One of the most fundamental aspects of practicing sustainable fashion is knowing about its source. In a previous post, we considered how the sources of various natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, and silk, have grave implications for their sustainability factor.
In the same post, we said that hemp fabric has clean production processes—for the most part. It was necessary to say “for the most part” because there are more than one ways to make hemp fabric. Luckily, Nepal’s hemp fabric production aligns with our values.
At the same time, we swore by hemp for being the most sustainable fabric. Hemp’s natural high yield, low water footprint, durability and resistance, and unspoiled processing practices justified this high ranking.
But we didn’t get a chance to go into the nitty-gritty of how hemp fabric is made.
By informing yourself of the actual process, you can make up your mind about whether you think hemp fabric is as sustainable as we say it is.
Hemp has a deep-rooted history in Nepal. For centuries, people grew cannabis to harvest it for its leaves and fibres. The weaved fibre was used to make everything from paper to fleeces. Today, the Nepali word for fabrics made from hemp stem fibre is “bhangra.”
Bhangra is mostly made in the western Himalayan regions of Nepal, such as Darchula, Bajhang, Bajura, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Rolpa and Rukum. Cannabis cultivation is limited by high altitudes, and most of the hemp weaving takes place in villages.
When it comes to the well-established traditional practices of making hemp fabric, it’s safe to say that Nepali bhangra is a high-quality fabric.
But how exactly do they make hemp fabric?
Well, it’s actually the fabric-making process that made us first fall in love with Nepali hemp textiles. So keep reading to understand hemp fabric production in Nepal, and you might fall in love with it, too.
Keep in mind that these methods are a little different from those used industrially, though the basic concept is the same.
In Nepal, hemp cultivation takes place in altitudes between 1500-3500 meters. Sowing happens during early Spring; the hot weather is ideal for hemp seedlings to begin to germinate.
Cultivating hemp doesn’t require a lot of land. You can successfully grow between 30 to 35 plants per square foot. Of course, this gets a little crowded, but it is a standard procedure that minimises leaf growth and maximizes fibre yield.
It doesn’t take more than five days for the seedling to begin to sprout.
As a crop, hemp is very low-maintenance. It is gentle on the soil it inhabits, doesn’t require a lot of water, and naturally repels pests.
Since hemp plants grow densely, they reduce the risk of pests and unwanted weeds. Hence, there’s no need to use pesticides and herbicides. As a result, there is minimum damage to the soil, which can accommodate more hemp crops in the next growing season.
The hemp plant is ready to harvest when it reaches maturity. This is the time period between when the plant flowers and the seeds start to set. Generally speaking, the harvesting season goes on from October to early December.
At this point, the hemp fibres are at their strongest.
Labourers manually pull out each individual plant and cut the roots using a sickle. They then carry bundles of the plant back to villages, which is where the magic happens.
Retting is the process of softening the coarse hemp stalk, so it becomes easier to separate the stem from the fibre. There are two methods of retting:
- Water Retting: whereby the hemp stalks soak in a water tank, pond, or even flowing streams for at least a week.
- Dry Retting involves laying the hemp stalks in open fields under the sun.
Water retting is more popular than dry retting. Usually, the water is mixed with helpful microorganisms that help break down the unwanted cellular tissues binding the fibre.
Retting also allows for any dust, insects, and other contaminants to clear away.
The weakened stems can now be easily broken. While factories facilitate this process through mechanical breakers, the traditional practice is to use one’s teeth to tease out the fibrous portion of the stem.
The next step is beating the hemp fibres with a long paddle. Beating the fibres starts to release them from the stalk.
Once the fibres fully break free from the stem, it becomes easy to twist and pull at them until they are completely separate from the woody core.
Then follows another three to five days of drying the fibres in the sun after coating them with soft clay.
At this point, the fibres have knots and look clumped together. To prepare them for spinning, workers manually comb out the fibres.
Combing achieves two things: it removes any remaining woody particles and other impurities from the fibres, and it separates the tangles to align the fibres into workable strands.
This is the final step in the hemp fibre preparation process before it can be spun into yarn. Twisting the strands of fibre creates a bundle called roving, which is easy to spin.
The hemp roving is now ready to pass through a spinning machine. Traditionally, the fibres are wetted before they can be spun. This leads to an overall softer yarn.
The hemp yarn is then ready for weaving into clothes, hats, bags, and other articles of clothing.
Making hemp fabric is a long and labor-intensive process, no doubt. Whereas commercial production of hemp in other Asia-Pacific countries is more mechanised, we should acknowledge the manual labor that goes into making hemp in Nepal.
From cultivation to weaving, Nepal’s hemp industry proves how long-standing knowledge and experience of producing hemp fabric will never disappear.
Instead, experts estimate that the global market of hemp fabric will only continue to grow, with a huge contribution from Asian-Pacific regions. As sustainable fashion consumers, that’s really great news for us!