Cannabis textiles? Yes, maybe

Hemp is an ecofriendly crop, and not to be sniffed at. Helen Lewis reports

Helen Lewis Reports
Friday 25 October 1996 23:02

"You would have to smoke a joint the size of a telegraph pole to get stoned on the commercial hemp grown today - its narcotic content is minuscule," explains Ian Lowe, Director of Hemcore.

Trendy clothes, paper, dried burger mix, lip balm, horse bedding, car door linings - there seems no end to the diversity of products containing hemp.

Hemp - otherwise known as Cannabis sativa - has come out of the closet. Growing a field of it is now a respectable and legal occupation for British farmers, if the correct variety (selectively bred to reduce its narcotic content) and a licence from the Home Office, are obtained. For three years it has been produced as a commercial crop by farmers under contract to Hemcore, the only hemp processors as yet in this country:

"The acreage of hemp has increased to 4,000 acres this year and in 1997 it may double," says Mr Lowe.

At present, Hemcore is using the outer fibre for thin, strong papers such as cigarette papers, the inner core - an absorbent cork-like material - for horse bedding, and the seed for fish bait and canary food. But the uses of hemp don't end there.

"Our hemp fibre is undergoing trials at BMW for possible use on the 5-series in door panels and head linings," adds Mr Lowe. "we are also planning to target the UK car market, starting with Rover ... and we are working on insulating boards for the building trade, and clothing textiles."

James King is the manager of British Hemp Stores in Bristol, a shop that stocks every hemp product you could conceivably want to buy: cosmetics, writing paper, health foods and more. It is also starting to stock British hemp clothes.

"We are already selling a range of jumpers made from British hemp fibre and wool mixed," said Mr King. "However, the rest of our clothes are imported from China and Eastern Europe. The sooner the British fibre quality improves and we can buy British hemp clothes, the better; the fabric is more hard- wearing than cotton, and can be totally organic and very versatile."

Hemp contains one of the longest and strongest natural fibres, rivalling synthetic fibres such as glass fibre. In the past it was used in clothing - it is said that Californian gold diggers' jeans were made from hemp - and Mr Lowe believes the plant has a great future in textiles.

"I think we're just 12 months away from producing fibre suitable for making hemp jeans," said Mr Lowe.

However, his enthusiasm for hemp textiles is not universal: "Hemp has a very strong, coarse fibre, historically used to make rope nets and canvas sails," comments Harry Gilbertson, of the Natural Fibres Organisation. "It is far too rough and would be very uncomfortable to wear. Anyway, what is the point, when we already have the height in luxury fabric - linen - made from British flax fibre?"

Nevertheless, Mr Gilbertson is all for the industrial uses of hemp, believing that it will be a winner due to its immense strength; it has all the right environmental credentials and could be the solution to the current problems facing paper manufacturers.

Hemp is one of the oldest crops known to man, and has been cultivated for its fibre and "medicinal" properties since ancient times. Its decline as a fibre crop was due to the association with narcotic drug production, resulting in cultivation being banned in the UK in 1971 under the misuse of drugs act.

Growing the crop, though, is simple. It requires little fertiliser - a liberal dose of cow dung will do the trick, according to Mr Lowe. The crop can reach a height of 9ft (2.5 metres) within four months, and smothers weeds.

Harvesting is now completely mechanised - no gangs of cheap labour arduously cutting the crop by hand are needed, as seen in developing countries. It is laid out on the fields for about six weeks to "ret" (semi-rot), before being baled and stored.

"We have not found it necessary to use herbicides, insecticides or fungicides, says Mr Lowe. "Hemp is an excellent crop for the environment, and it clears the ground and improves soil structure for the farmer."

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