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.