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

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

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.

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