Now that Kentucky can grow hemp again, the next step is figuring out what to do with it.
A new project, a cooperative effort among local producers, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and a California non-profit called Fibershed, has a possible answer with its plan to blend hemp with wool and alpaca fiber, all from Kentucky farmers.
The goal is to make Kentucky Cloth that can be marketed to textile and clothing designers as a unique and authentic product.
Fibershed designed the pilot project, which will take about 100 pounds of wool sheared Wednesday from Kathy Meyer's sheep at Final Frontier Farm in Bourbon County and send the cleaned wool, along with suri alpaca fiber from Alvina Maynard's River Hill Ranch in Richmond and hemp fiber from Mike Lewis' Healing Ground Farm in Mount Vernon, to Gaston College in Dallas, N.C.
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There, textile experts will experiment with blends to see what works well. It might be one of alpaca and hemp, wool and hemp, or all three together. Wool is popular for its breathability and comfort; alpaca is soft and cool to the touch despite having great insulating capacity; and hemp is a long-staple fiber that is incredibly durable.
The right blend could maximize the best properties of all.
Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed, said that she hopes to have samples this summer that can be part of a "look book," along with beautiful photos of the farms, that will be shopped to designers in New York, California and Kentucky.
The Kentucky Cloth project is being documented by a film crew from the PBS show Food Forward for a new show, American Fiber.
Burgess said her group looks for ways to foster the "soil to soil" movement, modeled on farm to table. The idea is to figure out "what can you grow in your own region that can be processed to clothe you," she said.
There are some key things that growers don't know that the textile industry would need to know, Burgess said, such as how much acreage you need to plant of hemp to get how much textile-grade fiber.
"Our goals are to create the metrics," she said. "We have a lot of experience partnering designers and farmers for people to create small businesses. Kentucky Cloth is in its first iteration. My commitment is to perfecting it. That might take more than one year."
But Burgess is confident that there can be a market for the cloth.
"If you grow it and sew it all within your region, it has cachet," she said. "It does in Brooklyn, it does in Northern California, and it will work in Kentucky."
The project also has drawn another high-profile supporter: outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which has put financial support behind the effort, said Lewis, who also heads the non-profit Growing Warriors that helps veterans get into farming.
The Fibershed project will give hemp farmers a product with immediate impact, Lewis said.
"If you look at hemp production on an industrial side, it seems like many millions of dollars and years before you get anywhere," he said. "We looked for small-scale ways to help tobacco farmers who were losing settlements last year. Fibershed had worked with our non-profit, so they put this wonderful project together with their partners, and we're tickled with this."
The wool people are excited, too.
"For me, it's an alternative market for my wool. It's another competitive buyer for my wool," Meyer said. She doesn't know where the fabric will ultimately work best.
"I don't know if they are aiming toward artisan crowd, or fabric crowd or upholstery crowd," she said. "I don't think they know that yet either."
One thing they do know is what they want to make first: American flags, something Lewis' veteran farmers feel strongly about.
"There is a tremendous amount of potential and interest in sustainable textiles, and we'd like to think Kentucky could lead the charge on that," Lewis said.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture sees the cloth as a natural outgrowth of the hemp pilot projects that Commissioner James Comer fought federal officials to make happen last year.
"A lot of industrial hemp fiber models out there are not very viable," said Adam Watson of the ag department. "We're interested to see what this artisan-scale project looks like. While we might not become a leading large-scale producer, we want to see if niche-type projects can work, leveraging existing wool and alpaca fiber networks we have going on now."
Alpaca farmer Maynard said that society needs to rethink its attitude toward clothing.
"(Textile production) is the most polluting and environmentally damaging industry in the world," she said. "Society has come to look at clothing as a disposable item because our economy is consumer driven. Garments used to be heirloom items, cared for, treasured, handed down. We've got a good solid farm-to-table movement, where people recognize where food comes from. Now we need to get public thinking more about where their clothes come from as well."