Hemp seems to be fully back as a major European agricultural crop. After being banned by national governments for decades, the plant is now being hoisted on the shield as part of the Green Deal. “Hemp cultivation contributes to the goals of the European Green Deal", reads a headline on the European Union's website.
The cultivation of hemp is beneficial for the environment in several respects, the EU website states:
Hemp could also become important again in the future textile industry. The European Commission has drawn up an action plan for a circular economy, in which the textile sector is seen as crucial. This includes making textile production more sustainable and making the European textile industry more competitive. In other words: the European textile industry must soon be able to compete again with those in other parts of the world, including Asia. And it has to be sustainable, so using natural fibers that are produced in Europe.
Hemp is such a natural fibre, a raw material that can be grown in Europe and which, in the EU's view, could become important in this 'renewed' textile industry.
Poster from 1921 on which hemp is listed among the Plants of Great Commercial Value
Hemp is one of the oldest and most versatile crops used by humans. In China, hemp was already used for making rope around 2800 BC. The plant was also cultivated for centuries in Europe, archaeological finds here go back to the so-called Hallstatt period (800-400 BC). Traditionally, many different products were made from it, such as rope, paper, oil and textiles. The word canvas is derived from cannabis.
For centuries, indigenous hemp was one of the raw materials for the European clothing industry. However, interest waned since the eighteenth century due to the growing import of cotton that was softer, faster, easier and cheaper to process and from which finer and homogeneous yarns could be spun. However, until well into the twentieth century, hemp remained an important crop.
That suddenly ended when in 1937 the US introduced a de facto ban on cultivation as a result of anti-drug legislation and the simultaneous rise of the petrochemical industry, which among other things focused on the production of synthetic textile fibres. In Europe too, cultivation was completely or almost banned by more and more countries, a ban that was only lifted in some countries shortly before the year 2000. With that, hemp disappeared from sight. Machines previously used for processing were dismantled or sold to manufacturers outside Europe. Hemp clothing disappeared from the market, scientific interest in cultivation and other possibilities declined, little research was done and even as interest in other agricultural products (e.g. flax) increased in the 1980s, hemp remained a blind spot.
Farmers weeding between young hemp plants in Italy. The picture is taken from a magazine, edited in 1954 by the Italian National Commission for Hemp.
Only through the fairly recent realisation that everything has to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly, did the interest in hemp grow again.
According to data from the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA), hemp cultivation has increased significantly in recent years, from 19,970 hectares in 2015 to 34,960 hectares in 2019. During the same period, hemp production increased from 94,120 tons to 152,820 tons. These are growth figures of resp. 75% and 62.4%.
China is the world's largest producer. A recent report by the Foreign Agricultural Service of the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that in 2019 hemp was grown on 66,700 hectares in China. Although official figures are lacking, based on these estimates, Europe does not appear to be in an unbridgeable gap. It should be remembered that hemp production was also banned in China between 1985 and 2010. In fact, China also imports hemp fibers from the EU, mainly from France and the Netherlands.
However, growing hemp is one thing, processing it into textiles is another. According to the EIHA, more than half of European hemp production is for dietary supplements, including CBD extracts. Production for textiles is limited and serves a niche market. The reasons for this, according to EIHA, are the limited amount of fibers that are suitable for processing in textiles and a shortage of production resources, machines and factories to process the hemp.
In this respect, China has a significant lead over Europe. In Europe, for example, there are hardly any spinning mills where hemp can be processed into yarn, and that also applies to weaving mills. There is more in China and moreover (unlike in Europe) there is also a large clothing industry, where the fabrics are processed into clothing.
To realise the EU plans for a European hemp industry, therefore, more is needed than just more hemp on the land. That there is still a considerable challenge here becomes clear if we look at the production of linen for comparison.
Linen is made from flax, a plant of which Europe is the most important producer worldwide. But what about processing the flax into textiles? There are still a few flax spinning mills in Europe, but most have closed the factory gates for good in recent years. So what's happening? The European flax is exported to China and spun there. Sometimes it returns to Europe in the form of yarn that is woven or knitted here.
That scenario will not be what the European Commission envisions in its plans for a sustainable and competitive textile sector. More hemp on the land is therefore not enough. Investments will also have to be made in the processing industry. In new and modern (clean producing) spinning mills, weaving mills, in research and training. Only then can we go back to 'local' European production.
At Ecological Textiles you can find Chinese as well as European hemp fabrics and yarns. Beneath we have listed the European hemp products. Some fabrics are made in Europe from Chinese hemp.