Sustainable Linen Movement: Revitalizing Flax & Hemp

Moving Flax & Hemp Back on the Market

 The importance of knowing where your food comes from is a concept not unfamiliar to many Willamette Valley residents. But how many can say they know where their clothing is grown?

Shannon Welsh measures flax in bloom at a farm near Sublimity in 2017.

“The slow food movement has had a lot of attention on it, but not fiber,” says Shannon Welsh, founder at Pacific Northwest Fibershed and co-founder at Fiberevolution. “I think a lot of it is because fiber is more complex. The textile system itself is more complex than the food system… There’s a lot more steps into getting fiber from a field through to a product than with food.”

Welsh’s work holds fast to a vision of clothing both produced and grown in the Willamette Valley, a sort of antithesis to fast fashion, and a complementary node to the model of slow food.

While she recognizes that synthetics “have a place” and “will always be here,” Welsh and many others feel the textile pendulum has held too long in the synthetic direction, and that there needs to be a movement away from the environmentally impactful chemical processes that create and breakdown these materials, to the natural processes that can create high quality goods without so much degradation.

With this in mind, the organization Fibershed got its start in Northern California in 2010, when founder Rebecca Burgess sought to create a whole wardrobe for herself with textiles grown and produced within a 150-mile radius of her home. To do so required an holistic approach, which Welsh has transferred to the Pacific Northwest affiliate of the group, as well as in her work with Fiberevolution. “I’ve met with fiber producers on the agricultural side, I’ve met with agronomists at universities, historical societies, brands—all across the board,” she says.

In this journey, Welsh has learned much about the historic prevalence of fiber crop growing and garment making in the Willamette Valley, the industries’ demise, and ways in which they can be brought back into the fold of Oregon agriculture and industry to increase the availability of local, sustainable textiles that contribute to rural and urban communities and to the economy.

Benefits of Growing Textile Crops

In 2017, community members got the opportunity to help harvest flax by hand at a farm near Corvallis.

Due to their compatibility with the Willamette Valley’s climate, two crops are at the heart of the slow fiber movement in this region: flax and hemp. Both plants include different varieties which favor either oil or fiber production. While varieties grown for oil are shorter and produce more seeds, fiber varieties—called bast fibers—focus their energy on growing tall rather than on seed production.

The height of bast fiber crops allows for weeds to easily be outcompeted, and little to no need for the pesticides used in conventional agriculture. Other benefits of growing bast fibers is that the whole plant is removed from the ground when harvested, leaving a clean slate for other crops to be rotated in, breaking plant disease cycles that may otherwise persist without rotation, and enriching the soil.

“All fiber crops, when they are grown in a rotational system, capture carbon and store it in the soil over time,” Welsh points out.

Better yet, flax does not require irrigation in our climate. If well managed, fiber crops pose the ability to decrease environmental impact and contribute to carbon storage—the latter being especially important in these days of climate change due to anthropogenic releases of greenhouse gases.

However, Welsh recognizes that in the current hemp mayhem since the plant has been moved off the controlled substances list federally, more monoculturing than crop rotating has been seen, of which she is not supportive. In this scenario, “you aren’t really maximizing the potential of your cropping system and over time it does affect the quality of the fiber if you’re growing them in the same place over and over with nothing else,” she warns.

From World-Renowned to Hanging on a Thread
While hemp has received much media attention since it’s federal de-listing, both it and flax have a long history here and globally, often forgotten.

Payton Haynes stylishly pulls flax by hand while wearing linen at a farm near Corvallis in 2018.

Flax, which is used to create linen fabrics, is one of the oldest known plants specifically cultivated for use as a textile. Dating technology has been used to show that as early as 3000 BCE, linen was used to wrap mummies in Egyptian tombs. Hemp cultivation has also been dated to 2800 BCE in Central Asia.

Several species of flax are native to Oregon, as first recorded by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their 1805 expedition, as they observed Native Americans from the Wasco, Klickitat, Warm Springs, Cayuse, and Umatilla tribes fishing and making baskets on the Columbia River using flax twine.

As pioneers began settling in the region, it did not take long for Oregon flax and it’s resulting linen to become well-known for its high quality across the country, and the world: in 1876, linen from the Albany-based fiber flax plant Pioneer Oil Works won a prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and in 1893, Oregon flax gained even broader attention after winning a prize at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Meanwhile, in the world of hemp, Oregon State College, the predecessor to today’s Oregon State University, hosted a national hemp research center from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. The Valley lost production of this fiber crop relatively quickly, when, in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively began the era of hemp prohibition in the U.S., even though hemp is a different species than that used to grow the recreational drug.

While hemp was removed from production in the Willamette Valley, flax hit its peak during the second world war effort, with 18,000 acres of it being grown and processed at 14 facilities in the Willamette Valley. But this too was fairly short-lived, says Welsh.

“After World War II, throughout the whole globe, textiles really started to take a hit, especially natural textiles with natural fibers, because synthetics came into play, and the war effort that was behind a lot of production wasn’t there anymore. There was a real bottoming out, especially here in the Willamette Valley. Since then, we’ve had zero textile production really, especially with linen. We’ve had a little bit with wool, but that’s been really hanging on a thread,” she laughs.

By the 1950’s, flax was no longer grown on a commercial scale, with the special machines used to harvest it going to scrap metal or lying rusted in fields. By the 1960’s, all the bast fiber processing plants in Oregon were closed down, the last of which was located in Canby and was thought to be the most modern of its kind when first established.

Similar trends were seen in other regions of the world, such as Ireland, even though they too were well known for their high quality products. However, not all places abandoned the two crops. Today, Welsh says about 80% of world linen is currently produced in Europe along the Normandy coastline in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, as well as in Asia in the countries of China, Russia, and Serbia. These same regions also continued growing and processing hemp.

“Hemp hasn’t been illegal anywhere else,” Welsh says, recounting times she’s worked with partners in these countries who are confused why Americans are so excited about hemp, not knowing of the laws enacted that governed its demise, and now potential rebirth, here.

Breaking the Loop
Today, the market and legal forces that pushed flax and hemp out of production in the Willamette Valley have created a positive feedback loop that is proving challenging to unwind in order to revitalize the crops and textile manufacturing locally.

After the crops were no longer grown, the specialty machines used to process them became non-existent, and for farmers who would like to grow the crops for their fiber today, there is not enough infrastructure in place to do so at a commercial scale. Welsh explains that although “we’ve been getting flax growing again, there’s no harvesting equipment in North America,” and further, “we don’t have anywhere to produce it for textiles in North America at this time. Those are some huge hurdles.”

Both Fibershed and Fiberevolution have the goal of getting bast fiber equipment to the continent from European partners, and to restore the once-operating processing facilities in Oregon. Promising for both flax and hemp fiber crops is that their similarities in growth patterns allow for similar handling. “Our vision is that you could build a production facility that can handle both crops,” Welsh says. “When those things take off, there will be job opportunities, there will be grant opportunities—we’ll be able to pull a lot of the community in more.”

Political factors involved in hemp add another set of hurdles to the process. Welsh and her organizations recently attended the National Industrial Hemp Council Business Summit. The simple version of the take-away is that “it’s a disaster right now,” she says.

More than 1,500 farmers have registered with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to grow hemp on 50,000 acres this year, nearly triple the amount seen last year. However, due to the infrastructure limitations for bast fibers, and perhaps the attraction of a new industry, the only hemp varieties being grown are oil varieties, used to derive CBD.

“Oregon is hoping to move toward fiber varieties and seed varieties, and pull some away from CBD production because that market is… not going to stay the way it is, it’s a big gold rush,” Welsh explains. “Around two thirds of producers don’t have a buyer for the hemp, but they’re licensed to grow it and are going to grow it anyway.”

This is risky business, as industrial hemp must be tested for THC levels to ensure that it is not above a certain standard that differentiates the plant from the varieties used to grow recreational marijuana. If the hemp grown does not pass this test, the crop has to be destroyed, and the farmer may not collect insurance on it.

While many farmers who previously grew marijuana are interested in growing industrial hemp, “There’s a lot of education that needs to come into play,” says Welsh. “For farmers, it’s a trial to see how it grows.”

She continues to describe a looming fear that many in the state have. “If people dive in too quickly and they have a bad experience, they may never want to grow it again.”

Hopefully this fear won’t be realized, as Oregon State University recently announced the opening of the Global Hemp Innovation Center, following in its own historical shoes. And while the U.S. may still be behind other nations in fiber textile production, Welsh is optimistic that this could change due to the state’s outstanding agriculture in other realms.

“Oregon is leading the way in a lot of areas… Part of it is just the skilled farmers we have. About 90% of the farms we have are family-owned, which I think says a lot about the kind of community we have.”

A Vision in the Process

Angela Wartes-Kahl shows the scale of flax production in Europe at a processing facility in 2018.

While professionals work through the logistical challenges to get both flax and hemp back into production locally, Welsh urges that all people can play a part by taking seriously their role as consumers. “Be more conscious, look at the tag, see what it’s made of. If you have the opportunity to support natural fibers and production—that’s great. Proving that there’s a market for these fibers is crucial to getting infrastructure going.”

In addition to their ecological benefits, and the potential efficiency of producing materials from both fiber crops with the same infrastructure, flax and hemp hold unique places in global markets that lend themselves to supporting a more diverse local economy. “It’s been our mantra that we need both of these crops and that both would be great to put into rotation farming here, as we could hit many markets with both crops,” says Welsh.

Furthermore, because of the complex nature of textile production from the agricultural end of things to the processing on the other side, revitalizing flax and hemp in the Willamette Valley has the potential to create a “cluster industry,” in which—unlike what is seen in local food production—many other industries may spur off of the crops being grown here.

In Welsh’s words, flax and hemp could “ignite all these jobs and industries that are really needed in this economy and that I think our region is really wanting.” She maintains, “there’s definitely a push and a vision that we could have a vertically integrated, circular system happening for textiles in Oregon.”

By Ari Blatt

All photos by John Morgan of StereoEye Productions.