Graduate 2018: Tomorrow’s Sustainable Fabrics Will Be Made of Hemp

Uddannelse og studieliv

The fashion and textile industries impose hugely on the environment and nature. The cultivation and processing of cotton requires large amounts of water and pesticides. That is why it is vital to invest in other materials, if we want to see textile production moving in a more sustainable direction. Meet the textile designer, Tanja Kirst. In her final project she worked with hemp as a possible alternative to environmentally detrimental cotton. 

What is your final project about?
In my final project, ‘RE: thinking hemp’ I worked with hemp as a sustainable alternative for the manufacture of fabrics. Hemp has a high yield potential and the whole plant can be used for food and medicine. The way we currently produce textiles is extremely detrimental to the environment, since the cultivation and production of cotton requires a high consumption of pesticides and water

What drew you to this project in particular?
I have been working with hemp yarns in hand-woven structures since 2015, and I previously had a business relationship with the designer, Rachel Kollerup. She introduced me to the ‘Sustainable Hemp Fabrics’ project, which aims to pave the way for Nordic production of sustainable, durable, top quality fabrics based on hemp fibres. The project group is made up of the Danish Technological Institute, Kvadrat, Advance Nonwoven, Vittenbjerggård and Møllerup Estate, and led by Bodil Pallesen, Senior Consultant at Agrotech. Inspired by this project, my intention was to explore the possibilities of producing industrially woven fabrics made of hemp yarns, in which both production and the cultivation of the hemp takes place within Europe.

In what way does your project contribute something new to the area you have been working on?
Today many people associate hemp fabric with coarse, dull, rough quality. My goal was to create hemp yarn that is more pleasing and delicate: for example, by working on the choice of colours and the overall design of the woven textiles. 

 I drew my inspiration from light to create a contrast to the matt surface of the hemp. I did this by using an optical weaving system, in which I created shades and gradients using the threads on the loom. In the surface of the woven hemp yarn, the woven textiles integrate and communicate with light from the surroundings and, depending on the way the light falls and the distance, they change the character of the fabric.

Where do you imagine your degree project will make a difference?
I want to improve and contribute to a more sustainable textile industry. Hemp is a great fibre, which has the potential to replace cotton in textile production. Whereas cotton impoverishes the soil, the hemp plant has long, strong roots, which can enhance the structure of the soil. The hemp plant adds nutrients to the soil, and can be grown on the same field for several years without any kind of fertilizer. That means it reduces loss of soil and combats erosion. At the same time, hemp only rarely requires artificial irrigation; unlike cotton, which consumes a huge amount of water. 


What methods did you use when working on your project?
The overall methodology of my final project involved fieldwork, in which I examined the possibilities of using hemp for fabrics. So I was in contact with Bodil Pallesen at the Danish Technological Institute and the project’s other parties, including Kvadrat and Møllerup Estate. I also created a chance to have my project industrially manufactured at TextielLab in Tilburg, who selected the project for development, and in the textile company, Tessitura Taborelli, which is located on the bank of Lake Como in Italy. 


Because I decided to involve and contact professionals, farmers and textile manufacturers both in Denmark and abroad, much of my final project was also about project management, and about how I as a textile designer can work across a variety of professional disciplines.

What are the most enjoyable and the most difficult aspects of designing the way you do?
The most enjoyable part is the start-up phase, when ideas have free rein and I can allow myself to think big and unrealistically. Initially, when I started to talk to friends and family about my hemp project, I encountered scepticism. I received comments such as: “So can you smoke your fabrics?”, “You’ll be weaving potato sacks and making rope?” or “Don’t you think it will all look like Hippie clothes?” What drove me was the urge to surprise, and to invest hemp with a brand new image. I wanted to tell a whole new story and create a visual, hemp-yarn look that had never been seen before. A moment like that is the most enjoyable. When I am determined to do something and have a mission, and then decide to do everything I can to make it a reality. 

The most difficult part is making the dream and the mission come true - particularly when you’re thinking big. I spend a lot of time contacting manufacturers and companies. Initially it feels like trying to break taboos On the other hand, though, it’s also fascinating to juggle lots of different balls. And it’s even more fun checking your emails as the project takes shape.

What sort of development potential do you think your final project has?
I have already met with great interest and I’m actually embarking on a collaboration. I can’t reveal what it is yet. But, based on my final project, I am going to design and develop a collection of woven home fabrics, which will be produced next autumn by the Italian textile company. At the same time, I know that the current production of textiles cannot continue in its present form. That is why it is necessary to work on new, more sustainable alternatives and production methods. 

What do you think is your greatest strength as a KADK design graduate?
I have learned to be critical and detail-oriented in my design process. In the field of textile design we have nerdy discussions about colours, shades and tactile aspects right down to the minutest detail. I have also learned the process of working from an idea to a finished product and all that this entails. I have also learned to work realistically. As part of my postgraduate course, I interned abroad in two different textile manufacturers and learned about the process of production. I have also learned to communicate my creative thoughts and ideas in a technical language that people in the industry can understand. 

Where do you see yourself career-wise in five years’ time?
I would like to continue working on sustainability and new materials and aesthetics. It could be interesting to work with other materials such as seaweed or milk protein for use in fabrics and help create more new, sustainable materials. 

Right now I have some of my first jobs as a freelance textile designer, at the same time as working in the showroom of the textile company, Kvadrat. In five years’ time I will have had a few years’ experience of working in a company, at the same time as working on my own freelance tasks and projects.