesota, where the plant grows well. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Hemp Farms

DENVER, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- The U.S. Constitution was written on hemp paper, and Betsy Ross' first American flag was made of hemp fabric, but the road back to hemp fiber textiles grown in the United States will take a while, industry experts say.

Thousands of U.S. farmers have planted hemp this year, hoping to cash in on the revival of a historic American crop that was illegal to grow for more than 80 years. A member of the cannabis family and cousin to marijuana, hemp was taken off the illegal federal Schedule 1 status in the 2018 Farm Bill.

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But most farmers choose to grow the CBD variety of hemp, which is a short, bushy plant, compared to hemp grown for fiber and textiles -- a long, reedlike plant that can reach 15 feet tall.

Hemp fiber was used for rope, sails and canvas in the past. But now, sophisticated yarn made from hemp fibers can be used in materials from cotton blends to upholstery fabric to silk. The long fibers are naturally stronger and last longer than cotton.

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"Hemp doesn't wear out, it wears in," said Summer Star Haeske of Colorado-based EnviroTextiles LLC. The plant fiber also has a natural moisture-wicking process and is breathable, and the cloth is anti-bacterial and has a natural SPF function, blocking ultraviolet light.

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It's also cheaper. An imported hemp blend with silk costs $30 per yard, compared to pure silk, which costs $40, Star Haeske said.

U.S. farmers want to plant hemp crops for fiber, but they have a hard time understanding the steps it takes to go from a plant to a textile, said Barbara Filippone, head of EnviroTextiles. She has been importing hemp fabrics into the United States from China since the 1990s.

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"Everyone thinks it's abracadabra and there's the T-shirt," Filippone said at a recent conference on hemp in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

As textile mills have shuttered in this country, fabric production has boomed in China and Asia. Part of the sustainability of hemp is that it can be grown near a production facility and processed almost on-site.

But Filippone worries that the U.S. textile industry doesn't have the supply chain infrastructure to process the plant and use the fibers to make textiles, at least not yet.

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The journey from the "dirt to the shirt" involves natural and mechanical processes that break the "bast" outer fiber material from the rest of the plant.

The plant must be partially decomposed in a process called retting, followed by a crushing process called decortication that breaks the bark away and releases the fiber. The fiber then must be de-gummed and combed before it can be spun into yarn, which then can be woven into fabric.

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That is all done by a combination hemp processing facilities and textile factories, Fillipone said.

Hemp fabrics are hot

The demand for hemp textiles is growing, but it has been difficult to source in the United States.

The United States imported $1.9 million worth of hemp textiles in 2017 and 312 tons of hemp yarn, valued at $2.7 million, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Textiles and Apparel. Retail sales of hemp textiles in 2016 were about $96.3 million, according to a report from the Hemp Industries Association.

But without processing, hemp farmers' crops cannot be made into fibers for textiles, or anything else.

The lone company that processes hemp for fiber in the lower 48 states is Louisville, Ky.-based SunStrand LLC operates plants in Milton, Ky., and Alberta, Canada.

SunStrand creates fabric fibers for clothing-manufacturer Patagonia. The company also uses hemp fiber to produce door panels for BMW, filters for water treatment plants and natural building insulation batts.

"Right now, we can't get enough of the raw material to process," said Joe Crosswhite of SunStrand. Most farmers are experimenting with CBD varieties, he said.

Crosswhite said fiber-grown hemp is much less labor-intensive than CBD hemp, and less risky to grow. The company works with farmers within a 100-mile radius to guarantee that their certified seed grows into the correct type of plant. He said he is optimistic that Indiana is encouraging farmers to grow fiber-hemp in 2020 through the state's U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program.

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CBD-grown hemp can bring in more than $10,000 an acre, but costs can run up to $12,000 per acre to plant and maintain. Hemp grown for fiber brings in between $600 and $800 per acre, with a profit slightly higher than growing corn -- about $160 per acre, Crosswhite said.

That's about equal to flax, another old-world fiber, which historically was grown to make linen across the United States until the invention and use of the cotton gin in the early 1800s. Flax now is primarily grown for oil-producing flax seeds in Minnesota and North Dakota, but the fiber stems are harvested and used in select textile production.

Farmers who raise hemp for fiber need to find other places to sell their crops while the U.S. textile market develops, if it ever will, said EnviroTextiles' Filippone.

She suggested that farmers explore selling to the federal government through the USDA's BioPreferred Program, which encourages government procurement of "biobased" products to "create new jobs and provide new markets for farm commodities," according to the agency.

Filippone says agricultural hemp fiber can be used as a natural product for insulation, ceiling panels, upholstery stuffing, vehicle door panels, furnace filters and composite materials.

"We have to ask, who are the customers of these raw materials?" Filippone said. It's important to nurture the crop until the market develops. "We all have to make money, and it's got to be long-term," she said.

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that SunStrand, LLC was seeking bankruptcy protection. That is not the case, company officials said.

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