Hemp, Localism: Bioregional’s enduring significance

Hemp growing in Walpole courtsey of Wikipedia

Hemp growing in Walpole courtesy of Wikipedia

This week CSF’s Prof. Kate Fletcher attended a reunion of past staff, volunteers, collaborators – alumni – of the environmental action group Bioregional. Here she shares her thoughts on Bioregional and a little background on hemp.

The gathering set me thinking about my past involvement with the not-for-profit and about the ideas and approaches it furthers.

It is almost 20 years ago that I worked with Bioregional on their ‘Hemp for Textiles’ project. The project, like so many that the group were engaged with at the time, was exploring the practicalities and possibilities of localism. It used the idea of a bioregion, the geographic area of land between two watersheds, to introduce a sort of reverse globalisation to clothing. It set my mind whirring: what would fashion be like if it was hewn from what we could produce within a couple of hundred miles? Our response was fashion fashioned from hemp (although previous trials had also seen flax (linen) as a workable alternative). But to get even close to that we set about working with farmers in Kent to grow enough of the wonder fibre to figure out the processing steps and subsequent supply chain in our part of South East England.

For those light on information about hemp, I offer here a few facts:

Hemp grows better in organic systems of agriculture than in conven­tional ones. It smothers weeds and con­trols pests, clearing the land for other crops. It improves the structure of the soil, its strong roots controlling erosion. It returns nutrients to the land if processed in the field and purports even to ‘clean up’ soil contaminated with heavy metals. From a processing point of view, hemp requires low financial and labour inputs; it is one of a minority of textile fibre crops that can be grown in the UK and so it helps meet needs from local resources and encourage, a stable, local economy. The fibre is durable and yarn-to-fabric processing is similar to other veg­etable fibres.

Yet despite hemp being a promising fibre from a environmental perspective, a significant crop in the UK in the 16th century, so much so that King Henry VIII passed an act of parliament fining farmers who failed to grow it, and reportedly Levi Strauss to make his first jeans from hemp fabric imported from Nimes in France, hence the name ‘denim’ from the French “serge de Nimes”, its use is minimal today mainly because the market for hemp has disappeared, com­pletely overwhelmed by cotton and synthetic fabrics and because of its association with Cannabis sativa, the recre­ational drug, and its cultivation is illegal in many parts of the world.

In the UK, growing hemp was outlawed by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, but more recently, plant breeders have developed varieties which are low in the psycho-active compound Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and farmers are beginning to reintroduce hemp, growing these vari­eties under special licence.

In the Hemp for Textiles project with Bioregional, and under special license, we grew two-thirds of a hectare of hemp (I remember weeding it by hand!). During which we discovered seemingly endless sequences of practical obstacles to successfully devel­oping hemp textiles as a regional product. These included: there being no agricultural machinery to process such a tall crop (in the end the Silsoe Institute modified a machine for us), the challenge of extracting fibre from the plant’s stem (retting) in the British climate, and the absence of any processing facilities in the region (or even in the UK) for processing the fibre to fibre. After harvesting our bales of hemp straw had to be sent to the closest available processors: Belgium, Ireland and then Northern England, all the while paying exacting attention to creating a fine yarn for quality heavier weight apparel. The result was a bolt of cloth and a jacket that Katherine Hamnett designed for the project. And many lessons learned about the difficulties of finding alternatives to the dominant system.

Two decades on, the project stands out for me as a bellwether that showed what was to come. For the same questions we were concerned with in the 1990s are still dominating discussions of fashion and sustainability today. Perhaps one needs to look no further than the work of Fibreshed in the US.

Indeed we are still asking about how we can bring a modified scale and pace to the fashion sector, a scale and pace shaped perhaps by the opportunity of bringing both production and consumption of fashion ‘back home’, of re-shoring a supply chain and with it the importance of meaningful employment and a ‘natural address’ for the products we buy. Moreover it is the ethic of care that this local agenda promotes that is so compelling. An ethic of care for a sector that has lost sight of the earth on which it depends.