Let’s get into an open and honest talk about the cannabis plant, whose versatility is incredible yet often forgotten due to a societal disapproval of drugs dependency. This flowering plant is indigenous to central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, but it has been with us for at least ten thousand years in ways you may have not even imagined. Interested in the subject? Then keep reading.

Initially, the plants of the Cannabaceae family have been bred to produce minimal or maximal amounts of the famous molecule tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the villain responsible for the plant’s psychoactive profile and its “troublemaking” reputation. As you already picture, plants with higher amounts of THC are used as medicinal drugs or for recreational purposes while the ones with lower amounts (less than 0.1%) are used mostly for their potential for fiber. Actually, ‘hemp’ is the term used to name the plants with lower THC content, and hemp differs from its cousin thanks to its biochemical composition. After going through a refining process, the fibers are transformed into paper, textiles, ropes, biodegradable plastics, and biofuels, and the list is growing longer. Even some clothing is made of pure hemp due to its similar texture to linen. Nevertheless, fibers with certain properties need to be extracted from the crude plant in order to obtain specific products that contain the desired features. My research becomes relevant, especially in the Lorraine region of France, at this very stage.

Basically, in my lab I work with a giant pressure cooker to which I add the stalks of the plant and play with the main parameters of the device - temperature, pressure and time - aiming to find out the best setting to obtain soft fibers. Another cool perspective of my work I have not yet mentioned is the fact that this amazing plant could be used to depollute a soil rich in heavy metals. Therefore the main purpose of my studies goes beyond obtaining soft fibers for the textile industry, since the plant itself can have a crucial positive environmental impact on contaminated soils. By the way, until the 70’s, the Lorraine region was a powerful industrial area focused on mining, textile and steel production. Unfortunately, the ‘heavy traces’ of the past are still hidden within these potentially cultivable lands.

Recovering a former industrial patch of contaminated land and starting up organic clothing production in this valley sounds indeed like an extraordinary plan, don’t you agree? I am Thibaud Sauvageon, a PhD student working at the Lermab at the University of Lorraine.

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Luis Rubio