Appearance is pretty key in fashion, and until now, hemp has had a bad rep.
Many associate hemp clothing with itchy, rough textures (think potato sack) and pot-smoking hippies. But hemp, with its estimated 10,000 years of fabric history, is having a comeback.
First of all, let’s define industrial hemp. This comes from Cannabis sativa, but it doesn’t contain THC (the psychoactive that gets you high).
After around a century of bad press that linked industrial hemp to the kind of cannabis that gets you high, industrial hemp is increasingly becoming re-recognised for its multitude of uses. And that means a serious multitude – hemp could have as many as 50,000 end uses, from textiles to paper to industrial building materials.
Here’s a closer look at why industrial hemp is worth growing, simply as an efficient crop.
On average, hemp can use two to four times less water than cotton to grow, and can be rain-fed. According to a Levi’s assessment, it takes 2,565 litres of water to grow enough cotton for just one average pair of jeans.
It yields two to four times more fibres than the equivalent cotton plant.
And unlike cotton, it doesn’t require pesticides – meaning far less water pollution.
Hemp grows rapidly – faster than weeds – in many types of soils and climates. It’s versatile.
Hemp has very deep roots, which bring minerals back to the top of the soil during harvesting.
Hemp plants also consume more CO2 than trees.
(This isn’t a knock against trees. We love trees here and hemp doesn’t have the added benefits of providing a forest ecosystem. But hemp can be a better choice for farming.)
Hemp lasts a long time, getting softer with each wash.
But when we’re finished with it, hemp is fully biodegradable, and will add nutrients back into the soil along the way.
So we can see that hemp is a pretty sustainable, efficient crop. But how do we get that crop from an itchy, irregular fibre to a soft, wearable material?
After being harvested, bundles of bast fibres are separated from woody hemp stalks. To separate those bast fibre bundles, an alkaline solution is used. Finally, the bast fibres are prepared for spinning.
From here, the fibres can still be fairly irregular – meaning it could end up spinning into a rough or broken yarn. This is what, until now, made cotton the preferred choice. It’s possible to “cottonise” hemp – transforming those woody hemp stalks into consistency just like a cotton puff.
This is an extra processing step, so it’s why hemp is still relatively expensive (although it’s cost-efficient to grow, the demand isn’t there yet for cheaper mass production). This is why hemp blends are a more accessible way to enjoy the benefits.
Plenty of our fabrics are actually blends of materials, such as a polyester and cotton blend. Hemp is a fibre that plays particularly well with other materials, especially cotton and cellulose (wood) fabrics like Tencel.
Hemp blends can add durability and abrasion-resistance to products, making it pretty good for garments that need to be strong, like denim jeans.
It’s also moisture-wicking and may even be UV resistant and anti-bacterial (which is useful in clothing, as this can help to prevent body odour) – making hemp an ideal choice for summer clothing.
And most importantly, it can reduce the overall carbon footprint of a garment – for example, reducing the water usage and waste generated by producing enough cotton for a whole t-shirt.
Would you wear hemp? Here are some good reads from a few brands.