Cleaner Air and Soil through Textile Fibers
Several partners are working together on a project to examine whether fiber from flax and hemp could replace cotton for one of Canada's largest suppliers of uniforms to the Canadian Forces.
FEATURE: Q & A
with SaskFlax project participants
Flax and hemp have been used in textiles for thousands of years, but in Canada, these crops are primarily grown as oilseeds; not much fiber is currently produced. The main reason for this is that it is difficult and often uneconomic to extract fiber from the straw of flax and hemp using current techniques.
To be useful in textiles, fiber strands must be long, undamaged and free of foreign material. While progress is being made in this area, the dominant harvesting methods for flax and hemp in Canada are geared toward maximizing oilseed yields rather than preserving straw quality. In addition, in order to extract the fiber from the straw of harvested flax and hemp, the plants need to ret (partially rot). Many producers do not have the resources or desire to change their operations to produce fiber, especially when there are few buyers at this time and certainly even fewer for textile-quality fiber.
We have in Canada the opportunity to redefine the world textile industry, not only from a technology leadership standpoint, but also to reconfigure Canadian agriculture for more eco-friendly crops.
For example, wheat may produce only 1.25 to 1.5 tonnes per acre of biomass and has a much higher use pesticides. By growing a high-biomass crop like hemp or flax compared with wheat, more carbon would be captured. Hemp or flax does not require irrigation, making it less vulnerable to weather conditions. Plus, when planted closely (which is the required planting format for fiber crops as opposed to grains crops), hemp and flax require less herbicides.
In addition, there is a growing world demand for natural fibers. As cotton prices continue to rise, textile manufacturers are looking to other sources of fiber. Hemp and flax have characteristics that are particularly desirable in garments: these fibers are highly durable, UV resistant, naturally antimicrobial and have a strong wicking ability. If the challenges of production and retting can be addressed, there is a huge opportunity to supply this growing global market for fiber.
Hemp and flax fibers have several characteristics which are desirable in garment-making:
- highly durable
- UV resistant
- naturally antimicrobial
- comfortable, with a strong wicking ability
Before being made into yarn, natural fibers such as hemp or flax must undergo a retting process to eliminate lignins and pectins. Current processing methods are based on chemical products or natural river retting, which are both unacceptable from a sustainable development perspective. The introduction of NRC’s newest technology based on enzymes will allow us to produce industrial hemp and flax fibres in a regular quality to make uniforms, our main product.
This enzyme technology has been proven at a lab scale only (1 to 5 kg/day); to validate the enzyme behaviour and resulting fiber quality, the technology must be proven at the operating parameters for a full-scale plant: one tonne/day.
The project team is composed of Logistik Unicorp, the end user and garment manufacturer; NRC-BRI, which is licensing its technology to Logistik; Manitoba Agriculture, which will coordinate the hemp and flax fiber supply from Manitoba to determine to optimum fiber quality; Alberta Innovates, for the decortication process, a pre requisite to the enzyme treatment; Filspec, yarn manufacturer which will assess the fiber quality in the yarn making process; Victor Group, for the commercial weaving validation; and SaskFlax and Biolin Research to coordinate flax fiber supply from Saskatchewan.