"Warning: Don't Smoke it! Wear it!," reads the label inside a neat
poor-boy cap made from a fabric that feels like soft cotton moleskin. A grey
baseball cap sports the same mantra.

These are clothes made from hemp and, with the proposals to decriminalize
marijuana, retailers and designers hope they can finally overcome the stigma
that has stuck to hemp clothing because of its close, but erroneous, link to
the popular drug.

While both hemp and marijuana come from the cannabis plant, they are not the
same. For one thing, hemp has radically different levels of THC, the chemical
substance that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. And while marijuana
can make you high, hemp can't, so that longstanding joke that you can smoke
your shirt is a fallacy.

But it's a fallacy that has proved long-lived, despite the best efforts of hemp
proponents to dispel it, and has tainted the hemp industry because consumers
associate hemp with the drug culture. But with the decriminalization of
marijuana for personal use, that may change.

"It can't do anything but good for the hemp industry," says Greg Brayford, a
partner in the Hemp Solution, an Ottawa store that sells a wide selection of
hemp clothing.

"I know there's lots of confusion between the two," says Jeannine Richard, who
works at Ottawa's Arbour Environmental Shoppe, which stocks hemp shirts.

"But I think that the changes in legislation may make people more open to using
hemp as an everyday article."

Hemp's association with marijuana and its traditional appeal to the
rainbow-and-granola crowd has also frightened off many fashion followers. But
that too is changing slowly.

Jonathan Jean Pierre is a Montreal-based fashion designer who makes clothing
from hemp-fibre blends. He finds consumers are reluctant to buy pricey, classic
hemp clothing, and hopes that attitude will change along with the law.

"The high-end market was not ready to pay that little bit more for their
jackets or pants just because they were made of hemp," he explains from his
studio in Montreal. "I started out making classic pieces with an edge ... but
customers were not willing to pay the higher prices, (which are) necessary
because hemp fabric is expensive since it has to be imported."

During the past year, Jean Pierre has started to see demand for his hemp
clothes grow. Before that, the former Ottawa resident sold his clothes only
through the Hemp Solution. Now he's shipping to 15 stores across the country.

"But I've had to focus on a smaller collection and design what customers want."

The beauty of hemp is that it can be mixed with more than 20 other fabrics to
create interesting blends. In its raw state, hemp is rough and scratchy, like a
sack. But blended with silk, it takes on a lustrous sheen. It can become soft
with cotton, "and the best thing about it is that it gets better with age,"
says Bruce Langer, co-owner of the Hemp Solution. "It is extremely hard-wearing
and gets softer the more you wash it."

Langer and Brayford report a growing interest in hemp from all age groups.
"Everyone is looking for a natural fabric now," says Langer, "and they're
moving away from manmade to something hypoallergenic. Also, there's an edginess
to it for youth, while the older generation remembers it from their youth. They
tell us that they remember seeing it growing in the fields."

But increasing interest in hemp is also just the beginning, Brayford adds.
"Until the government gets behind the hemp industry and subsidizes it to help
it get a start, it will never really take off."

Most hemp-blend fabric is imported from China, because, while hemp is grown in
Canada and used as an end product here, there are no facilities to process it
into fabric. However, that could soon change.

A Vancouver company, Hemptown, is poised to become the first publicly traded
hemp company in North America. Hemptown's plan is to raise cash to build a
hemp-processing plant in Canada.

And there can be no greater endorsement for hemp than the fact that Italian
uber-designer Giorgio Armani has invested in a hemp-growing operation. The day
Armani releases hemp suits to the market, marijuana's cousin will be redeemed
as serious fashion.

Pubdate: Tue, 19 Aug 2003
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Copyright: 2003 The Edmonton Journal