Hemp for sale: this weekend only

For most of the year Sweetgrass Natural Fibers, an Ashland-based hemp clothing company, is just another inconspicuous business in the industrial park on Hersey Street.

But every so often the design studio transforms into a storefront as Sweetgrass holds one of three annual shop sales.

"I actually save money just for the sale," said Karsten Peterson, an Ashland resident who has attended the Sweetgrass sale for the past three years. "Every time there are crowds of people. I come 15 minutes early and wait outside the door so I can be among the first to go through the racks."

Peterson and at least 20 other people perused the racks and bins of skirts, pants, shirts and shorts that filled up the space off Hersey Street that, until Thursday, was still a design studio. They were among the first customers at the sale on Friday morning. It continues today, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The clothes are created primarily from hemp, a fiber made from a cousin of the marijuana plant. Hemp, Sweetgrass owner Paige Morse explained, is different from marijuana in that it lacks THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

"You can't get high if you smoke it," she said, noting that they also make clothes from organic cotton and bamboo. "There is zero THC in hemp seeds."

"Bamboo is the hottest new fabric," she said.

Sweetgrass sells most of its wares to stores all over the United States, from California to Maine and Florida to Wisconsin. It sells its products to more than 100 retail businesses. Morse said they are one of the 15 largest hemp clothing companies in the country.

"You've got to understand it's a field of very small companies," Morse said. "But I think I can say we're one of the major players."

She started Sweetgrass in Boulder, Colo. in 1999 and moved it to Ashland, with her family in 2002.

"We were looking for a place with a similar mindset as Boulder," she said. "Good people, healthy lifestyles and a progressive mentality."

The idea for a sale stemmed from a surplus of product. The first sale was held their first year in Ashland, when the business was still on Williamson Way.

"We do them before we launch a new season," she said. "It's an opportunity to reach out to the community, as well as clear out some inventory to make room for the new stuff."

Other sales occur prior to Christmas and in the spring. She said the shop sales have boosted their bottom line by about two percent annually.

"We've been amazed at the number of people who come to the shop sales," she said. "I never thought a community of this size would come in the numbers they do. To me it says there is a market that Main Street Ashland is not hitting. There are a lot of eco-conscious people in this town."

Morse said the reason she decided to make hemp clothing is because of its social values. It is a more sustainable product than traditional cotton, which is typically factory farmed.

"I wanted to merge my creative efforts with my environmental and social ideals," she said.

The clothing is designed and shipped from Ashland. It is manufactured in the Bay Area, and the hemp comes from China. Because it is illegal in the United States, most industrial hemp, she said, comes from either Asia or eastern Europe.

Morse is an advocate of legalizing hemp in this U.S., but isn't sure if she would be ready to bring the manufacturing part of her business to Ashland.

"I've certainly considered it," she said. "But it would be like opening a whole separate business. I've got my plate full already."

Four people work at the studio in Ashland. Morse and Lisa Rand are the chief designers.

Morse is excited because she feels eco-conscious fabrics are about to take off.

"We've seen it with organic food already," she said. "A lot of the bigger companies are starting to pay attention. We're on the verge of eco-fashions taking a big leap."

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