Top of the crops: hemp’s new look

Photo by The Clean Thread

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.

Photo by Marco Jimenez on Unsplash

Water

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.

Soil

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.)

End life

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.

Photo by Rick Proctor on Unsplash

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.

Photo by The Clean Thread

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.

Patagonia: https://www.patagonia.com/hemp.html

Levi’s: https://www.levi.com/US/en_US/blog/article/levis-wellthread-x-outerknown-present-cottonized-hemp/

Afends: https://afends.com/pages/our-vision

Knit one, purl two, but ethics first: a close look at wool

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When it comes to fashion, an easy way to shop sustainable is to choose natural fabrics.

Plant-based fabrics, made with materials such as cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo and wood are easy to call eco-friendly, if they’re grown organically or managed responsibly.

But animal-based fabrics, although biodegradable, luxurious, long-lasting and arguably better than synthetics, open a whole new obstacle: ethics and animal rights. Today, let’s focus on wool: what to avoid, and what to look out for.

See this post for the benefits of wool – in short, it’s been used for this long by humans for a reason. It’s warming, moisture-wicking, long-lasting, resilient, and fully biodegradable when the garment reaches its end life.

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The problems

Sheep-rearing can be just as polluting as cattle farming, if not managed responsibly – sheep produce methane too!

And while shearing (the process of cutting off the wool) is not painful for a sheep, cruel practices involve mulesing – an unpleasant procedure that removes skin from the sheep’s rear end, to keep the wool cleaner.

Photo by Les Triconautes on Unsplash

Better welfare, better planet

Look out for signs of good animal welfare and land management with certification bodies such as the Responsible Wool Standard.

Sheep that are reared for wool are not usually destined to be slaughtered – in most cases, they’re sheared and then continue with their daily sheep bah-siness (sorry). If managed smartly, their daily business can be good for the soil.

Sheep pastures are often rotated with crop planting, as sheep will happily eat all sorts of plants grown in poor soil. Their manure then fertilises the soil, ultimately benefiting the ecosystem.

Productive farming can also help to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the land. Some farms, for example in Australia, have achieved carbon-neutral sheep rearing farms by managing their land well.

Photo by olha yarova on Unsplash

The takeaway

Just as I don’t want to buy a dress that will inevitably end up in landfill or ocean once the trend has passed, I also don’t want to place my pennies into a practice that is cruel to animals.

The good thing is that cruelty-free animal fabric alternatives are perfectly available. With awareness rising about the environment, health issues and animal cruelty, more people are taking on a vegan diet, with relative ease.

And just as the market is opening up to this new consumer – see the success of the Impossible burger – the fashion industry is creating more organic, ethical clothing options.

A few choices: high street & high-end

Wool is generally best treated as an investment. It might cost more than a synthetic jumper, but it will feel and last better in the long-run. But plenty of high street options, like H&M’s Conscious line or M&S, offer good quality wool. Just take the extra few seconds to check the label and make sure it’s 100% wool (H&M like to sneak in those polyester blends).

Everlane offer a mid-range collection and are completely transparent about their supply chain.

Theory launched their Good Wool collection in 2018 – premium merino wool, constructed into garments with energy-saving technology.

Patagonia advocate for animal welfare and use recycled wool in their outdoor-focused products, giving animal products an extended life.

Stella McCartney is one of the best-known high-end options for sustainable wool.

Shop secondhand. Vintage stores or charity stores give another life to wool, and even if the brand hasn’t made good choices in who they source from, you can rest assured knowing that your pennies have gone to an independent business while making the most of the garment.

Natural fabrics: eco-friendly wardrobe switches

Let’s talk natural fibres: materials that come straight from nature, whether plant or animal. More specifically, let’s focus on the big three: cotton, linen and wool.

When buying new textiles (for clothing, home furnishing or anything else), going natural is usually the easiest way to ensure better sustainability.

But what about when natural doesn’t equal eco-friendly?

Thanks to supply and demand becoming balanced all over the world (thank you, fast fashion), the overproduction of these materials – especially if cheaply produced – means that natural fibres have a bigger impact than we can imagine.

But awareness is rising, and global NGOs are trying to smooth this out for manufacturers and shoppers. Here are some tips on what to look out for, and what to avoid, when purchasing products made with natural fibres.

First, cotton

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Cotton deserves a blog post on its own, but we’ll be brief here.

Cotton is a versatile natural fibre. Raw cotton is the wooly, white mass of fibre that is picked from the plant. When spun into yarn and woven into fabric, it creates garments that are breathable and gentle on the skin, which makes it ideal for intimate basics, like underwear and t-shirts.

Best of all, if grown without harsh chemicals, cotton is strong enough to be recyclable, and can biodegrade in around six months.

So what’s the problem?

Growing cotton requires a lot of water, and less educated farms often overuse toxic chemicals, such as pesticides. In short, too much water is wasted, toxic pollutants leech into water sources and soil, and the health of workers is at risk.

The good news is there are ways around this ethical and environmental problem. Organic cotton is grown free from strong pesticides. There are better methods of irrigation to use water efficiently. Regulations are put in place to protect workers’ rights. The entire process becomes more circular (for example, the soil can be reused and is even enriched).

To identify sustainable cotton, look out for labels with organic certifications – for example GOTS, BCI Cotton and COTTON USA. These should be visible on the labels – brands want you to know when they’re sustainable, because it’s a selling point.

Tip: look for 100% cotton: this means it isn’t blended with another synthetic material, which makes the garment easier to recycle or biodegrade at the end of its life. The good news is, brands usually don’t mess with 100% organic cotton, because again – it’s a selling point.

Next up, linen

Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

Linen is a beautiful fabric with thousands of years of history. We have evidence of linen fabrics dating all the way back to prehistoric times. Although a more expensive fabric to buy, linen is strong and gets luxuriously softer with every wash, making it a great long-term investment.

Linen is woven from flax plant fibres, which is a highly resilient and useful crop that requires little water to maintain, making it more environmentally friendly than most cotton. A lot of linen is produced in Europe, around France and Belgium, where the rainfall is enough to grow flax.

It’s also breathable and light, making it ideal for summer. It can be used for clothing and it’s strong enough for traditional home textiles: think bed linen.

Because linen is rising in popularity in apparel – and not just for retirees – companies are also coming up with plenty of innovative linen products, such as knitted linen that doesn’t crease, or is at least easier to iron.

Is linen always eco-friendly?

Because of its rustic, textured look, linen is often prettiest when untreated, i.e. not dyed or bleached. When it’s left with its natural look, linen is fully biodegradable.

Tip: To make sure that the linen you’re wearing is sustainable, stick to untreated linen – usually an off-white colour. Bright white linen has likely been bleached, and unless you can ensure the whole supply chain is eco-friendly, it’s best to steer clear of this.

How about wool?

Photo by Victoria Bilsborough on Unsplash

While biodegradability is important, what if there was a material that actually improved the soil it breaks down in? Of course there is. It’s wool.

But are the sheep alright?

The ethical obstacles that come with wool are, as with any animal fibre, complicated. This deserves another separate blog post, but in this article we’ll focus on the benefits of organic, ethical wool. That means responsible farming, a commitment to abstain from animal cruelty, and environmentally-friendly treatments and cleaning processes.

Organic wool is an excellent biodegradable material, which adds nutrients back to the earth. It’s comfortable and lasts for a long time, often getting better with age, meaning it’s a material that is worth investing in.

It’s versatile – useful for everything from warm clothing to home textiles, sanitary products and activewear. It’s durable, and protective – think of merino wool hiking socks, which minimise blisters thanks to their breathable quality (which, as a bonus, can also reduce odour).

The breakdown

The benefits of these big three natural materials are endless. While being good for the environment, they also often offer a level of comfort that can’t be found with cheap synthetics.

But as with most materials, to ensure that your wardrobe is sustainable, you’ll probably have to spend more. To combat this, choose garments that won’t go out of style, and buy with the rest of your wardrobe in mind, so that you can keep mixing-and-matching.

The best purchases are the ones that can be worn for decades to come, and there’s a reason why traditional fabrics like cotton, linen and wool have stood the test of time throughout human history.

Lastly, and importantly, look for brands that are transparent about their entire supply chain. Is their farm responsible? Do they use harsh chemicals to clean or dye the fibres? Are their factories powered sustainably? Are their workers paid a living wage? Do they ship each stage of the garment all over the world to save a few pennies?

An ethical apparel brand will be upfront about their practices, and hopefully, it’s these brands that will succeed in the market.

Hi, I’m Emily.

I’m the writer behind The Clean Thread, an eco-modern textile and lifestyle journal.

At The Clean Thread, you’ll find textile industry content made digestible for the consumer. From new fibre innovations to China’s evolving fashion industry, we’ll mainly talk textiles over here. But we’ll also talk about realistically making more environmentally-conscious choices in the heart of an Asian city.

It’s challenging to be sustainable in Hong Kong, where I’ve lived for the past four years. Single-use plastic is everywhere. Recycling facilities are hard to come by. I don’t have outdoor space for gardening. For most of the year, sleep doesn’t come easily without air-con. The list of excuses goes on.

And then we have my day job: writing about the textile trade industry. As I learned more about the fashion supply chain, from fibres to fabric, I couldn’t look at my wardrobe without seeing a portion of my carbon footprint on a clothes hanger.

Plus, my fast fashion polyester wasn’t breathing well in humidity, and I’ll try anything to minimise summer sweats. So, I began a total upheaval of my wardrobe and the way I viewed sustainable style. This is an ongoing task that gives me equal shares of guilt and smugness as I navigate the right way for me.

I’ll be documenting all of this and more, along with commentary and market insight from the global textile industry. I also write in British English, so don’t mind the fibers being fibres, pants being trousers and sweaters being jumpers.