Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 8, Number 4
Dec 1995

Alternative Fibers for Papermaking

by John Stahl

Reprinted with permission from the September 1995 issue of Bull & Branch, newsletter of the Friends of Dard Hunter, where it appeared as the first part of a longer article with the same title.

At the Evanescent Press in California we make paper on a production basis that sometimes requires substantial quantities of pulp, so we are always on the lookout for affordable alternative material. Our first real alternative was the cotton stuffing in old mattresses. This is plentiful and free and works just like cotton linter except that it retains seed material that will cause the paper to be specked. We use it for our "Grape Wine" papers and other papers where these effects are acceptable. Another free material, not in such plentiful supply, is linen from old fire hoses. This is a very fine material but must be first cooked, and the beating is harder than cotton rag.

Recently we have branched out into the use of kenaf and hemp. Kenaf is wonderful material, cheap and easy to process, high quality and versatile. Hemp bast fiber is best of all, although not cheap or as easy to process. We have used raw hemp bast fiber from China and Ukraine, and prepared and bleached bast fiber from Spain, and whole stalks of local material donated to us anonymously by local hemp farmers.

In addition, we have become interested in a wide variety of waste agricultural material. We have been amazed at the high quality of paper made from local thistle (Sow thistle, Sonchus olearaceus), and continue to experiment with other plant material.

Our early experiments with local hemp have been encouraging. We have applied to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) for a permit to cultivate fiber hemp for papermaking and expect to be approved sooner or later. The DEA is nervous abut hemp cultivation but will bow to the inevitable and approve limited cultivation for industrial use. Our plan includes the installation of a stamping mill for long fiber preparation.

Once we get the permit, we plan to apply for a manufacturer's permit to cultivate 5000 acres or so. The plan is to cultivate hemp primarily for a seed crop for either nutritional or industrial use, and use the remaining stalks as the by-product for the pulp mill.

I went to the Ukraine to secure low THC seed for planting. The issues that ring the DEA's bells are accountability and security. How am I going to guarantee that there will be no "diversion" of the materials to unauthorized uses? "Well," I explained, "I plan to put up a sign on the gate: Fiber Hemp, very low THC. None of my friends would touch those plants with 20 foot tongs, for fear of carrying away a seed by mistake."

While they seemed to get the point, they laid out the law: we needed to surround the entire field with an 8' high chain link fence, with an 18" barbed wire top, angled out. We needed a securely locked gate, a safe to store the seed, floodlights and an alarm system with a direct telephone line to emergency services. And finally we needed a 24 hour guard on the premises!

Absurd as these requirements were, we fulfilled them. We installed all the required equipment and even found a barefoot hippie to live in a summer cabin in the field "for free"--in exchange for room and board. (You were expecting a Pinkerton man?) The DEA agents came out to inspect; they told us that everything was satisfactory and that we were the first ones to actually comply with their demands. They assured us that as soon as they can work out a consistent policy they will set up a hearing where we can answer questions once again and then finally get our permit.

Since this was written, the DEA has told Mr. Stahl that he complies with all regulations, and that his application has been approved, but before he can get a permit, he must have state approval. He is optimistic, but wonders whether permission will come before planting season.

A related article in the Austin American-Statesman for February 5 describes the flourishing hemp industry in the U.S.:

"The list of U.S. companies--largely fashion and consumer specialties marketers--that work with hemp now numbers at least 115, according to the Center for Hemp Awareness in Chandler Heights, Ariz. One of the largest is Adidas, whose new sneaker [with hemp uppers] may be the highest profile product to date....

"But while the shoe looks benign enough, its marketing has been criticized by former drug czar Lee Brown, [who] wrote a letter of protest to Adidas president Steve Wynne. The letter accused the company of being irresponsible and wrong-headed in calling the shoe The Hemp...."

The Adidas media spokesperson, Chris Persinger, said they only made an initial lot of 20,000 pairs, "but, largely due to all the media attention resulting from Mr. Brown's letter, there's been a tremendous level of interest in these shoes that goes way beyond what we expected."

The article also relates the experience of a clothing manufacturer who grew a test patch of hemp a few years ago. The company went through the DEA and other official agencies, and arranged for the narcotics police to monitor the crops. They planted in March 1994. But the DEA officials later tested the crop and found detectable amounts of THC in it--less than 1%, but enough to empower them to destroy the crop, which they did.

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