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HEMP AUGUST 19, 2023

Understanding Hemp Fabric: Eco-Friendly Fashion's Rise

Hemp fabric is derived from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.), a member of the cannabis family. Unlike its notorious counterpart, marijuana, industrial hemp contains minimal amounts of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This ensures no intoxication is linked with its use, refuting longstanding myths.


Origins and Historical Context of Hemp

Hemp boasts an extensive history of human utilization, stretching back at least 6,000 years. Early civilizations prized it for medical and fabric uses, with its fibers being an integral part of ancient textiles. In North America, hemp's arrival in the 1600s was met with widespread adoption, predating even the cultivation of cotton.


From ropes to clothing, hemp’s applications were extensive, with surplus material processed to extract hemp oil for varied uses.


However, the ascent of cotton in the mid-1800s led to hemp’s decline in the textile world. A resurgence occurred after the 2014 Farm Bill, which revised hemp's legal status and promoted its cultivation.


hemp fabric with minimal hemp leaf


Hemp Fabric Production Process

The transformation of hemp into fabric is meticulous and consists of:


  1. Growing: Cultivated to produce tall stems rich in fibers, hemp plants are grown in close proximity.

  2. Retting: This process is pivotal for extracting fibers, employing either dew or water methods to eliminate noncellulosic substances.

  3. Extraction: The fiber-rich outer layer is separated from the inner wooden core post-retting.

  4. Combing: Following extraction, fibers are combed to align, enhancing their textile quality.

  5. Spinning: Fibers are spun into yarn, with the outcome—coarse or fine—determined by wet or dry spinning, respectively.


process of making hemp fabric


Characteristics of Hemp Fabric

Distinct attributes set hemp fabric apart:


  • Durability: Hemp stands out due to its enhanced strength compared to many common textiles.

  • UV & Antimicrobial Protection: Not only does it shield wearers from harmful UV rays, but its antimicrobial properties also make it less hospitable to pathogens.

  • Ageing Grace: Repeated usage renders the fabric softer.

  • Thermoregulation: Hemp fabric adapts, warming wearers in cold temperatures and cooling in heat.

  • Low Maintenance: Hemp resists wrinkles and supports machine washing.

  • Elasticity: Unlike other textiles, its stretch is limited.

  • Absorption: Exceptional water absorption makes it apt for dyeing and ensures wearers remain dry.


folded hemp fabric


Advantages and Limitations of Hemp Fabric


Pros (Advantages):


Feature Description
Eco-friendliness Hemp is biodegradable and decomposes naturally within a few months.
Resilience & Protection Hemp offers UV resistance and is known for its durability.
Natural Growth Hemp can be cultivated without resorting to pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals.
Sustainability Hemp requires less land than many other crops, supporting deforestation prevention.
Adaptability Hemp is versatile and can be fused or blended with other natural fibers.


Cons (Limitations):


Feature Description
Texture Some users find hemp fabric can feel coarse compared to fabrics like cotton.
Production Strain The cultivation and harvesting of hemp can be labor-intensive.
Market Availability As a relatively recent addition to the fabric market, availability can be limited and costs might be higher.



Environmental Impact of Hemp Fabric

The environmental impact of hemp fabric stands in stark contrast to many other materials used in the textile industry. Hemp boasts impressive water efficiency, necessitating about half the volume that cotton demands, thereby presenting a sustainable option in water-scarce regions.


Moreover, hemp's cultivation positively impacts soil health, with its deep root system preventing erosion, facilitating soil aeration, and engaging in phytoremediation to detoxify tainted lands. Notably, the remnants of the hemp plant can be composted, acting as a natural fertilizer, further reducing the need for synthetic inputs. In terms of carbon emissions, hemp distinguishes itself by being a potent carbon sink.


During its growth phase, it can absorb significant amounts of CO2, with an acre of hemp potentially sequestering around 10-30 tons. Combined with its reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides—both of which have production-related emissions—hemp offers a reduced carbon footprint, making it an environmentally friendly fabric choice.


hemp fabric in a table


Comparison to Other Fabrics


Hemp vs. Cotton

Hemp and cotton have historically been two of the major players in the world of textiles. While both are natural fibers, hemp has distinct advantages in terms of sustainability.


Hemp requires less water than cotton, and is typically cultivated without the extensive use of pesticides which are prevalent in cotton farming. Additionally, hemp grows in diverse climates and restores vital nutrients to the soil, whereas cotton can be more draining on soil health.


However, cotton often has a softer initial feel, which has made it popular in the clothing industry.


Hemp vs. Linen

Linen, derived from the flax plant, shares several characteristics with hemp, as both are bast fibers.


They offer similar breathable and moisture-wicking properties. Both fabrics become softer with each wash and are known for their durability.


Yet, when it comes to environmental impact, hemp generally has an upper hand. Its growth cycle is shorter, which means it can be harvested more frequently, and it usually requires fewer pesticides than flax.


Hemp vs. Synthetic fibers

In contrast to natural fibers like hemp, synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are derived from petroleum. Hemp fabric is biodegradable and has a lower environmental footprint in terms of water usage, pesticide requirement, and carbon emissions.


Synthetic fibers, however, offer certain performance characteristics such as elasticity, resistance to staining, and longevity in specific conditions.


Yet, their production process is energy-intensive and releases more greenhouse gases, and when disposed of, they don't break down as naturally and easily as hemp.


Hemp Fabric Care

Caring for hemp fabric ensures that its strength, durability, and natural luster remain intact over time.


When washing hemp garments, it's recommended to use cold water and a gentle cycle to prevent the fabric from weakening. If possible, use mild detergents free from harsh chemicals to maintain the fabric's integrity and softness.


For drying, it's best to air-dry hemp clothes by laying them flat or hanging them, as using a dryer might cause the fabric to lose its shape or shrink.


In terms of longevity, hemp fabric tends to get softer with each wash, but avoid bleaching or using fabric softeners as they can damage the fibers.


For storing hemp garments, ensure they are kept in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. Using padded hangers or folding them neatly helps in retaining their shape and prevents unnecessary wrinkles or stretches.


hemp fabric in a cozy cabinet


In Conclusion

Hemp fabric, a timeless and historically significant material, has once again emerged at the forefront of sustainable fashion and environmental consciousness. As we navigate the challenges of the 21st century, the importance of embracing eco-friendly alternatives becomes paramount.


Hemp, with its minimal water usage, soil rejuvenation properties, and reduced carbon footprint, serves as an exemplar of sustainable fabric choices. Its resilience when compared to other fabrics like cotton, linen, and synthetics, coupled with its ease of care, makes it not just an environmentally conscious choice, but also a practical one.


As consumers, the onus is on us to recognize and support the potential of hemp, pushing industries to adopt more sustainable practices. In hemp fabric, we find a harmonious blend of history, functionality, and environmental stewardship, inviting us all to be part of a greener, more sustainable future.


Is hemp fabric better than cotton?

From an environmental perspective, hemp fabric is often considered superior to cotton. Hemp cultivation requires less water, doesn’t necessitate pesticides, and can be grown in diverse climates. It also rejuvenates the soil, preventing erosion. From a durability standpoint, hemp fibers are stronger and more long-lasting than cotton. However, the choice between hemp and cotton often comes down to personal preference and the specific use case, as each has unique texture and properties.

What is hemp fabric good for?

Hemp fabric is versatile and can be used for a variety of purposes. Its durability and breathability are particularly valued for clothing items like shirts, dresses, and jackets. Its natural resistance to UV rays makes it suitable for outdoor wear. Hemp is also used for home linens such as bedding, curtains, and towels. Its high absorbency rate makes it a popular choice for cloth diapers. Additionally, hemp's robust nature is ideal for accessories like bags and shoes.

Is hemp an expensive fabric?

Hemp fabric tends to be more expensive than comparable materials like conventional cotton, mainly because of its eco-friendly cultivation practices and the labor-intensive harvesting process. While the cost is decreasing as hemp gains popularity and production methods improve, it still remains on the pricier side in comparison to other fabrics.

How can you tell if fabric is hemp?

Determining if a fabric is hemp can sometimes be challenging based on appearance alone, as it can resemble other fabrics like linen. However, hemp generally has a unique texture – it feels slightly rougher initially but softens with use and washing. A burn test can also be helpful: hemp fabric turns into a fine white ash and has a smell resembling burning leaves. Additionally, checking product labels, certifications, or reaching out to manufacturers can provide clarity. If price is a consideration, remember that hemp often is more expensive than comparable materials.