Loved by the Tudors but misunderstood and distrusted by more recent governments, hemp has a chequered history. Now though both farmers and designers are beginning to understand the material's vast potential.
By Grant Gibson
Grant Gibson is a writer on craft and design, he is the former editor of Blueprint and Crafts and hosts the podcast Material Matters.
I have to confess to being a little underwhelmed the first time I came across a product made from hemp. I was writing a monthly review column for a design magazine in 2011 when the Hemp Chair created by German designer Werner Aisslinger and cutting-edge, Italian furniture manufacturer Moroso was delivered to my doorstep.
I remember thinking it was an interesting material experiment but a bulky and pretty uncomfortable chair. At that stage I didn’t have any idea quite what a wonderful material hemp was. After all, this extraordinary plant can be used for a wildly eclectic range of things from bread to buildings, via clothing, car interiors, paint, paper, biofuel and animal bedding. Not only that but it would appear to be environmentally friendly, sequestering carbon, replenishing the soil and killing weeds without the need for nasty chemicals. And potentially it’s also a zero waste crop, meaning the whole thing can be used. Last but by not means least, hemp can be sown to remediate contaminated land. It seems almost too good to be true and, of course, begs the question quite why it hasn’t been widely cultivated in Scotland and across the UK?.
The answer to that isn’t hard to glean. Despite all its qualities, as botanist Max Coleman, pointed out in a recent workshop, Hemp Futures, devoted to the plant and organised by the Barn and The Rowett Institute and funded by the Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (or SEFARI for short), the material has an image problem. ‘There’s a bit of a shadow that hangs over the crop in terms of the fact that, in some circles, it is viewed as an illegal thing,’ he explained. ‘I think if we’re trying to promote it as this immensely useful plant, with all this potential for the future, we need to acknowledge that there is this other side.’
And he’s quite right of course. Cannabis and hemp both derive from the same species, Cannabis sativa, and contain the psychoactive component THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) but are separate strains that have been developed over the past 10,000 years with contrasting purposes in mind. As Coleman confirms: ‘What we’ve ended up with at the end of that process is a set of crop plants which look remarkably alike – unless you’re a real expert you’d be hard pushed to tell them apart – but have very different uses.’ It’s the kind of nuance that, in recent times, governments have overlooked. However, that wasn’t always the case.
Historically hemp has been seen as an important crop to the UK and across Europe. During the Tudor reign, for instance, a law was introduced that forced all farmers to give over a portion of their land to cultivating the plant. It was vital both in sails for the navy’s ships (the word canvas is derived from cannabis) and, perhaps as importantly, for rope. In the USA, George Washington mentioned growing the plant in his diary, while other former Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor are also known to have farmed the crop. The American Declaration of Independence is allegedly written on hemp paper, while Levi Strauss made his first jeans from the material.
It’s tricky to explain quite why hemp fell from favour, although there are those that point the finger at large corporations in US with vested interests in materials such as nylon and paper from wood. Interestingly, it made a comeback during World War Two when imports to the US were stymied by the Japanese, only for production to recede again when peace broke out. In the UK, meanwhile, hemp cultivation was banned in 1971 under the Misuse of Drugs Act. This was overturned in 1993, though farmers still need to apply to the Home Office for a license to grow the crop and there are stories in the media of farmers being forced to destroy fields of hemp over misunderstandings with the government.
However, as the debate over climate change has belatedly become an issue for mainstream politicians, you sense the tide is turning in hemp’s favour. In the US, for instance, hemp became legal to grow across 46 states as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. And increasing numbers of designers and architects are, like Werner Aisslinger, investigating the material’s potential. In Cambridgeshire, for example, Practice Architecture has created the Flat House on Margent Farm, with a structure made of prefabricated timber-framed cassettes filled with hempcrete. The fact that the hemp itself came from the adjacent fields, provides the project with an even stronger narrative.
And while I was in Copenhagen last year, I was introduced to the work of the up-and-coming textile designer Tanja Kirst. Kirst is part of a generation of designers, who have grown up under the shadow of our climate crisis. She trained initially as an artist at The Glasgow School of Art, where she discovered a love of weaving. However, her new passion raised a fundamental question. ‘The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world,’ she explains. ‘Why should I, as a textile designer, produce more textiles?’
It was while she was on an exchange to Osaka Seikei University in Japan that she first came across hemp and, by all accounts, had a bit of an epiphany. ‘I didn’t really know much about hemp at that point but I was aware that it was a very sustainable plant,’ she says. Like many people, her perception of the material until then was that it was something used for potato sacks – rough, earthy and, you know, a bit brown. Duly inspired, she made a clutch of woven samples that subsequently she brought back to Denmark. In Copenhagen, she discovered the Danish Technological Institute was doing research into hemp for textile use and finding ways of releasing fibres from the plants stem without using chemicals. As a result, she began to look at the material’s possibilities and give it ‘a more appealing textile quality’.
For the Mindcraft Project in 2020, for instance, she created rugs that were handwoven with hemp yarn. Importantly, every thread consists of 50 thin threads that have been spun together and dyed using bio-colours – meaning that she was effectively designing her own yarns. While she could have sourced cheap hemp from China, she elected instead to use an Italian supplier. ‘As a designer I don’t just want to work with hemp because it’s known for being sustainable,’ she says. ‘I think it’s very important that the process of releasing the fibres from the stem Is done in the most sustainable way.’
Interestingly too, she’s keen to work on an industrial scale and she has a new collection of rugs made of hemp, and manufactured by Massimo Copenhagen, launching next year.
So farmers want to grow the crop and, increasing numbers of designers are seeing the material’s potential. There’s a growing market for it as a food stuff and medicine, with seeds being used to produce milk, oil and flour, that contain alpha-linolenic acids and omega-3, as well as phytosterols, which help reduce cholesterol, while CBD oil, derived from the plant’s flower, is becoming increasing popular in treating issues with anxiety (although there is still plenty of room for more research here).
What then is holding it back? The conclusion drawn from Hemp Futures was that the largest hurdle this new – but also paradoxically ancient – industry has to overcome is lack of infrastructure. In other words getting hemp from the field into a usable form by designers and manufacturers. There is a chicken and egg element to this. Tooling requires investment and businesses will only be willing to spend money if they know there’s a market. However, the market won’t grow until the infrastructure is in place. It’s the kind of conundrum the requires leadership from government and (happily) organisations such as SEFARI. With attitudes slowly changing, perhaps it won’t be too long until hemp is being grown by farmers across the four nations.
By Grant Gibson