Entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on hemp textiles in the U.S. face obstacles including a lack of processing equipment and a limited number of cultivars
By Ivan Moreno
Attentive shoppers walking through a Macy’s department store last winter might have spotted a rarity in the bedding department: hemp sheets, advertised as being 100% made from the plant’s fibers.
The sheets were a raity because such textiles are “a brand-new category” in the market, according to Michael Twer, who founded Delilah Home, the Weddington, North Carolina-based company that makes the product.
Currently, 100% help textiles cannot be made in the United States because of a lack of equipment. “There is no American hemp fabric yet made from America-grown hemp,” said Guy Carpenter, president of Bear Fiber, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based supplier of fiber produced from hemp and other sources.
SPINNING HEMP INTO FABRIC
Getting hemp from a farm to Macy’s or any other store is a time-intensive process that requires patience and a bit of luck. It doesn’t hurt to have connections with overseas factories that have machinery and technology for hemp spinning.
In the United States the technology is nearly nonexistent because growing hemp commercially has been illegal for decades and textile manufacturing largely moved overseas years ago. So Twer, who lives in Matthews, North Carolina, has had to make his products at a family-run factory in Portugal.
“The U.S. does not have the machines or the technology yet to produce the high-quality textiles that I want to produce,” said Twer, who also serves as chair of the Fiber Council at the Organic Trade Association.
Twer developed connections with factories overseas through his previous job as general manager and vice president for a European company that made organic cotton. But by January 2019, the company was sold and his position was eliminated.
His idea for hemp sheets was born shortly after the family dog, Delilah, went missing for 62 days in the North Carolina mountains before neighbors helped find her. As a tip of the hat to the dog’s rescuers, and to give back to the community, he named his company Delilah Home and decided to donate a portion of profits to organizations such as Beds for Kids in Charlotte, North Carolina, and 1% For the Planet in Burlington, Vermont, which donate to environmental nonprofits worldwide. The company also has donated sheets and fabric bags to Love to Sew Studios in Pennsylvania to make face masks for hospitals, care facilities, veterinarians and police during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sales were sluggish to start in November, when Delilah Home launched, but the few hundred sets of bedsheets Twer had at Macy’s sold out by the end of March. Twer also sells the sheets through Amazon, Zola and on Delilah Home website.
The sheets aren’t cheap: A king-size set sells for as much as $800. So why would consumers buy hemp bedsheets?
“It;s one of the most durable fibers there is in the marketplace,” Twer said. “It’s breathable, so when you’re putting (hemp) into bedsheets, it allows the heat to be released ... versus a microfiber, where you get in the sheets and you sweat because the heat doesn’t have a chance to release.”
Twer and others say it’s possible prices for hemp textiles will come down eventually. The demand is there, he said, but there isn’t enough processed hemp fiber. That’s because making hemp textiles is an arduous and expensive process, especially when the right machinery isn’t readily available.
“Everybody wants to buy something that’s made out of hemp, and that’s great,” said Jeffery Silberman, a professor at the New York-based Fashion Institute of Technology. “They see that farmers are growing hemp, and they see that all of a sudden hemp products are available. And on some level, I think that they’re missing the fact that between the farm and the finished products on the shelves, there’s a whole world ... of processing fiber-processing for yarn spinning, in particular-that isn’t being done here.”
HEMP LINE SPINNING VERSUS COTTON SPINNING
For Twer’s sheets to be 100% hemp, they weren’t cottonized but rather spun on traditional hemp line spinning, Silberman said. “I don’t know of anybody that’s putting in a new, long-line hemp spinning, but I do know that people are converting all of their cotton spinning to a cotton and hemp blend,” he said.
Silberman said it is possible for hemp textiles to catch on, but with some caveats-No. 1 being “if the investment in infrastructure and time were put into it,” he said.
The bigger questions, he said, are whether American hemp can be successful, and whether U.S. companies can participate profitably, including the farmers. “The growing is not a problem, but the fiber processing through yarn-spinning equipment is,” Silberman said.
Hemp textiles also have a lot of competition, he said adding that global production of cotton is roughly 25 million metric tons a year. Polyester is much more than that, Silberman said.
“You have a market where you can get market share, but you can’t possibly get your production to 25 million metric tons to truly compete with cotton,” he said.
Sarah Harf, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based MoonCloth Designs, which supplies hemp products and textiles to luxury hotels such as Soho House and Casetta Group, said education farmers and the public is a big part of the challenge in advancing the industry.
“People think hemp is CBD; it’s no.” she said. “CBD is one very tiny element of the hemp industry. Europe and Asia have been doing industrial hemp for decades, so there’s a lot we can learn from them, and we just need to be able to adapt out here and be able to start investing in these larger supply chains.”
Twer, for his part, remains encouraged by his business.
“We’re starting to gain some strong momentum as people become aware that hemp textiles do exist,” Twer said. But he’s also realistic about how long the industry has to go to master producing hemp textiles on a massive scale.
“There’s obviously a science, and we’re just not there yet,” he said.
This article has been shortened for length.
Read the full article at https://mjbizmagazine.com/digital-issues/2020-07-July