For most of human history, hemp was among the most important textiles. By the discovery of the New World and the founding of America, hemp accounted for more than 90 percent of all the world’s clothing; it was the only material used for ship sails and ropes, and almost all important historical documents — to include the Declaration of Independence — were written on hemp paper.
Unfortunately, the 20th century connected cannabis to racial stigma, and much of the West forgot the wonder of working with hemp. Yet, thanks to recent legalization efforts, hemp is once again readily available to those interested in a sustainable, durable, lightweight fabric. In fact, even home users can process raw hemp to make yarn and fabric. Here’s how.
Growing a hemp crop is a labor of love, especially when the cannabis plant is so intensely regulated. To grow hemp for CBD or clothing, farmers need to apply for a license from their state government and submit to regular testing of their crop to ensure that THC levels are below .3 percent. On top of this, farmers must grapple with the unique soil, water, and sunlight needs of cannabis, which tend to be quite different from more traditional crops like corn and soy.
Hemp grown for fiber can be harvested as early as 60 days, but hemp grown for CBD might require an additional 30 to 60 days for maturation. Harvesting is best done by hand with a sickle or with special equipment like a disc or sickle mower. Some harvesting tractors struggle to manage the long, flexible, and tough hemp stalks, so farmers should be prepared to use atypical harvesting techniques if necessary.
Ret and Break
Next, the fiber needs to be separated from the stalk. To begin this process, farmers must “ret” the hemp, degrading the substances binding the fibers together. Immediately after harvesting, hemp plants should be deposited in a warm bath and kept there for about 10 days. Farmers in particularly warm and humid environments can allow the stalk to sit in the air, but this will increase retting time to three to five weeks. In either case, farmers should rotate the hemp every so often, ensuring that all plants are equally exposed to moisture.
After retting, farmers must break their hemp to transform it from a dense, strong stalk into a limp bundle of fibers. Breaking essentially entails crushing the hemp stalks without cutting them or breaking them fully apart. As industrial hemp farming becomes more widespread, it is likely that innovation will make this process go faster; for now, old-fashioned, manual-fed techniques work best.
Scutch and Hackle
Once the retting and breaking are done, it is time to collect the fiber. First, farmers must scutch their crop, which is like another more delicate breaking process. Scutching consists of beating the stalks once again to remove the wooden core of the crop and straighten the remaining fibers. As with breaking, machines exist to improve efficiency.
Hackling is no more complex than combing the remaining fibers — using a comb much larger than that for human air, of course. The objective of hackling is to remove any remaining woody particles and unwanted plant material and to smooth and align the fibers for the next step. Farmers working by hand should use a series of combs, working from wide-set teeth to finer teeth. In industrial processing settings, machines pull the fibers over different fixed combs to achieve the same effect.
Rove and Spin
From here, working with hemp is almost identical to working with other fibers, like wool, cotton, and flax. Roving is the process of twisting hemp fibers and stretching them to improve strength, and spinning the hemp is twisting the roved fibers into thread or yarn. Spinning isn’t a laborious process, but it is time-consuming if done by hand using a spindle. Most hemp clothing today is spun by machines, but there is some satisfaction to be gained by spinning a small amount of one’s own hemp.
Block and Weave
Finally, the spun hemp needs to be washed one last time to soften and strengthen the fibers. This is blocking — loosely looping the hemp and submerging it in lukewarm water before gently squeezing out the excess water and hanging or stretching the hemp to dry. Once dry, the hemp is ready to be woven, dyed, and sewn into clothing.
It is exciting that hemp is experiencing a new heyday and could become a sustainable material for use in textiles. Learning more about how hemp is farmed and processed will help everyone become more accepting of the hemp revolution.