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Hemp Clothing Making a Comeback

The Hamilton Spectator (Canada) September 13, 2002

Hemp fabric making a comeback; Designer Armani is promoting hemp clothing and cultivation BY: Marvin Caplan During discussion about the recent debate over the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, I was reminded of a clothing fibre that had fallen out of favour but has recently been making a comeback -- hemp. In the years before the early 20th century, fabric from hemp was far more popular than cotton. For a number of reasons, including the use of some forms of hemp as a drug, growing hemp was prohibited in Canada 1938 and discouraged or forbidden in much of the rest of the world. The psychoactive substance in marijuana, THC, is virtually nonexistent in hemp grown for fibre. Hemp is a fibre that has a finish similar to flax or linen and ramie.

It is very quick-growing and has exceptionally long fibres. Cotton fibres are about 20 millimeters long, while the fibres of the hemp plant can reach several meters in length. As well as their much greater length, hemp fibres are stronger, more absorbent, and far more environmentally friendly than cotton. While much of the fabric I've seen has a harsh hand (or feel), I'm told that some spinners are producing fibre that rivals silk in its soft hand and sheen. Probably due to the history of the connection to marijuana, clothing products of hemp have found most of their initial popularity with younger clients and aging hippies.

My first wardrobe item made from hemp fibre was a pair of jeans. (As a point of interest, the original Levi's jeans were made of hemp.) I found my jeans comfortable, easy-care and exceptionally durable. Even though the counterculture was the first proponent of this durable fibre, fashion genius Giorgio Armani has been experimenting with hemp textiles and recently outfitted actor Woody Harrelson in a tuxedo made from hemp fabric. Not content to leave his cannabis experiment to finished fashions, the Italian style guru has had his company participate in a consortium of Italian farmers and seed producers to restart Italian hemp cultivation near Ferrara in Italy. Until now, Giorgio Armani had imported the hemp he uses in his collection from France.

While the initial planting is 200 hectares (494 acres), Armani's consortium is also building a factory to process hemp with a capacity to process hemp produced from 1,000 hectares (2470 acres). Canada has allowed hemp grown from research purposes since 1961, and in 1998, for the first time in 60 years, commercial production of industrial hemp was permitted. Despite the marvels of the plant, including its ability to thrive with minimal or no pesticides, technology has not kept up, and growing and harvesting hemp remains labour-intensive.

Whether or not the smokable variety of cannabis will or should become more available is still open to debate; the short-term growth of hemp fabrics in specialty high-end clothing seems to be probable, particularly with the support of Armani. The widespread use of this fibre in men's clothing will take many years, and based on current technology it is unlikely to ever be more than a small part of the fashion industry. Marvin Caplan is a Hamilton councillor who spent nearly four decades in the clothing business. You can contact him at mcaplan@netaccess.on.ca

 
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