With the advent of state laws SB 50 in Kentucky and SB 241 in Colorado, hemp is being re-introduced to American agriculture after a 60-plus-year hiatus. The interest in hemp is founded on the precept that fiber systems, like food systems, are best if designed to not only minimize detrimental impacts to the biosphere, but to enhance ecosystem function.
Hemp is biomass dense. Fiber strains are able to produce upwards of 4,000 pounds per acre of useful textile and cordage fibers. Textile grade fiber is 12-20% of the weight of the plant. The remainder of the plant can be used for CBD extraction from the flowering head, and the remaining woody core can be turned into building materials, bio-plastics and oil spill clean up mulches.
Downloadable reports on our research partnerships:
(Photo by Donnie Hedden)
We have completed a two-year textile focused research project in collaboration with farmers Arnie Valdez, Nathan Hall, Todd Howard and Mike Lewis, 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 in the fiber). 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. The resulting cloth samples had a less than 1% shrink rate and didn’t carry the abrasive scale ‘itch’ of a woolen textile.
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. With a similar climate impact interest related to this new field of hemp agriculture, we began taking soil carbon baseline samples at all of the farms that we worked with, and we will continue to test for carbon in our soils over time to determine the climate impact of our hemp agricultural research. In terms of biomass, a hemp crop can produce between 2,000-4,000 pounds of of fiber (cordage and textile grade) per acre, and wool (in arid regions on rangeland) produces 70-100 pounds per acre. 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 more wearable within contemporary garments (by blending it with 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)
Current wool processing is reliant upon chlorine treatments to de-scale and soften the material, and to make it amenable for ‘next-to-skin’ wear as well as for use in modern washing and drying systems. The Hercosett treatment, as it known, is used on 75% of the wool on the market today, and includes spraying wool fibers with poly-acrylic resins (fossil fuel based materials). Historically, protein fibers (wool, alpaca, mohair) and cellulose fibers (hemp, cotton, nettle, linen), were blended together to create fabrics that would be 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. (Photos: Sara Dunham, left, Donnie Hedden, below left, Rebecca Burgess, below right)
The first edition of Kentucky Cloth serves as the beginning of the creative process and a testament to the iterative engineering of partnerships on the ground. In collaboration with farmers, engineers, mills, spinners, and weavers, Fibershed has supported the cultivation of cloth samples blending Kentucky bast fibers (hemp) and protein fibers (wool and alpaca).