The Arnhem region is a fertile ground for bio-based and cleantech startups, such as StexFibers. The young company, part of Greenhouse incubator, uses a technique to soften hemp fibres to us them to produce textiles. This has many environmental advantages as compared to cotton.
The growth of hemp doesn’t for exampe require any chemicals or insecticides. Also, spillage of water is extreme when growing cotton (10.000 liter/kg), whereas growing hemp reduces this amount with 90 percent. Another advantage: hemp is a weed and can grow almost everywhere. Also in the Dutch climate, without greenhouses.
The textile industry is on the verge of change
Hemp has been used for centuries by humans for the production of textiles, so what’s new? Ben Ratelband,ceo of StexFibers explains: “In the past, hemp was used mainly for materials such as rope and sails – strong, but stiff materials. Our technique enables the production of soft yarn usable for clothes. Our machine opens up bundles of hemp fibres, separating large and small fibres. The small fibres are soft and strong: very suitable for clothes.”
StexFibers uses an old technique called steam explosion. “The hemp fibres are kept in a steam container and put under pressure”, Ratelband says. “When the pressure is suddenly released, the fibres fall apart. Using the right amount of pressure is crucial in this process: too much will turn the fibres into dust, too little and separation won’t take place.”
Testing the fibres
When the very first samples of fibres were produced, they needed to be tested to see if they could be turned into yarn. The first tests on cotton-spinning machines were recently performed and the results are expected soon.
“We work together with Texperium in Haaksbergen, an innovation centre for the textile industry”, Ratelband explains. “They have provided us with testing facilities. Positive results will give us a green light to further scale the production. If so, we want to find financing to build a factory this year and go ahed with the commercial production of fibres.”
StexFibers has set up its business in Arnhem for diverse reasons. Ratelband: “two scientists from the university in Wageningen – close to Arnhem – have developed the steam explosion machine.” Moreover, industrial area Industriepark Kleefse Waard (IPKW) offers an great existing location.
“This place, previously used by chemical company Akzo-Nobel, already had facilities such as steam pipelines and a water purification system. This decimated our investment costs to approximately 50.000 euro instead of 1 million euro. Without these facilities, we never would started up this quickly”, Ratelband adds.
Incubator Greenhouse was another reason for taking up residence in Arnhem. “We are surrounded by other green startups. and rent an office for a reasonable price”, Ratelband says. “We also profit from a network of specialists who are ready to help startups.”
Is the textile industry ready for the use of hemp yarn? Ratelband thinks so. “We have letters of intent from several customers in the industry. Sustainabile and environmentally friendly production are hot topics in this sector.”
The entrepreneur finds a recent example in the recent campaign of G-Star and Pharrell Williams. Their project is about retrieving plastic from oceans and transforming them into denim. “This shows that the industry is on the verge of change.”
Photo by Pieter van Marion (creative commons via Flickr)