HEMP: A MISUNDERSTOOD PLANT
I first posted this back in March of 2011 before marijuana was legalized in Colorado. With more interest now in hemp in general, I thought it deserved a repost.
by Betsy Seeton
Hemp may be one of the least understood or perhaps most misunderstood plants on the planet. That needs to be qualified by adding in the United States. Never has there been a plant been more demonized or idolized than hemp. Again, in the United States. It’s perhaps as politically charged a word as ‘healthcare’ or ‘war’ is in a presidential debate.
If I were to rate the challenge of hemp research, the way river rafters rate rapids on a scale of one to five, five being the most challenging, I'd have to say that navigating through the river of articles on hemp, trying to distinguish fact from fiction, has clearly been a five.
Just the mention of hemp probably conjures up for many of you, colors ranging from tan to beige and you see clumsy, thick, coarse cloth or rope, that is, of course, if you’re not thinking about the drugged out culture of the 60’s and envisioning a marijuana leaf stamped across the front of a hemp made t-shirt. Well, you’re in for a surprise. Hemp has a rich history and is a vast resource that quite arguably could contribute to creating a more sustainable environment around the globe. Some actually refer to it as a miracle crop.
Click image below to see more pictures of hemp being farmed.
Some basic facts first. Hemp is thought to be native to Central Asia and has been cultivated for over ten thousand years. Bits of hemp fabric, some of the oldest relics of human history, have been found in tombs dating back to around 8000 B.C..
Some fun trivia. Thomas Jefferson made some of his first drafts of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Both Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp and Ben Franklin owned a hemp paper mill. Jefferson sold the dried stalk of hemp to the U.S. Navy as outfitting material. The Gutenberg bible and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderful were both printed on hemp paper. The first Levi jeans were made from hemp and Betsy Ross made the first American flag using hemp fibers.
Hemp was commercially grown in Colonial times in the U.S. up through the 1930’s. After the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 it continued growing throughout the United States with increasing governmental regulation making it more and more expensive. During WWII, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted the “Hemp for Victory” campaign through a black and white film encouraging the U.S. to grow hemp following the Japanese cutting off the supply of Manila hemp. The Federal government even subsidized industrial hemp for farmers who grew more than a million acres. Illinois was the largest supplier at that time.
Industrial hemp is a distinct variety of the plant species cannabis sativa L, otherwise known as marijuana. Because of hemp’s importance in the fabric made for sails during Colonial times, the word "canvass" is rooted in "cannabis". Industrial hemp usually contains less than .03% of the drug inducing agent, THC. Marijuana, on the other hand strives for 3% - 5% and higher. Most agree that you’d get sick before you got high trying to smoke industrial hemp.
The growing conditions of each are vastly different. Marijuana needs space, while industrial hemp thrives only in very densely planted populations. They also differ in what gets harvested and when. Nonetheless, the United States is the only industrialized nation to classify industrial hemp as a controlled substance. Anyone in the United States wanting to grow industrial hemp must register with the DEA as a Schedule I manufacturer. The permitting process and security precautions mandated for growing the plant are extensive and the end result is very expensive. Colorado introduced legislation in 1995 to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, but it failed to pass. Nine of sixteen other states passed legislation calling for study, research or production of industrial hemp. It passed in Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Virginia.
Approximately thirty one countries around the world distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana; Canada, France and China, being the largest suppliers. However, legal constraints have prevented industrial hemp from being grown on a large scale in most developed nations.
As a fiber for fabric, hemp is longer, stronger, more absorbent and warmer than cotton. It also is highly absorbent to dyes and aids in blocking harmful UV rays. Hemp is used to make high quality linen and when blended with other fabrics, it creates a stronger, longer lasting product that retains softness. Hemp fibers are mildew and microbe resistant, which in addition to clothing, make them great for the production of sails, tarps, awnings and carpets.
As a fashion designer who’s considering hemp in your green clothing line, it’s always good to know as much as you can about the plant behind the product. Hemp can grow well without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Consider that cotton uses up to 50% of the pesticides sprayed in the world. Hemp uses much less water to grow than cotton and the end product is more biodegradable.
The bark of the hemp stalk contains the bast fibers, which are among the planet’s longest, natural soft fibers and very rich in cellulose. Unlike cotton, hemp grows in many climate zones and grows rapidly. Germination to maturity takes 90-120 days. Average height at harvesting time is two to four meters. 150 plants can grow per square meter. This density increases fiber production and helps choke out weed growth, which is one reason pesticides aren’t needed.
Hemp produces more pulp per acre than timber and because it uses fewer chemicals in pulp processing than timber, hemp results in less wastewater contamination. The long fibers in hemp mean it can be recycled more times than wood-based paper. It can also be bleached using gentle hydrogen peroxide versus chlorine based compounds and dioxins that are both quite toxic.
The biocarbons in hemp can be processed into a wide range of biomass energy sources.
Hemp is used to make a huge variety of products. One article claimed as many as 25,000 but I don’t have time to count. Suffice to say there are dozens of applications for industrial hemp. It’s used in such things as margarine, salad oil, soap, cosmetics, lip balm, lotions, sunscreen, lubricating oils, and food supplements. The oil from the hemp seed is used in making inks, fuel, solvents, paint, and varnish. It’s used to make paper, sails, tarps, pet food, insulation, and building materials like fiberboard. Hemp hurds are used to manufacture cellophane, plastic, cement blocks and even used as in a substitute for fiberglass.
Hemp is touted for its exceptional vegetable protein and considered by some to be more digestible and longer lasting than soybeans. Supposedly, unlike soy, hemp doesn’t have to be cooked or fermented to be digestible.
From many angles and especially as a fiber for making great fashions, I give industrial hemp a green light for its versatile features, including its soft touch and its light carbon footprint .
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