Textiles from hemp fibers - New ways for German hemp

Michael Karus1 and Gero Leson2
nova - Institute for Political and Ecological Innovation, Cologne, Germany
2 nova - Institute for Political and Ecological Innovation, Santa Monica, California

          The farming of fiber hemp has been made legal in Germany for 1996.  A complete adoption of applicable EU guidelines is generally expected.  One additional national permit requirement may be that German farmers show guarantees of crop purchases by processors or end users.  This development raises the central question for Year One of German hemp farming: what product lines based on hemp can be implemented in the short-term, considering the technical, ecological and economic criteria and constraints?  In the following, this question is discussed for the use of hemp for apparel textiles.
          During the last two years a number of high quality hemp textile collections have been created in Germany.  Thirteen firms presented their latest hemp collections at the first exclusively German BIOROHSTOFF HANF Fair in Dresden in September 1995.  The largest current manufacturers are HanfHaus Berlin and THE HANF COMPANY (THC) near Cologne.  Distributors of the collections include the national HANFHAUS chain and the ecological mail-order companies Hess natur and Waschbar.  In addition there are a large number of smaller manufacturers and retailers, eighteen of which have recently formed the HANFCOM association for joint product development, especially in the textile sector.
          The quality of hemp fabrics and collections is much improved since 1993.  Some textiles now on the market were considered impossible to produce from 100 % hemp only two years ago.  They include the hemp T-Shirt of HANFHAUS and the shirts of THC, both knit and woven, finished and manufactured in Germany.  Another example is HANFHAUS' eco-hemp jeans, finished in Brandenburg without the use of synthetic chemicals, dyed with natural dyes in southern Germany and manufactured in Brandenburg using nickel-free buttons.
          Until now, fibers for these textiles have originated mainly in Eastern Europe, predominantly Hungary and Romania, and in China.  In Eastern Europe, the raw fiber is separated by traditional methods: water retting, breaking, scutching, and hackling.  This produces the high quality long fiber that is first spun on special long fiber spinning equipment (up to 14 Nm) and then woven.  (The Nm scale of yarn fineness is determined by the number of kilometers of yarn in one kilogram.  Therefore larger Nm values indicate smaller yarn diameters.) In addition to this traditional method, China also uses modern physical-chemical methods which create a cotton-like short fiber.  But the quality of the resulting yarns still needs improvement, especially in the area of long-term wash-and-wear resistance.  This may be due to excessive removal of the natural binders lignin and pectin.  Long-fiber yarns from Chinese hemp are also marketed by Linificio e Canapificio Nazionale of Italy, the world's largest linen and hemp spinning mill.
          Initially German firms bought finished hemp fabrics and had them manufactured domestically or abroad.  Since late 1994 they have also increasingly bought unfinished fabrics or even hemp yarn for processing in Germany in order to guarantee processing and product quality under ecological criteria.  By now there are several German textile companies which specialize in the weaving and finishing of hemp fabrics and achieve surprisingly high qualities.  The weaving of hemp textiles still is more an art than a science, since the quality of the yarns from Eastern Europe leaves much to be desired.  The finishing of the fabrics is done largely without the use of synthetic chemicals.  If their use becomes necessary only those chemicals which meet strict ecological criteria are employed.  Mechanical or enzymatic processing is preferred as it provides remarkable wearing comfort.
          The need for weaving and finishing in Germany resulted from the initially low and inconsistent qualities of Eastern European and Chinese fabrics and the lack of attention to ecological processing conditions.  Surprising to some, this has led to the formation of a small hemp textile industry in Germany, mainly involving existing textile processing firms.  Its value-added chain starts with imported yarns and ends with ready-to- wear textiles.  Because of higher quality and the reliability of their products, this industry is, despite higher wages, price-competitive with Eastern European firms.
          This returns us to the question of product lines that can be realized in the short term in Germany, from seed to final product.  As discussed above in the textile sector, the second part of the value-adding chain, stretching from the yarn to the finished textile, has in fact been realized on a high quality level, although the market volume is still rather small.  The question is whether the first part of this chain will be realized in Germany as well or whether raw materials will continue to be imported.  Practically all of the available hemp textiles are based on the valuable long fiber and its traditional long fiber spinning.  In our opinio, the revitalization of this processing strategy in Germany is very unlikely.  This is mainly due to the fact that there is no longer a functioning infrastructure for long fiber processing.  Its reconstruction would require specialized machinery that has limited availability in the world market and is expensive to install and operate.  Furthermore, ecologically acceptable water retting (e.g. in or near a sewage treatment plant) is labor intensive.  Whether the alternative use of field retting achieves acceptable fiber quality, as it does with flax, is questionable.  Field retting is further hindered by Germany's unpredictable weather conditions in September.
          Considering these obstacles, it is more likely that in Germany the production and processing of the so called "cottonized" hemp or "flock" hemp (a hemp short fiber refined by modern, mostly chemical or mechanical fiber separation methods) will be pursued.  Unlike long fiber hemp, it can be spun and finished on slightly modified cotton or wool processing equipment, so that the existing and cost effective infrastructures for the processing of cotton and wool could be used.  German textile equipment manufacturers are currently conducting spinning trials using flock hemp on modern rotor spinning machines.  The trials, likely to be successful, would open up for hemp the gigantic market for rotor spun yarns.  Large jeans manufacturers would then be able to produce hemp or hemp/cotton jeans on a large scale with their existing production capacities.
          The realization of this route requires primarily that innovative fiber separation technologies, which have mainly been developed in Germany, are implemented on an industrial scale.  There is certainly no lack of technical know-how and experience on the laboratory and pilot scales.  For example, in October 1995, the technical college in Reutlingen presented Nm 27 hemp yarn of fineness and quality never before achieved.  It was spun from flock hemp which in turn had been produced using steam explosion technology.
          Rapid implementation of this route is currently hampered mostly by the lack of capital.  It is unclear how long it will take to find investors willing to spend capital on these future technologies in Germany, particularly since such plants could also be installed abroad, generally at a lower cost.  Consequently, implementation in Germany will require politically supported comprehensive planning to bring together the farming industry, local medium-sized processors, industrial customers and investors, and also support regional development and a sustainable economy based on ecological criteria.  However, only the first signs of such integrated concepts are now noticeable, predominantly on state government levels in several former East German states.
          Leading the way is the State of Sachsen (Saxony) where in 1996 a FLAKSY flax processing unit, developed by the Bahmer Company, will start up as the first modern, mechanical short fiber processing operation.  The plant will process 4,000 t of fibers per year in a one-shift operation.  Initially fibers will come primarily from regional flax cultivation.  The plant is designed to process flax grown on approximately 800 ha.  Slight design modifications will also allow it to process hemp straw.  In case sufficient supplies of flax are not available, the company would begin processing hemp in appreciable quantities.  This would allow implementation of the entire processing chain for hemp textiles as early as 1996.  The operator of the FLAKSY plant, Erzgebirgische Flachs GmbH, targets the local textile industry as customers.  This industry is capable of processing flax as well as hemp short fibers with their cotton rotor spinning equipment.  Companies interested in processing hemp straw processed on the Bahmer equipment are requested to contact the nova-Institute in Germany for coordination.
          Another short-term option for the processing of hemp fiber involves the only remaining of six flax swingle operations installed in Germany in the last few years.  While the other five plants have since been shut down, the one still operating in the state of Schleswig-Holstein will likely continue to do so.  Its operator, HOLSTEIN FLACHS runs a small-scale operation which mechanically produces short and long fibers of high quality.  Some 1,000 tons of flax and smaller quantities of jute, sisal and hemp have been processed there to date.  Egon Heger of HOLSTEIN FLACHS announced that there is capacity available for hemp in 1996 and that his firm is interested in processing it.
          A third German hemp processing plant is currently in the planning stage: in the state of Brandenburg a second FLAKSY unit, at a capital cost of approximately DM 4.5 million, may soon be installed.
          Of the more recent western countries cultivating hemp, the UK has been making noticeable progress in the textile sector which has been mostly neglected in other countries.  For the first time in this century the UK succeeded in 1995 in reestablishing the entire processing chain for hemp textiles.  The hemp was grown in Kent, the fibers separated in Bedfordshire, spun in Northern Ireland, and the fabrics woven in London.  The entire project was coordinated by the BIOREGIONAL DEVELOPMENT GROUP which develops and implements regional concepts for a sustainable economy based on hemp.  The project targets both a revival of the traditional long fiber processing, and the development of new short fiber processing technologies.  The long fiber route is more easily revived in the UK than it is in Germany.  The country hosts one of the very few existing manufacturers of long fiber hackling, carding and spinning equipment, MACKIE INTERNATIONAL of Northern Ireland.  Part of the fibers was also processed in traditional factories in Belgium where there could be additional capacity for German hemp.
          More of interest for Germany is a newly developed short fiber processing technology.  As part of a UK government funded project (FIBRELIN), the so-called "Silsoe decorticator" has been developed for the decortication of flax and linseed at particularly low cost.  With a modified design it may also be used to process hemp in 1996.  The unit would produce flock flax or hemp in random layers.  It has been developed at Silsoe Research Institute, Bedfordshire, by the Natural Fibres Organization (NFO) which is supported by the English agricultural merchant company Robin Appel Ltd. and the UK government.  Nigel Bazeley of Robin Appel anticipates a large market potential for the new decorticator.  One of the firm's goals is the regional manufacturing of jeans from English hemp.  The HanfHaus Berlin in Germany is pursuing the same goal, wanting to replace their Romanian hemp fabrics completely with hemp from Brandenburg.
          Whether in 1996 or 1997 the new fiber separation technologies needed for a complete textile chain are now beginning to be used commercially in Western Europe, and the dream of jeans collections manufactured from regional, ecologically grown hemp is likely to become a reality sometime soon.