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hemp

by Leslie Petrovski

Anne-Marie Chmielewski of the Mountains and Plains Fibershed is waiting. Since June 2017 when she and her daughter drove 20 pounds of Rambouillet/CVM to the Mora Valley Spinning Mill in New Mexico, she has been waiting for samples of a 70 percent wool/30 percent Colorado hemp yarn—the penultimate product in Fibershed’s years-long Colorado experiment to turn hemp seed into cloth.

Mary Pettis-Sarley of Twirl Yarn in California is also waiting. She has ferried several batches of wool/alpaca/kid mohair/domestic hemp she’s already blended to the Mystic Pines mill near Williams, Arizona and is waiting to have enough yarn to market to knitters and weavers. She’s also on a quest to perfect an all-natural, all-American toe-and-heel sock yarn.

Stacie Chavez, president of Imperial Yarn, is waiting, too. Spurred by inquiries from fashion brands, Imperial Yarn is looking to create both production and hand-knitting yarns that incorporate U.S. hemp. At this writing, Chavez is hoping for samples of what is, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the first commercially scaled American-grown hemp-blend yarns—in a few weeks.

So, here we are on the fragile precipice of a new American fiber industry.


Amber Waves of Hemp

For those following the halting baby steps of this nascent industry, it seems inconceivable that one of the world’s richest and most industrialized nations struggles to produce an American-grown-and-manufactured hemp or hemp-blend knitting yarn. But there it is. History, politics, mythology, globalism, economics, synthetic fibers and the sheer rigors of transforming hemp’s bast fibers into fabrics have all conspired to make resuscitating the American hemp fiber industry difficult at best, and quixotic at worst.

Reigniting an American hemp industry is challenging for countless reasons, among them the country’s long-standing drama with the plant. Widely cultivated for cordage, sacks, bedding, paper, and clothing for generations, hemp was a staple fiber crop from the country’s early years before the American Revolution until well into the 20th century.

That changed as hemp fell into disrepute. From the late 19th century on, public fears about drug use, Reefer Madness, the timber industry, and the cultural revolution of the 1960s and countless other reasons ultimately led the U.S. government to ban hemp in 1970 as a Schedule I Controlled Substance (this, despite THC levels so low, an acre of the stuff wouldn’t impart a high) along with its more notorious relative, marijuana.

Such was the case until states began legalizing medical marijuana and ultimately the sale of recreational cannabis. In 2013 Kentucky and Colorado became the first states in the nation to pass laws paving the way for industrial hemp cultivation—that is crops producing less than .3 percent THC, the component of the plant that makes people high. The U.S. government soon followed with the Agricultural Act of 2014, legalizing hemp pilot programs and research.

Fibershed, the California-based organization leading the way toward creating sustainable, regional dirt-to-shirt textile systems, supplied support and funding to study hemp fiber crops in both states and demonstrate that it’s possible to create a domestic hemp-blend cloth. The journey to incorporate hemp into American textiles had begun.

What is hemp?

Hemp is not marijuana, but it is cannabis sativa, which makes it the same species as one type of marijuana. But just like all sheep are ovis aries, some of which have been bred to have finer fibers or more lustrous locks, some cannabis plants have been cultivated for reasons other than for producing high amounts of THC. These taller, low-THC plants are considered hemp.

Hemp growing in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Fibershed.)

Hemp growing in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Photo courtesy of Fibershed.

There are so many reasons to love hemp. Not only does it require less land, water, and fewer inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers than cotton, it also grows like a weed almost anywhere. Then there are the products. From CBD (the non-psychoactive oil with purported benefits that include mitigating anxiety, reducing seizures, and protecting against neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s) to food stuffs, building materials, animal bedding, paper, fuels, plastic and clothing, hemp offers farmers a seriously multipurpose crop.

“If you grow your own hemp,” said Arnie Valdez of Rezolana Farms in San Luis, Colorado, who grew the hemp for the Mountains and Plains Fibershed yarn, “you can grow your own jeans and grow your own house (in the form of hemp adobe blocks). The possibilities are pretty amazing. It’s a very versatile material.”


hemp

Arnie Valdez of Rezolana Farms in Colorado has been collaborating with Fibershed to grow hemp for regional textile production. Photo by Anne-Marie Chmielewski.

Also, there’s the possibility of yarn. Really durable, lustrous yarn. Sequestered in the tall stalks of the plant are these tiny bundles of fibers, which rank among the strongest on the planet, stronger than cotton and even linen. Plus, it breathes, doesn’t pill or shrink, has antimicrobial properties, absorbs moisture, offers some protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays and wears well in warm or cool climates.

Not all knitters will take to hemp; like all the bast fibers, including linen and ramie, 100-percent hemp yarn has a rough, vegetal hand that feels stiff on the needles but nonetheless provides great stitch definition, wears like iron and softens with wear and washing.

 hemp hemp
The wool from Sister Sheep’s flock in Gill, Colorado, has been mixed with Colorado hemp to produce a
prototype wool-hemp, Colorado-grown yarn. Photo by Anne-Marie Chmielewski.


“The more I knit with this, the more I love it,” said Pettis-Sarley, who has been test knitting her hemp-blend yarns. “I’m not a member of the soft cult. But the more I knit with it, the softer it gets. Now I want to weave it!”

Getting real with hemp

Whoever first thought to spin hemp fiber into yarn must have been a visionary of epic scope. Hemp’s bast fibers (bast fibers are plant’s veins) lie inside the stalks between the outer bark and the woody hurd and look like long spidery strands of hay. Extracting these fibers from the stalks traditionally involved a labor-intensive process that began with retting in a field or pond, a process that allows water to rot (or ret) away the outer tissues and sticky pectins surrounding the bast bundles. The stalks were then dried, subsequently broken—to remove the hurd—and heckled through a kind of comb—all prior to spinning. The Colonial Williamsburg website, in fact, quotes Colonel William Byrd II, a famous 18th -century grower of hemp, “one difficulty that discomfits me a little, an[d] that is the great Labour it requires in the breaking it.”

Modernity has done little to improve the process, especially in a country where hemp has been illegal to grow for so long.

“Yes, capital investments are very needed within fiber systems,” observed Fibershed’s founder and executive director Rebecca Burgess. “The industry is by and large an early 20th-century relic, and capitalism likes big returns. Building new mills is like building roads, it just needs to be done, and our society of high net worth individuals, investment groups, and public investment has been very slow on the uptake around this.”

Currently, there is one guy working to crack the secret of mechanizing hemp fiber processing in this country. John Lupien has spent years developing and refining a proprietary process for separating and softening hemp fibers here in the United States. The process involves a piece of machinery called a decorticator, which separates hemp’s bast fibers from the wood—fibers represent about 20 percent of the stalk. A wet, chemical process degums the fibers, removing the plant’s sticky sugars and lignans. Once the wet process is complete, the fiber needs to be carefully dried and opened.

hemp

Decorticated hemp. Photo courtesy of John Lupien of BastCore.

“The hardest thing you can do is turn hemp into a textile-grade fiber,” Lupien says. “To get the fiber into wet process and out is manually oriented, it’s not mechanized. We have to mechanize it. But that will take millions of dollars.”

Though hemp fibers are naturally long, this drying and opening process has resulted in shorter fibers. To blend hemp with wool, Lupien must be able to produce fibers that are consistently two inches in length. He’s getting there, but a large influx of capital would do wonders to grease the wheels of his hemp operation.

hemp

Arnie Valdez inspects a long strand of decorticated hemp. Photo by Anne-Marie Chmielewski.

“We are on the very, very ground floor in the U.S.,” Lupien said. “The hemp fiber industry can come up with capital investment. The hurdles are money. The equipment is expensive. There is equipment out there that is designed for other types of fiber that can be used on hemp, but it’s expensive.”

The promise of yarn

In spite of the barriers, we are at a tipping point, where it might soon be possible to purchase a skein or two or 10 of American-grown hemp-blend handknitting yarn. Kentucky, with its more verdant landscape, has completed its Fibershed experiment to grow hemp and complete a hemp-blend cloth. Colorado is soon to follow.

hemp

Carded Colorado wool and hemp. Photo courtesy of the Mora Valley Spinning Mill.

At the Mora Mill in New Mexico, mill manager Isaiah Leyba has been babying this first batch of Colorado hemp, putting it through different machines to tease open the fibers for better blending. Grown in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in San Luis, Colorado, this hemp traveled first to BastCore in Nebraska for initial processing and then to New Mexico where Leyba will blend it with Colorado wool from Sister Sheep’s and Frank Khun’s animals. The goal: test yarn for the Mountains and Plains Fibershed to send back to San Luis for weaving, completing the tenuous supply chain from seed to fabric.


hemp  hemp

Sheep from the Sister Sheep flock in Gill, Colorado. Photo by Anne-Marie Chmielewski.

At Mystic Pines Fiber Processing in Arizona, the mill has been helping Pettis-Sarley test a range of different hemp/wool/alpaca/kid mohair blends, spinning various hemp iterations she’s received from BastCore along with fibers from her animals. Pettis-Sarley is waiting to have a critical mass of yarn to sell and for e-commerce upgrades to her website.

hemp hemp hemp

The wool-alpaca-mohair-hemp blend spun for Twirl Yarn represents some of the first mill-spun yarn featuring domestically grown hemp in the country. Photo by Mary Pettis-Sarley.

 

At Kraemer Yarns in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the mill just received delivery of 100 pounds of hemp from BastCore for the Imperial Yarn test blends. Chavez was so delighted the hemp had arrived at the mill that she emailed excitedly, sprinkling exclamation points. She should have samples in hand…soon.

And, so should we.

Leslie Petrovski is a freelance writer and knitter who can’t wait to get her hands on a knittable, Colorado-grown hemp yarn. She lives in Denver with her husband and a big, orange cat.