Steamboat Springs Mountain Essentials, a new retail shop on Lincoln Avenue, has an identity problem.
When owner Heather Howell mentions the primary element in most of the clothes and bath products, people can get the wrong idea.
"It stops right there. As soon as the word 'hemp' comes out, they relate it to a head shop," Howell said.
More confusion arises when she explains she sells "hemp accessories." People automatically think of pipes and rolling papers. She's really talking about purses, wallets and notebook paper.
"Not rolling paper," she said. "That's not what we represent."
It is true hemp and marijuana are related plants. They are related in a way similar to how a spruce tree is related to a pine tree.
"Hemp and marijuana are two totally different species," Howell said.
In short, they aren't the same plant and you can't get high by smoking hemp. However, hemp can be used for a variety of products including as a wood replacement, an alternative to fossil fuels, as clothing and as a health product, just to name a few. Hemp is mildew resistant, water resistant and abrasion resistant. In oils, it revitalizes dry skin. In fact, it's an ideal product for the mountain West lifestyle, Howell said.
She became interested in hemp while studying for her merchandising degree at Colorado State University. She emphasized her studies on textiles and wanted to try to go in a different direction. Cotton and wool, for example, already are used in a variety of ways. She discovered the uses of hemp and it virtually being unexplored in the modern United States. When she learned the environmental aspects of the plant, she was sold on the idea of making a career using hemp.
Along with using it in clothing, Howell has developed her own line of hemp-seed oil bath and body products called Hemp Essentials. Through this line, Howell makes soaps and lotions in four distinctive scents.
But as Howell got into learning about and working with hemp, she realized that meant she would have to educate people on hemp's distant relative.
Interestingly enough, Howell explained, the confusion between hemp and marijuana is common for most Americans. While countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom grow commercial hemp, it is illegal to grow hemp in the United States because of its close relationship to marijuana.
Hemp is imported to the United States, which adds an interesting element to many of the products at Mountain Essentials. Through the Citizen Democracy Corp., Howell imports clothing made by tribal communities in Thailand. There, hemp has been a staple in the agricultural society for generations. The Citizen Democracy Corp. connected Howell with four families who make the products for a living. Previously, the large families were breaking up because continual drought halted most agriculture, and the children were sent to the cities to work.
"Now my families are all back together. They are back at home and they make a substantial living," Howell said.
Each family makes something different, from coats and shirts to handbags, and hemp is the primary material in most of the clothing.