Hemp denim jeans are making a comeback in France


The historic region of southern France, Occitanie, is experiencing a hemp textile renaissance, and not with just any fabric, but with the durable, long-staple denim fabric used in jeans.

Along with the fame of its historic Languedoc wine region, the area was once well known for the extensive commercial cultivation of hemp which fueled the weaving mills in the countryside.

Occitanie’s climate is dominated by its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in mild winters, hot, dry summers and warm autumns. It is the sunniest region in France, with over 300 days of sunshine, but it also receives enough rain in the summer to support hemp cultivation.

The mountainous landscape is interspersed with fertile river valleys and rocky clay soils rich in limestone and well suited for the production of hemp fiber.

The cradle of denim

The ancient Roman city of Nîmes, located in the heart of Occitania, is famous for its iconic fabric Serge from Nimes. Twill, no longer produced in France, was a sturdy twill weave fabric woven with hemp and dyed with indigo. The material was used to make jeans and later received the name “denim”, which is a term commonly used to describe the fabric of jeans today.

France has a long history of commercial production of hemp fabric. During the 19e century, France exported fabrics throughout Europe and to America.

Not only do denim fabrics originate from France, but also Cloth—derived from the word “cannabis”—a tabby hemp fabric that is a tight, durable weave and used for bedding, towels, bags, tarps, and other household and commercial textiles.

In the town of Castres to the west is the former family-run weaving factory Tissages d’Autan, dating back to the 1930s, and the company’s contemporary motto is “Jeans will grow back in the fields”.

The factory joins VirginCoopa business management consulting firm in Cahors, France, whose primary objective is to accelerate the emergence of environmentally friendly and socially responsible projects, and its team is dedicated to promoting local textile production and organic.

© Courtesy of Git Skoglund


“VirgoCoop strives[s] cultivate and transform French hemp into textiles with the same fine quality as in the past”, explains Mathieu Ebbesen, co-founder and director of the Tissages d’Autan factory and president of VirgoCoop, adding that the first steps are the renewal organic textiles hemp production and other fair trade sectors in Occitania and beyond.

Ebbesen strives to coordinate the efforts of hemp growers, spinners and weavers, while upholding its commitment to social equity and economic betterment within the community. He speaks knowledgeably about historic textile production, explaining that this region of Occitania has become renowned for its production of quality wool, adding that this is also something he wants to implement in the branding strategy. of the company.

“When the cooperative started the weaving factory, we were determined to only produce hemp fabric from 100% hemp fiber. Today I changed my mindset,” says Ebbesen.

The factory produces exclusive new fabric designs using wool and hemp blends. On the one hand, modern wool production poses environmental problems, as raw wool from France is shipped to China for processing and then returned as yarn to France. This unsustainable production model is something he intends to change by spinning and producing wool locally. On the other hand, the processing and spinning of long-staple hemp poses many challenges, which must first be overcome before larger volumes of fabric can be made from pure hemp.

© Courtesy of Robert C. Clarke

Futura 75 in flower, ready for harvest.

“Even so, in 2018 we managed to produce significant quantities of pure hemp yarn with our own French cultivar ‘Futura 75’, but [unfortunately it’s] not yet enough to produce jeans. Instead, the weaving factory produced denim with imported Romanian hemp yarn. This is a step we have decided to take to motivate the market and justify investments in Occitanie,” says Ebbesen. “This denim fabric [was sent] to a fashion company, which sold nearly 1,000 pairs of hemp jeans. It was a big step forward to move our textile sector upstream.

Futura 75 is an EU-approved “industrial hemp” cash variety with a THC content of less than 0.3%. This cultivar performs well during the short winter season in northern Europe as well as the long summer season in southern Europe. Futura 75 grows rapidly and, when sown in spring, reaches up to 4 meters in height in August, producing high fiber yields, or if allowed to mature its seed can be harvested in the fall.

© Courtesy of Git Skoglund

Hemp threads and a hemp loom.

He believes that the challenges of preparing and spinning long hemp fibers will be overcome within 10 years and the mill will have much larger volumes of high quality hemp fibers.

“Today, France is the largest European producer of hemp seeds, and we will try to breed a variety suitable for the textile industry,” explains Ebbesen.

Transforming hemp into strong denim fabrics with existing processing lines is a challenge. Therefore, Ebbesen says that Virgocoop plans to breed a variety of French cash hemp that will be more uniform at harvest and which, in turn, will generate more consistent fibers required by modern spinning lines. The company also plans to upgrade its current spinning machines to better handle long fibers.

“We know that our farmers appreciate the value of growing hemp in rotation before wheat and other field crops, and not specifically for any purpose other than that, but they still have to remove the stalks from their fields. Therefore, we contract them and store the stalks they harvest and dry,” he says, pointing out that many farmers in Occitanie receive €300-350 (or USD 305-356) per ton of bulk hemp stalks. (5.0-6.0 tons/hectare or 2.2-2.7 tons/acre), and that there are organic and conventional producers in the area. He keeps the doors open to all hemp growers, but later plans to switch to organic production only.


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