‘Demand, innovation, investment needed to re-establish hemp textiles’

Share this:

INTERVIEW: Dave Cook is co-founder and owner of Tuscarora Mills, Bedford, Pennsylvania, a manufacturer of flat woven textile fabrics made from hemp and other natural fibers. An expert in textile supply chains – from fiber acquisition to finished woven fabric – Cook and his company are working to establish industrial hemp as a viable agricultural commodity to supply fiber to the apparel industry.

HempToday: The conventional textile markets in the U.S. are dominated by cheap imports, a situation that doesn’t look likely to change when we talk about things on a big scale.

Dave Cook: The simple truth is foreign materials, manufacturing and labor produce products lower in cost than domestically made goods, particularly in apparel. These “lower” offshore costs afford the major apparel brands and manufacturers the margins necessary to compensate for waste in overproduction; sustain brand maintenance and marketing expenses; and satisfy investor and shareholder short-term obligations.

But a transition has begun away from the “cheap” concept of foreign-made apparel and textiles – maybe not on a grand systemic scale, but certainly in consumer, corporate and government attitudes about the United States’ exposure to the global supply chain realities and vulnerabilities. Widespread recognition has emerged that imported textile products are not cheap at all, but indeed carry huge environmental, health, economic and national security costs.

HT: What’s needed to make that transition from a broader strategic point of view?

DC: A successful systemic transformation of textile markets away from plastic fiber and global supply chains will hinge on factors like regulation of plastic use and greenhouse gas emissions; transparency in sourcing and supply chains; labor and living wages; apparel design and manufacturing practices; and bringing to market consumer-facing hemp and other natural fiber textile products.

HT: And what’s needed from a pure manufacturing standpoint?

DC: Demand, innovation and investment are needed to re-establish hemp-specific textile processing and spinning infrastructure in the U.S. Today fiber buyers, processors, and spinners from China, India, Japan, Pakistan and Europe are all active in the American hemp textile fiber space. They see opportunity and value in American hemp fiber. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and Agricultural Marketing Service have really begun to support hemp research, marketing, testing and processing. Hopefully, American investment in industrial hemp infrastructure will continue to expand.

Meet Dave Cook at “Industrial Hemp Product Development in a Fractured Domestic Supply Chain,” a webinar to be hosted by Syracuse University, Wednesday, May 22, 2024

HT: Whether conventional or natural, isn’t the American apparel market mostly limited to niche markets and maybe design?

DC: Hemp fabric and apparel is certainly a niche in the U.S. But there are brands that are leading the marketplace toward American-sourced and manufactured hemp apparel. All others are sourcing from Asia the hemp yarn and fabric necessary for their domestic or offshore manufacturing efforts. While I agree that American apparel and textiles are, in essence, niche products in relation to global market share, from a dollar amount, domestic textile markets represent tens of billions in American economic productivity.

HT: What does American textile manufacturing look like today?

DC: It’s divided into three basic categories: knits, wovens and nonwovens, and nascent 3D. Industrial, commercial and non-woven markets are much larger than the apparel textile sector. Non-wovens represent a huge market due to their low cost, diverse consumer acceptance and industrial market integration. Knits dominate apparel and footwear. Flat woven fabric manufacturing is more labor intensive and limited to niche industrial markets: high-end apparel; home and commercial interiors; luxury and performance-based products; and Department of Defense contracts for clothing, uniforms, and high-tech fabrics.

HT: And what about the hemp textile sector specifically?

DC: Today there is a poor domestic understanding of hemp textile fiber quality and characteristics. Our knowledge of cotton and wool fiber today is the result of decades of research resulting in the introduction of USDA standards and testing programs. Establishing similar standards for hemp fiber is critical for the development of the American hemp fiber market.

Domestic and foreign hemp fiber has found a home in the U.S. non-woven textile manufacturing and consumer supply chain. American hemp fiber currently being processed is more adaptable to the specifications of non-woven markets than the more demanding fiber length, diameter and consistency standards necessary for use in spinning yarn.

Transforming American hemp into short staple length “cottonized” fiber and spinning blended hemp-cotton yarn has been a long-term goal. While efforts to date have struggled to find consistency, quality and performance, these challenges will be overcome, as they have in China and Europe.

HT: How do you see the arc of development in natural fibers over the next several years?

DC: Today 70% of global textile fiber is made from extracted ancient hydrocarbon molecules and other synthetic materials. But changing consumer attitudes about synthetic fiber and fabric, toxic dyes and finishes, forever chemicals and micro-nano plastic pollution from textiles are evident everywhere.

Natural fibers like hemp, flax, jute and sisal have served humanity for eons as renewable natural materials that delivered performance. Fundamental questions about price, value and style in apparel and textiles are influencing design and fashion trends toward repair, repurposing, recycling and use of natural fibers through circular design.

HT: With hemp specifically, how do you see supply and demand unfolding?

DC: Hemp fiber for textiles represents a meager 0.2% of worldwide textile fiber production. There is real demand for hemp materials in American industrial supply chains, but gaps exist in hemp genetics, processing and manufacturing, making it impractical and expensive to work around. For these gaps to be filled, buyers and end users need to get involved. Consequential development and growth will occur in the hemp-derived bio-based materials industrial supply chain with holistic collaboration, development and shared risk.

HT: How does your company fit into that paradigm?

DC: This growing season, Tuscarora Mills is collaborating with our Pennsylvania hemp textile supply chain partners to meet the genetics and fiber specs necessary to produce 100% hemp yarn. Our goal is to draw from a functional hemp textile supply chain, working around existing gaps, to source American hemp fiber and manufacture American-made textile goods for American markets and American consumers.

HT: According to the most recent USDA hemp report, Pennsylvania farmers are growing very little hemp. What is happening in your state to get things going?

DC: Pennsylvania was once a world leader in the production of natural textile fiber and fabrics. Our common textile legacy begins with William Penn’s 1681 Colonial charter encouraging the production and processing of hemp and flax for textiles.

Our state benefits from a great industrial hemp program that has embraced all aspects of supply chain development, and is poised to be a leading producer and exporter of hemp-based products. We are fortunate to have many statewide hemp and natural fiber advocacy groups like the Pennsylvania Fibershed, Pennsylvania Flax Project, Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, and the Pennsylvania Hemp Steering Committee, all working for the plant and Pennsylvanians. Last year a Pennsylvania-based group was awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop the Pennsylvania Industrial Hemp Engine. This is a multi-phase effort that is working to develop a robust industrial hemp ecosystem centered in Pennsylvania by fostering collaborative research and scalable demonstration programs. The goal is to produce industrial hemp materials and finished goods.

Get Hemp Industry Updates

* indicates required

Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to our FREE email newsletter & get the latest hemp industry news directly in your inbox.

* indicates required
Scroll to Top