Hemp the aged

The textile industry over here has, over the last half-century, shrunk more than a dry-clean-only on a boil wash. No great news in that. But if you look hard enough, around the mills left standing, you can still fill your boots with riches of wool and cashmere, linen and silk. Even, too, certain types of cotton. These certain types of cotton, though, do not include cottons intended exclusively for shirts. Shirting, that is to say.

Nope — cotton shirting just isn’t something made any more in the British Isles. The venerable names of even recent yore have folded, sold out, or years ago packed their bags for parts offshore. And shirting, if you think about it, is really a fundamental thing for an aspiring clothier. And, if such an aspiring clothier only ever worked with materials made in the British Isles, why, then an absence of it might make things rather difficult. Corduroy shirts, sure; moleskin, maybe; woollen and linen ones, too, at the right time of year. But cotton shirting is bread and butter; the filling, more to the point, of the outfit sandwich.

Cotton hasn’t always been top of the crops, though, and that’s part of what makes a new project from a new supplier, which is making a new-old type of cloth in old-old ways, so promising. It is a project of hemp. Hemp, for anyone not clued up on their historical textile timeline, was very much a precursor to cotton in this part of the world. Intrinsic, indeed, to our way of life — particularly the pointy-end of our way of life: the navy. Hemp, see, was what you made your rope from; your paper; your oil, your nets, and your flags; your shrouds and rigging, too — not to mention your charts, maps, ship logs, all-purpose linens, drapes, quilts, towels, tarpaulins, medicines, books, and bibles. So lauded it was they even named towns after it: Hampstead and Hemel Hempstead the two most noted.

And now hemp is back — and that seems a great thing. Great for Mother Nature, for starters. Hemp is a friendly crop, for land and water and labour, and one that thrives happily, unlike cotton, in the absence of pesticides. Great for the body, too. Moisture-management, odour-control, temperature-regulation: passes with flying colours, hemp.

What we have here, then, is a brand new type of hemp shirting woven in Lancashire — entirely fitting, given where was once the country’s shirting-making heartland. There, hemp yarn is woven in equal part with organic cotton, and the outcome has all the qualities sought after here at the workshop. First, a certain heft, such that a shirt made from it will withstand a heavy woollen over-garment. Second, slubby texture: plain enough from a distance, but which beguiles the eye close-up, with the hemp poking through the quasi-oxford weave at irregular intervals. And, third, a character which grows: first stubborn to change, but after wash and wear and wash and wear, yielding to the wearer, and acquiring a sort of symbiotically achieved, one-of-a-kind, look and feel.

The first two shirts made with this new hemp-cotton oxford are found here and here. Perhaps not integral to the state of the nation just yet — but good starts, nonetheless.