The article below is the outcome of my 3 month period in Romania (December 2020 – March 2021), working at Asociația La blouse roumaine IA and researching about hemp.
This research publication will present hemp as a cultural plant of Romania, covering topics such as its role in rituals and household systems, as well as emphasizing the importance of ancestral knowledge in the pursuit of sustainability.
Acknowledging and respecting the natural essence of materials
You don’t have to look too far in order to find news and articles about the excellent potential of the hemp plant as a green material – it has been on the spotlight for quite some time now. The reason being for the numerous useful possibilities provided by the plant (textile fibers, medicine, food, oil, building material), and its benefits for the environment and the soil. We see designers all over the world creating new and innovative ways of working with the plant, as well as start-ups and larger companies focused on hemp cultivation and processing. However, a large number of those people have also been desperately and pointlessly attempting to make hemp into something it is not: a cotton-like soft material.
For this to happen, hemp fibers must go through a process known as cottonization, which usually involves different degumming techniques and extraction methods. Even though some companies affirm that it is possible to obtain the cottonized fiber using only mechanical processing, other methods can include excessive amounts of chemicals. The main goal is to make hemp feel like cotton – and it goes against the whole purpose of using hemp for sustainable reasons. The carbon footprint and environmental impact of this process (even if only mechanical, due to the high energy costs) moves hemp further away from sustainability, in addition to taking away the essence of the plant and its unique characteristics.
It is my belief that we should not work on adapting the material to our needs by changing its essence, but adapt our needs to the material.
Moreover, by wasting an enormous amount of time and energy working on trying to change the qualities of the plant, we might be overlooking all the incredible potential the fibers already have to offer: textile materials suitable for jackets, trousers, accessories, footwear, coats and furniture; construction material made from its woody core; papermaking, and others.
It is possible to use the long hemp fibers in a clean and natural way with very little treatment. On the other hand, by cottonizing the fibers we are strongly decreasing its quality and strenght – and therefore its durability. Aggressive degumming methods are commonly used in cottonization to remove lignin and other components from the cellulosic fibers. Lignin is an organic polymer with a crucial role in the formation of plant cell walls that must be removed during this process in order to achieve softer and cleaner fibers. However, it has been reported that its presence in small percentages is necessary due to the contribution of lignin to the strength and durability of the fibres.
Lignin is proven to have an important role in the growth and development of plants. It enhances plant cell wall rigidity, and promotes minerals transport through the vascular bundles. In addition, lignin is an important barrier that protects against pests, as well as being actively involved in plant lodging resistance and in response to various environmental stresses (Liu et al.). As every component, it plays an essential role in the survival and evolution of plants. It has been there and it will always be there, embedded in the long and firm stems of the hemp plant. There is no point in fighting against it or in investing so much time and money to do something that is harmful for both the environment and the fibers itself. As it was said before, lignin is even necessary – in small percentages – for obtaining stronger and durable hemp yarns.
A study conducted with other plants – which are not related to hemp – has proven that air pollution can cause an increase in the amount of lignin (Rani et al.). This makes me wonder if perhaps we have been fighting something caused by no one other than ourselves.
In the past, our ancestors used the plants as they were, successfully extracting the fibers for textiles by using natural resources (water for retting and sun for drying). In Romania, a country in which the hemp plant is culturally and historically embedded, hemp was used for every single textile in the house: blouses, skirts, shirts, dresses, cloths, bed linens and curtains. Besides a usual treatment of the hemp yarn done with ash and boiling water, the fibers did not need to go through any chemical or aggressive processes, and it still gave life to everyday wear and durable garments. Besides having a more holistic and embodied relationship with the objects and textiles made with the plant, the practices of the Romanian peasant were completely sustainable and successful for their purposes. They respected and enjoyed the characteristics of the fibers, never trying to desperately change it or make it into something it was not.
Hemp is not meant to feel like cotton, just like cotton is not meant to feel like hemp. Each plant fiber has unique qualities that make them just perfect for different uses and products. The time and energy wasted in the run for trying to make hemp into something it’s not could be used for coming up with creative ideas to work with the hemp we have today.
Let hemp be what it is, and let’s properly enjoy and be thankful for everything this wonderful plant has to offer.
LIU, Q. et al. Lignins: Biosynthesis and Biological Functions in Plants.International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5855557/#:~:text=As%20a%20complex%20phenolic%20polymer,pests%20and%20pathogens%20%5B14%5D.
RANI, K. et al. Comparative Analysis of Alkaline and Enzymatic Degumming Process of Hemp Fibers.Journal of The Institution of Engineers, India, v. 101, pp. 1–10, 2020. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40034-019-00156-y.
During my research about hemp as a cultural plant of Romania, a particular object caught my attention: the Romanian distaff, or, as it is called in Romanian, furcă de tors.
The distaff is an object used for spinning, designed to hold the unspun fibers and keep them untangled in order to facilitate the spinning process. In Romania, the distaff is made out of wood and embellished with various symbols and motifs that carry sacred meanings, also being of great importance at different moments in the life of the Romanian women.
Learning about the significance this object had in the past, which beautifully created a more mindful connection between the spinners and the final garment, can really draw attention towards the current disconnection people have from their material belongings, and more specifically, from their clothing.
According to Monica Dușan, museographer and writer, there were two objects indispensable in the feminine universe of Romania: the distaff and the spindle. Both objects accompanied the women in their entire life course, from a very young age (8 or 9 years old).
“The connection between the woman and the distaff was a natural one. At the same time, this connection corresponded to their spirituality with a vast semantics, because the woman has always been seen, over the millennia, as a continuator of life, as a carrier of fertility and abundance, which mediates communications between human and divine, the one who takes care of the spiritual side of life. As an inseparable object related to femininity, the distaff, in turn, was seen as a symbolic object of the thread of generations.”
Jorj Dimitriu, one of the very few artisans who is still making the furcă in the present day, says that the details and significance would change depending on the region. According to him, this object had a very meaningful role in the love lives of young men and women: boys would present their love interests with the furcă, asking their hand in marriage. If the young ladies said yes, they were considered engaged, and they would get married as soon as possible. If they said no, the furcă would either be broken or returned to the giver. It was a symbol of love, hope and protection.
Jorj has been making the distaffs for 10 years now, mostlyselling to collectors or museums.
The motifs and embellishments in the furcă have various meanings and symbolisms, a lot of them representing marks of protection such as crosses and horses. The spirals carved in the piece could go either to the left or to the right, the first one symbolizing sunrise and birth, and the latter representing sunset and death. The sun was also represented in various different manners, in the form of circles and rosettes. According to Monica Dușan, the Romanian distaffs are in fact true ethnographic documents, which store old and very valuable information. Through them, “we reach a fabulous vision of the ancestors regarding the universe, the connections of man with the macrocosm and the path he travels between Heaven and Earth, Life and Death, between material and spiritual.”
All of this respect and appreciation towards what is considered today an ‘outdated’ simple object, mostly known/used by artisans or hand-spinners that still value this precious craft, makes me question the meaning of our clothes today (and of the entire textile industry as a whole). We barely know about the fabric some of our clothes are made of, let alone the tools/machines used in the process. On the other hand, Romanian artisans and spinners used to cultivate such a deep connection in every step of making textiles – from seed to fiber, from distaff to loom.
Perhaps we should stop for a moment and look back, relearning some of those valuable teachings and beliefs, and rescuing important values and practices which are proving to be essential in our search for a more sustainable and integrated world.
The Hop Project is a research project about the potential of the hop plant as raw material. By using discarded hop stems that are considered waste after the harvest of the flower, the project explores different approaches on how to make hop fibers suitable for textiles.
The project started in 2019, a few months after my arrival in the Netherlands to follow my MA course Practice Held in Common at ArtEZ University of the Arts. With a combination of passion and need for exploration, I started researching hop fibers after reading about it in an old book. It instantly caught my attention for two reasons: the similarity with hemp, a promising and valuable fiber, and the fact that the fiber would be extracted from the agricultural byproducts from hop farming – it was considered waste by the farmers. I then applied, through ArtEZ Future Makers, for the ACT module at Wageningen University, where students from different disciplines work with you on a research project or problem. They then came up with a novel degumming method for hop fibers, which was later experimented with by experienced scientists from WUR, while at the same time I conducted other homemade experiments on the fibers by myself.
After harvesting the hop flower (usually for beer production), the stems of the plant – where the fiber is at – are considered waste. For this reason, collaborations were created with local hop farmers from the Netherlands, such as Hop Voor Bier and Hogenelst Hop in order to gather enough material to work with. They have kindly agreed to donate their byproducts for the experiment. We nurtured a relationship throughout the whole cycle of the plant and collaborated together during harvest time in September 2020.
HOMEMADE EXPERIMENTS WITH THE HOP PLANT
The bark remaining from the washing process was also experimented with, exploring the possibilities and potential of the material. By molding it while still wet, two objects were created and then dried for a few days. In another experiment agar-agar was also mixed with the bark, resulting in a firmer object.
The woody core which remained intact after the peeling of the bark was then broken into smaller pieces, resulting in hop “shives” that were sent to IsoHempto explore the possibility of creating “hopcrete” – a building component resulting from the mixture of hop shives + water + lime. According to Dirk Van Impe, sales manager of the company, the material has good potential but still has to go through further testing and research.
This is an ongoing research. I will be updating this blog when new developments are achieved.