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Hemp on Agenda at Southern Textile Association Meeting in North Carolina

Hemp was on the agenda at a Southern Textile Associatio
From left: Patrick Brown, Dr. David Suchoff, Grant Page and Guy Carpenter.

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Hemp on Agenda at Southern Textile Association Meeting in North Carolina

A recent Southern Textile Association Northern Division meeting featured a panel discussion on bringing hemp textile production back to the U.S.

Hemp was on the agenda at a Southern Textile Association meeting held last month in North Carolina.

The April 18 event at the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University in Raleigh included a presentation titled “Hemp: Farm, Fiber, Fabric & Fashion – The Path Forward,” which examined the current state of the hemp textile supply chain in the United States.

Devin Steele, secretary/treasurer of the 115-year-old organization, said that only two hemp speakers had ever previously presented at an STA meeting, Daniel Yohannes, CEO of Renaissance Fiber, and Guy Carpenter, president of Bear Fiber. Yohannes and Carpenter were on hand to moderate the April panel.

Carpenter, who has worked with hemp in the textile industry in China for 25 years, said he is devoted to bringing the hemp textile supply chain back to the United States. 

In his opening remarks, Carpenter said that although hemp is said to have 25,000 uses, the only thing he cares about is textile grade fiber, or fiber that can be spun into yarn. 

“Even degummed, hemp is about twice as strong as cotton,” Carpenter said, pointing out that hemp blended with cotton results in a fabric that’s biodegradable and resistant to abrasion. 

Carpenter, who joked that he has “suffered as well as enjoyed” the process of bringing hemp fiber into the U.S. textile industry, outlined the whole value chain for domestic fiber production, starting with farming, then mechanical and chemical processing, blending and spinning yarns, and on to textile development and apparel manufacturing.

Reflecting the supply chain, the panel included a farmer, a hemp research professor and an apparel company representative. 

Carpenter, who noted that educating the agricultural sector about hemp was paramount, said consumer demand for sustainable materials was driving interest in hemp fabrics.

Patrick Brown, of Brown Family Farms in Henderson, N.C., said that hemp fits into traditional farming frameworks as a cash crop. He said hemp grown for fabric is different from hemp grown for CBD because, for fabric, the plant must be harvested before it flowers. Brown said he chose to incorporate hemp into his fourth-generation family farming operation because of its environmental and economic benefits.

“As an alternative to forage crops it has been worth it,” Brown said.

Hemp, which serves as a cover crop, needs a lot less of the fertilizers that degraded the soil on his farm over generations of growing tobacco, Brown noted, adding that this also saves a lot of money.

Dr. David Suchoff, alternative crops extension specialist and assistant professor of crop and soil sciences at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, echoed Brown’s thoughts on hemp, saying it fits into larger row cropping systems along with corn, soy and other crops. He explained that soil improvement comes from leaving a “considerable amount of root mass” in the soil, which inhibits weed growth because of its density, especially compared to other commonly grown crops in the area, such as sweet potatoes, soybeans and tobacco. Suchoff also noted that hemp is more drought-tolerant than many commodity crops and requires less herbicide, pesticide and fungicide.

Suchoff said N.C. State will begin research this year on the best methods of retting, the process of loosening the inner hemp fiber from the plant’s outer woody stalk. 

That step is key in processing hemp for fiber, Carpenter said: “Retting makes the difference.” 

Graham Page, director of advanced manufacturing at VF Corp., said audiences are always enthusiastic when he gives a presentation about hemp textiles for use in branded apparel. 

“It sells itself,” he said of hemp, noting that there is a hemp supply problem, not a hemp demand problem.

Page said that by using hemp, VF Corp. can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its product production – an important concern for VF investors as well as for consumers, he said. He noted that Vans, whose footwear is made from 70% cotton and 30% North Carolina-grown hemp, has sold 80 million pairs.

“Whatever we can do to show you and help you use this fiber so that you can promote the growth, we are interested,” Page told the textile industry crowd.

The consistent availability of raw materials is key if more brands are to use hemp fabric, Page said. 

Carpenter said that about 100,000 acres of textile-grade fiber would be grown on small plots across the U.S. this year, with more than 1,000 acres in North Carolina. He pointed out that hemp is now a federal commodity and that Small Business Administration loans are available to farmers, as long as they are licensed and have paid to have their crops tested for THC.

Carpenter noted that ASTM committees are working on a hemp commodity grading system similar to the systems for cotton and wool. He added that hemp advocates also are working to change laws to make growing hemp easier for farmers.

Suchoff said that while hemp is now grown all over the nation, some places are faring better than others – and that North Carolina is ahead of the pack when it comes to having the processors for decortication, degumming and spinning.

“We have a leg up in the state because of the textile industry,” he said, pointing out that, for North Carolina farmers seeking tobacco alternatives, growing hemp for fiber is a good choice. 

“If the hemp textile industry is going to happen in the United States, it’s going to happen in North Carolina,” Page said.

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