Hemp is the future of fashion! As one of the strongest and most durable of all natural textile fibres, by wearing hemp we could keep our clothes longer and out of landfill. Hemp is carbon negative, it grows tall and absorbs lots of carbon from the atmosphere. And it can be grown year after year without harming the soil quality, in fact its deep-reaching roots can instead help to nourish the soil.
Hemp also uses a lot less water to produce compared to cotton, and it doesn’t need all the pesticides to grow. Hemp fabric is breathable, insulating moisture wicking, highly resistant to bacterial growth and microbes and comes with natural UV filtering properties.
So why aren’t we using more eco-friendly hemp? In this article we explore what hemp clothing is, what it isn’t and where it could take us. :)
What exactly is hemp clothing?
Hemp fabric and marijuana are quite different. Upfront before anyone thinks they could recycle their torn hemp socks into a joint. Yes, hemp and what is termed as marijuana or weed stem from the same plant, the cannabis sativa species.
But one strain has been bred to have a higher tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content than 0.3, the stuff which gives you the high, mainly found in the flowers, and the other has been bred to get stronger fibres to make for a good fabric. So it would be futile to try and smoke hemp with a low THC.
Hemp fabric is the legal form of the cannabis plant
Hemp is the legal form of the cannabis plant providing natural, chemical free, environmentally sustainable, durable, yet comfortable, clothing.
One could say that the fibre sits somewhere between linen and cotton in terms of feel.
Hemp has been around for a very long time! The versatility of this fibre was discovered in the Middle East (Mesopotamia) as far back as 8,000 BC. An interesting anecdote is that the word canvas stems from the Arabic language describing hemp, or cannabis.
Hemp was also popular in China
A few thousand years later and the Chinese planted hemp specifically to make clothing, a habit which lives on today.
Thanks to hemp’s durability the fibre was also used to make paper, ropes, saddle bags, sacks, sails and tents, supporting the ancient economies in their maritime and overland expeditions.
Hemp finally made its way to Europe
The hemp plant made its way to Europe and the Americas, its seeds added to the food basket, and its oil found its way into medicine and cosmetics.
Hemp remained extremely popular until the 1930s, even car manufactures like Henry Ford played with the plant as an ingredient, thanks to its strength it made for a durable and sustainable plastic.
The downfall of hemp and cannabis!
The same popularity on more than one front seems to have rung in its downfall. The synthetic and chemical industrial revolution raised its head, cotton and wood took over the markets requiring chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, which hemp did not need. And it is said that those making those ingredients wanted to sell them. Luckily for them the popularity of the cannabis plant as a recreational drug was also on the rise, so it was easy to lobby for cannabis cultivation to be outlawed.
Did the players of industrialisation realise the future damage their chemical-heavy ingredients would have on our environment? Probably not, otherwise they may have rather invested in refining the production of hemp, as is happening in more recent times. Or they may also have simply turned a blind eye to the long term impact due to the short term financial gain they would surely benefit from.
Hemp in the 21st century
The cannabis plant has finally found its way back and is in demand. It’s used in cosmetics, as biofuel, found its way into health foods, and into the fashion industry. Today, around 30 countries cultivate what is termed industrial hemp to distinguish it from the ‘marijuana’ cannabis plant.
China remains the largest producer, followed by France, Austria, Chile, the UK, Mexico, Germany, Holland, India, Japan and Brazil.
The US finally lifted their ban on the cannabis (hemp) plant in 2018.
How is hemp fabric made
Hemp fabric is made from the outer layer of the stems of the Cannabis sativa plant. The stripped fibres are spun into rope, or into finer yarn to make the textile for clothing. Let’s look at all the steps:
- Hemp loves moist and warmer climates but grows pretty much anywhere and outgrows competition plants. Within 90 days after seeding it gets up to 4.5 metres high ready to be cut and kept lying in the field so it can dry out for a fews days preparing it for the next stage, termed retting.
- Retting breaks down the undesired tissues, like pectin which glues the stem fibre (bast) to the woody core of the plant. Moisture and bacteria do the job, either naturally leaving the cut hemp in the field for over a month letting dew and mould do its thing, great for humid climates, or the process can be sped up by taking the harvest and dumping it into water. On a more speedy scale enzymes would be used.
- The stalks are allowed to dry and baled for the next step, separating the bast fibre from the core. Thanks to industrialisation this has become an easier process employing large rollers, or decorticators, to crush the stems breaking off the desired fibre. As not all gets loose this way the hemp stalks take another beating, literally.
- Scutching takes care of the beating, as well as scraping, to get to the shorter fibres and to comb out any remaining woody pieces. Whilst there are uses for the shorter fibres, leaves and core, it is the long fibre strands we’re after to make clothing fabric.
- The strands are cleaned and yet again bailed. Traditionally they would have been knotted together by hand, but these days machines will get them ready to be steamed and then spun into yarn. Whether machines, or by hand, the process is quite arduous and lengthy, making hemp more expensive than cotton.
100% hemp clothing
Clothing made of pure hemp should be in theory organic as no chemicals would have been involved. However, many places in China do use chemicals to process faster. Organic cleaning and softening methods are in development however. In countries like Europe or Canada biologically based enzyme technology makes the process of hemp production more eco-friendly.
Natural Hemp is beige
Natural hemp comes in shades of beige and may feel a little rougher than cotton, but it has some staunch advantages.
100% hemp is triple strength!
It comes in at triple strength making for durable clothing, which doesn’t go out of shape, and is softer with each wash.
100% hemp keeps natural colours
Equally, hemp keeps natural dye colours better than cotton, and is easier to lighten. No need for toxic chlorine bleaching, it can be done with an eco-friendly hydrogen peroxide instead.
A point to make note of is that although hemp viscose may be softer, it is not organic.
Hemp + cotton + Tencel + Silk + Wool + Bamboo
The reason for hemp blends in general is to achieve enhanced softness yet a more durable piece of clothing. As long as the ingredient number two has been produced organically and sustainably the end-result is nearly as good, if not quite as ecological as a 100% pure hemp garment.
Challenges faced by brands in switching to hemp
Due to its turbulent ‘outlaw’ history, cotton production took over as the number one natural fibre in the apparel industry. Hemp cultivation is only just picking up again over the last decade.
Hemp is in limited supply and expensive
The issue for brands who want to use hemp is the scarcity of the raw material and with that higher acquisition costs. In some cases it may even be difficult to find a supplier at any cost. The Covid crisis hasn’t helped brands who want to start using hemp, due to reduced manufacturing and transport capabilities across the board. That said, the hemp fibre market is expected to at least triple over by 2028!
Most hemp production today is industrial
Whilst China didn’t have the ban issue and produces 70 percent of the world’s hemp crop, most is made for industrial use, and those suitable for clothing may just lack in the wanted areas: sustainability and non-toxic.
There are few certified organic hemp producers
Conscientious brands would prefer certified organic hemp producers, both, the US and Europe, issue certificates in this regard and global organisations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certify fabrics, which are at a minimum 70% organic and Ecocert demands a 95% organic guarantee. Again organic labels tend to increase the price.
Hemp needs an image overhaul
Another point may be hemp’s image, still often linked to the hippie rather than main-stream community.
Hemp fabric PROS AND CONS
Hemp Fabric Pro #1- Kind to the skin
- Moisture wicking
- Anti-bacterial so anti-odour
- Keeps UV light off the skin (tightly weaved by nature)
Hemp Fabric Pro #2- Comfortable
- Soft enough and gets softer with each wash without degrading
- Thermoregulating aka insulates in winter keeps cool in summer
- Lightweight around 40 percent of that of cotton
- Hydrophobic, not waterproof but could repel a drizzle
Hemp Fabric Pro #3 - Durable
- Doesn’t fade easily keeps colours intact
- Keeps its shape
- Resistant to abrasion, piling, bubbling
- Its tensile properties let it stretch but not super stretchy
- Doesn’t shrink like cotton
- Strong at least three times as much as cotton
Hemp Eco Pro #1- Sustainable cultivation
- Hemp’s long roots prevents soil erosion
- The Hemp plant takes less land than competing crops
- The hemp plant takes over weed growth
- Hemp restores nutrients to earth rather than depleting meaning same land can be used for decades
- Hemp drains soil from poisonous substances and heavy metals
- Hemp is considered carbon negative farming, the plant absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere than it’s production contributes.
- The hemp plant is pest resistant, which means no need for pesti-and herbicides and its own leaves act as fertiliser
- The hemp plant doesn’t use much water, usually rain is enough
- Hemp grows fast, up to ten tons of fibre pulp per acre three times a year
- Hemp fibre yield is 600% higher than flax and double to triple than cotton
Hemp Eco Pro #2- Sustainable production and recycling
- Hemp is biodegradable
- Hemp is easy to colour with natural dyes
- Environmentally friendly bleaching (thanks to its lo lignin content)
- All parts of the hemp plant can be used for paper, plastic, insulation, animal bedding, fuel
- Hemp uses a fraction of the water required to produce cotton
- Organic hemp equals employment (by-hand harvest)
Hemp Fabric Cons
- Hemp is a little rougher than cotton i.e. more texture if left unprocessed
- Hemp as a unique natural smell
- Hemp wrinkles more easily if organic i.e. untreated
- Strong but constant wrinkling could create weak points in hemp fabric = holes
- Whilst the hemp plant is mould and mildew resistant, the fabric’s fibres in hot and humid climates like other natural fibres are susceptible to mildew and fungi attacks.
Hemp Eco Cons
- Hemp production requires more nitrogen than cotton et al
Affordable hemp clothing
So onto a very important point - is hemp clothing actually affordable? You’re unlikely to find any simple piece of hemp clothing below a $30 price tag. Hemp is a material that’s difficult to source given the current state of supply chains, and pricing reflects that. However, as more brands start to make the switch to sustainability it will become a fabric that’s more and more affordable.
Hemp-based apparel is more commonly found at a starting price of around $40-60 for tops and t-shirts and the likes. Innerwear can be from $20-40 and hoodies from $80 -150.