Chances are if you are reading this right now, you are wearing clothes. (Shout out to all the folks consuming content in the nude though!) It’s also a safe bet that you have no idea where those clothes came from. Sure, you might know the store you bought them from or the label that designed them or even the country where they were manufactured, but it’s harder to walk that supply chain process further back to the raw materials the garments are originally derived from.

In food culture, “farm-to-table” has become a popular buzzword as restaurants try to educate diners about the where the vegetables and meats on their plates come from. That doesn’t really exist in fashion. There isn’t a “farm-to-shoulders/waist/feet” movement, even though many clothes also begin their lives as living things (cotton, leather, etc.). Consumers are more focused on what happens after a textile like cotton is created than they are with how that textile came to be in the first place. Everyone is familiar with cotton from T-shirts, pants, and just about every other garment, but they are less aware of the amount of natural (and unnatural) resources used to produce it.

There is a better way. The issue is that right now it’s illegal. Despite the perception that it’s just for dirty hippies to make their drug rugs, industrial hemp is a crop that can be used to manufacture all manner of textiles and is much more sustainable than cotton. But industrial hemp comes from the cannabis plant, which is on the Controlled Substances Act’s list of Schedule 1 narcotics, alongside heroin and LSD. So even though the plant has no psychoactive properties (read: you can’t get stoned from smoking it), it is still illegal. But only to grow. Despite the domestic ban, the United States still imports $500 million of products made from hemp grown legally in other countries around the world.

That juxtaposition—that it is legal, even easy, to consume hemp products in the U.S. but illegal to grow the crop on American soil—spurred a movement to have hemp removed from Schedule 1 so it can be treated like any other agricultural crop. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which would legalize domestic cultivation of hemp, has been introduced in both the Senate and House. To drive awareness about the bill and help get it passed, Patagonia recently released the short film Harvesting Liberty. The film tells the story of Mike Lewis, a farmer in Kentucky who worked with his state’s agricultural commissioner to obtain hemp seeds to grow. Lewis is now headed into his fourth season growing the crop, following in a tradition that dates back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (Betsy Ross’s first American flag was made of hemp), and has created the Kentucky Cloth Project to create fabrics and textiles from hemp.

Lewis is not some stoner, farming with a joint in his hand. He’s a veteran and a farmer who recognizes that this crop can help other farms in his community by creating jobs. We spoke with him to find out about the potential uses for hemp, why he’s not interested in the movement to legalize marijuana, and how he is changing people’s perceptions around this crop.

For someone that has no idea, what is industrial hemp?
Industrial hemp is a member of the cannabis sativa family. It first appeared thousands of years ago and showed up in artifacts from China where it was used for clothing and parchment. The difference between a marijuana plant and an industrial hemp plant is the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). If the plant has less than .3% THC then it is industrial hemp. If not, it’s a marijuana plant. There’s biological differences too. If we’re growing for hemp, we want a taller, skinnier fiber. If they’re growing for THC, they want a short, bushy plant. But for the purposes of a legal definition [the amount of THC] is the only difference.

Is every cannabis plant, regardless of the amount of THC, on the Schedule 1 list of illegal narcotics?
Yes. For us to grow this, our agricultural commissioner had to sue the DEA on our behalf just to get us the seeds to put in the ground. We have to do background checks and get permitted from the DEA to even grow the crop.

How did you get involved with farming hemp?
It was a big accident. I had been working on some policy stuff at our state house centered around local farms and marketing local produce, farm-to-school type stuff. I had developed a pretty good relationship with our agricultural commissioner James Comer. We just started talking about hemp and he asked me if I’d testify in front of the agricultural committee. One of the first things I said before the committee is “I don’t even think this is a crop I’m ever going to grow.” It was because of the word industrial. I’m a small community-based organic farmer. We don’t really do commodity crops. But I testified because I know how hard it is for a farmer to make a living. I’d seen hundreds of millions of dollars of raw materials coming into the U.S. [from overseas] every year off this plant and thought farmers in my state should be growing this. Farmers in my country should be growing this. Then through a friend, I was introduced to Rebecca Burgess at Fibershed and started understanding more about fiber and textiles. When [Republican senator Mitch] McConnell put an amendment in the farm bill [defining hemp as a crop instead of a drug], I went back to Commissioner Comer and said I’m working with this group Fibershed and we want to grow some hemp and manufacture Kentucky cloth from it. He gave us this first permit and that’s how it started.

What was your background prior to growing hemp?
I do a lot of community advocacy work, advocating for farmers. Most of my work is with my nonprofit Growing Warriors. Most of my work is in food security. There’s millions of decorated soldiers out there that that have their hand out for food stamps. That made me angry and prompted me to start the project, teaching veterans to grow their own food. I’m still doing the same work, it’s just a wider scope now. We’re starting to see how textiles and natural fibers and the hemp grain fits into the picture now.

What are the main uses for industrial hemp in the clothing industry?
As a textile it’s incredible what the crop can do. This fiber can mimic any other fiber that’s used in the textile industry, from paper to rope to carbon fibers. When you look at cotton, it only represents 5% of our global agricultural crop but it uses one-third of the water and one-third of the pesticides. So you end up with a T-shirt that took 700 gallons of water and three pounds of pesticides to create. Then you think about the carbon it took just to get that T-shirt on your body so that it could then be thrown away in 3-4 years and replaced with something else. Hemp represents an ability to switch to a more natural product that’s not going to cause the environmental impact that nylon does—nylon puts so much nitrogen dioxide in the air—and doesn’t require petrochemical inputs out the nose. That’s a really good thing. This will be our third, going into our fourth, season growing hemp and, other than for trials, I have not used a petrochemical fertilizer, a pesticide, or water. On the textile side, the crop actually does a little better when it’s dry and not raining because it gets taller reaching down and up for moisture, which makes for a longer, finer fiber.

Hemp yarn is used to weave an American flag (courtesy Patagonia)

Hemp yarn is used to weave an American flag (courtesy Patagonia)

Are there countries where growing industrial hemp is legal?
We are the only developed nations that doesn’t grow it. In Canada, it’s mainly grown for grain, as a feedstock because hemp is a superfood. In Romania and Hungary, it’s mostly for fiber for rope or car parts. BMW, Volvo and Mercedes use significant amount of polymers from the hemp plant in their auto industry. Most of your textile fibers from hemp come from China. The problem with hemp textiles from the Asian market—and what we’re trying to figure out here—is how to soften this hemp in an environmentally friendly way. The entire industry is set up for cotton, which is a short, soft fiber. So we have to take this long, strong hemp fiber and make it look like this short, soft cotton fiber so that it will fit in the mills so that we can make cloth. In China for the most part it’s a nasty process that pollutes the water. We’re trying to figure out how to soften this hemp and get it into the mills without doing a ton of damage to the soil and the water.

Does hemp have the same hand feel as cotton, or is it this a rougher material?
We can determine that by how we process it. We are perfectly able to get a fine T-shirt feeling material out of it, even a somewhat silky material. We can also get it all the way up to a canvas. That’s what’s exciting for me, thinking about how my community could process hemp one way, for a pair of jeans, for example, and then another community could be processing for T-shirt fiber.

Mike Lewis and his son tend to the hemp crops (courtesy Patagonia)

Mike Lewis and his son tend to the hemp crops (courtesy Patagonia)

Most people think hemp is just for stoners. What is your reaction when you hear that?
I’m kind of desensitized to it. I carry a fiberglass briefcase with me that was made at the BMW plant that’s made of hemp. I’m working hard to change that perspective. That’s the biggest barrier we have at this point. We’ve got solid momentum on the legislative side. We’ve got solid momentum on the ground. But to consumers, I think the average person looks and goes, “Isn’t it cute? These hippies are trying to make more beanies.” The same thing happens when I tell people that I’m an organic farmer. In this part of the country that automatically means I’m a hippie liberal, which I’ve been called numerous times. But we’re just people trying to grow an industry. Just because it’s green doesn’t make it crunchy or hippie. I’d hate to think that in order to save the earth that we all have to turn into hippies. We had 150 people here on our farm and I think they came away excited. They realized we’re talking about industry and creating jobs.

Has the trend toward legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana helped or hurt your efforts?
I don’t think it helps. I’m not forming my opinion based on any research I’ve done into what recreational or medical marijuana does. I don’t know anything about that. I just look at it from my perspective. What I’m trying to accomplish for the farmers that live in my communities is very different from what they’re trying to accomplish. My goal is to get farmers growing this crop and to transition some of our manufacturing processes to a more sustainable perhaps even regenerative format. Legalizing marijuana isn’t helping me toward that goal. That’s the important thing to me about House Resolution 525, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, is it makes that distinction. It’s going to be a lot easier for us to get farmers to buy in if we’re adamant about the distinction.

If the bill passed, what do you see as the potential for this crop?
Like anything, it comes down to what we make of it. It could be just another commodity agricultural crop or it could be something wonderful that we use to start transitioning to a more biological economy. On a very small picture, it’s put about $12,000 in economic development into my small town of 200 people so far this year. But if we manufacture it all to export it overseas and have stuff made there, then you haven’t really done anything. If we use it the way it was intended to be used in the ‘20s and ‘30s before it was criminalized, then I see a path to a greener, more stable regional economy.

Justin Tejada is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @just_tejada.