Hemp fabric has seen a surge in popularity in the last couple of years. But unlike what many may think, it’s not anything like the psychoactive drug that is often linked to the Cannabis sativa plant.
With the increased interest in sustainability and eco friendly fabrics, natural fabrics like hemp have also garnered increased attention.
And it’s a good thing! Hemp fiber is a natural and renewable resource, which means a lot when considering its overall sustainability and life cycle. Organic hemp fiber, in particular, is frequently touted as the ideal sustainable fabric for t-shirts, underwear, and more.
But is hemp fabric really all it’s made out to be?
This article will explore all of the best qualities you can get from hemp clothing and the less desirable ones as well.
What Is Hemp Fabric?
Contrary to what you might have expected, hemp fiber has been around for thousands of years. Although most of us have only heard of it in recent times, it was already cultivated as a fabric as far back as 3000 years ago.
There have been indications that hemp plants were already being grown 8000 years ago, although not necessarily for fabric.
Coming from the plant Cannabis sativa, hemp fabric is a strong, sturdy, and durable material that can be used in a wide variety of applications. It is used for ropes, sails, underwear, shirts, totes, and more. However, its application in fashion is still quite limited due to the stigma brought about by its connection to the Cannabis plant.
But despite what our initial thoughts betray, the Cannabis sativa plant is not always the psychoactive drug we think it is. Although marijuana does come from Cannabis sativa, the key difference is in their levels of THC or tetrahydrocannabinol.
Over its history, hemp has been used for two primary purposes, as a psychoactive drug and fabric. The Cannabis sativa plants cultivated for psychoactive use have high levels of THC, which is the psychoactive component in the plant.
On the flip side, hemp cultivation for fibers focuses specifically on lowering the plant’s THC levels and improving the durability and strength of its fibers.
The result is a strong, breathable, and eco-friendly fabric that isn’t as well-utilized as it should be.
What Is Good About Hemp Fabric?
Alright, we keep going on about how excellent hemp fabric is, but we have yet to cover precisely what makes hemp so unique.
For one, hemp is a great fabric from a sustainability point of view. We’ll talk more about this in a later section, but hemp is produced without needing plenty of pesticides and other chemicals. It also isn’t water-intensive, which makes it much more eco friendly than a close alternative such as cotton.
Perhaps one of the best selling points hemp fabric has is that it is exceptionally durable. And in a fashion industry that’s constantly creating piles upon piles of waste, we must stick to fabrics that we can use for the years ahead.
Hemp fabric can be used for at least a few decades—think 20-30 years. With regular care, you can probably even keep your hemp fabrics for the rest of your life! Putting it next to cotton, which can be used for up to 10 years, a few decades is quite a long time indeed.
Still on the topic of a fabric’s lifecycle, the great news is that hemp clothes are completely biodegradable. Provided, of course, that they are not blended with synthetic fabrics that do not biodegrade.
On top of all that, hemp is also super breathable! It’s an excellent fabric for warm or temperate climates where people need clothes that can cool them down. Its breathability is also part of why hemp is so often compared to cotton.
Hemp fabric is also pretty lightweight and makes for the perfect material in locations or seasons where the sun is always shining. It’s also great for humid weather conditions.
Not Prone To Pilling
One of the downfalls of most fabrics we use today is that they eventually pill and start to lose their quality after a couple of washes. You may have noticed your low-quality cotton shirts start to pill after only a handful of washes.
On the other hand, hemp fibers are highly resistant to pilling, and their long strands and fibers make an incredibly durable material that will not easily fall apart during washes. Of course, you should still do your best to maintain one of our favorite vegan fabrics, which we will touch on later in the article.
Hemp's Less Desirable Qualities
Of course, no one fabric is always perfectly sustainable, no matter how appealing. With that, here are some of hemp’s less attractive qualities.
First of all, hemp is expensive. Although it is not necessarily costly to produce, the production scale makes hemp a little more expensive than your average textile. As we explore how hemp is created, we’ll see that its production seems to require only a few resources and not even a lot of time.
But perhaps the most significant issue with hemp is that it is so often connected to marijuana. This creates a stigma around the plant that contributes to many locations being averse to cultivating the plant. Hopefully, we will see this change in the next decade or so as people are more acutely aware of the benefits of hemp.
Because hemp is costly, it cannot currently be a viable alternative to low-cost fabrics like cotton or polyester. And if we truly want to enact sustainable change, we also have to factor in the fabric’s accessibility at any income level or social group.
It Might Be Tough Or Textured
One thing to understand about hemp textiles is that they are textured. You may find their texture akin to that of soft canvas. It isn’t that fabric hemp is tough because that isn’t at all the case.
However, it will not be on the same level with modal fabric or peace silk in terms of softness. As such, it won’t always be the best fabric for bed sheets or pillowcases, especially if you are very particular about what you feel around you when you are in the comfort of your bed.
It Wrinkles Easily
One distinct con is that hemp wrinkles easily. While some hemp products may be wrinkle-resistant, these may have more environmental impact during production due to the chemicals used to produce additional features.
That said, you may need to press or iron your hemp fashion quite a lot. If you are not up to a lot of ironing, you can opt for hemp fibers blended with other materials, as these tend to be more wrinkle-resistant than 100% hemp.
Irresponsible Hemp Production
As with everything in the world of sustainable materials and sustainable fashion, we always have to take everything with a grain of salt. Just because producing hemp fabric can be an environmentally sound process does not always make it so.
There will always be farms that put profit margins first before the environment, those that are more concerned about efficiency than they are about taking care of their land.
The bottom line is that hemp can also be made quite irresponsibly and have a negative environmental impact. As conscious consumers, we need to know how our consumption affects our planet and its people. Part of this is constantly being critical about what we buy, even if it can be an eco fabric.
The good news is that you can easily look for organic hemp from your favorite sustainable brands. This way, you can guarantee that you buy fabric hemp made in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way possible.
Hemp fabric certifications include those from the USDA, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), the EU, and ECOCERT. Whenever you buy hemp products such as premium hemp underwear, always check for organic certifications.
How Industrial Hemp Is Made
Alright, to understand even further how fabric hemp impacts our planet, let’s take a quick look at how hemp fabric is made.
Manufacturing hemp fabric, of course, starts with cultivating the hemp plant. To be clear, there is a difference between growing the plant for the hemp seed and developing it for the fiber. Without getting into the specifics of planting, the hemp plant is typically grown at 15 plants per square foot, resulting in quite a high yield without requiring copious amounts of land.
Once the plant is ready, typically around mid-August in North America, they are then machine harvested and left in the field to ret. Retting is the most common process used to break the bonds between the two fibers found in hemp plants.
Hemp’s longer fibers (bast) are separated from the inner, shorter fibers (hurd). This step is necessary because only the longer fibers are used to make hemp clothing.
Retting allows the fabric to naturally decompose in the field for around 4-6 weeks, during which they are raked a couple of times before finally being made into bales for storage.
At this point, breakers are used to separate the two fibers. The bast fibers are then carded into strands, cleaned, and removed from impurities. From this point, there are numerous ways to further process hemp, with different methods for different end products.
To create hemp fabric, a process called steam explosion is used to render the carded strands into a weavable fiber. The process is then quite similar to making most other fabrics. The fiber is first turned into yarn and then woven into the desired styles.
Manufacturers can then determine the quality and make of the resulting hemp fabric. Although industrial hemp products may vary slightly in terms of softness and overall texture, their product is generally the same—that of a soft but slightly textured fabric quite like canvas and cotton.
In addition, pure hemp can also be blended with different fabrics like peace silk, linen, and other fabrics to complement its features. The fabric blended with industrial hemp may change its sustainability and environmental impact, so always check.
Is Hemp Fabric Sustainable And Eco Friendly?
If there’s anything to be learned about how hemp is made, it is definitely a sustainable process—especially when we consider how environmentally harmful conventional fabric production is.
Cultivating hemp requires limited pesticides and water, unlike its close alternative: cotton fabric. It also grows pretty quickly and doesn’t require a lot of land to cultivate. More specifically, hemp plants produce 250% more yield than cotton and 600% more than flax on the same amount of land (1).
Among all natural fibers, hemp has the highest yield per acre (2).
Hemp is also well known as a carbon-negative raw material. It consumes more carbon than it emits, which is an incredible feature considering how emissions constitute a significant issue in the modern world. However, that doesn’t mean all hemp is carbon negative! Emissions can still be generated from optional processing, so it’s vital to consider those as well.
But generally, hemp production is a great carbon equalizer. They absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than forests, making them great champions of carbon neutrality.
It can also have a positive effect on soil nutrients and can even be helpful against soil erosion. Hemp is often used as a rotation crop, which is utilized to “heal” the soil between crops.
Yet despite all the benefits we’ve mentioned, hemp fabric still does have some adverse environmental impacts. Retting, in particular, can have terrible ecological consequences when not done sustainably.
As you may recall, retting is the necessary breaking the bonds between the fibers in a hemp plant. Unfortunately, retting can also be done using environmentally harmful practices.
Chemical retting is usually the most common method used in producing conventional hemp fiber since it is faster and produces more uniform quality. The downside is that it can involve many harmful chemicals that affect water systems and the nearby environment. Water retting is another form of the process that is also environmentally harmful.
For the most sustainable hemp, dew retting is by far the best option. Dew-retted hemp requires no additional water, synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or additional inputs. It allows the nutrients from natural decomposition to return to the soil as they should, which is the ideal scenario from a sustainability standpoint.
There can also be issues when hemp is mixed with other chemicals during production, whether they are wrinkle resistors or dyes. When shopping for hemp pieces, try to go for those naturally dyed and untreated with other chemicals.
On the labor side of things, we also have to consider that making hemp requires a lot of human resources, and this has profound implications for how workers on farms and in factories around the world are treated. Make sure to buy from brands that consider their workers and ensure they are compensated equitably and given safe and healthy working conditions.
Hemp Clothing Vs. Organic Cotton Clothing
You may have noticed that hemp fabric is often compared to organic cotton. In many of our discussions above, we talked about how the two match up against each other. Here are some of their differences:
In terms of durability, hemp is the clear winner. It can be multiple times as strong as cotton, evidenced by its use in industrial applications such as building materials or strong ropes.
Hemp fabric also lasts much longer than cotton by at least a few decades.
However, cotton is by far the more comfortable fabric. High-thread count cotton, in particular, is much softer and more comfortable against the skin than hemp.
Although both can be considered sustainable fabrics, there are notable differences between cotton fiber and hemp in terms of sustainability.
For one, hemp fabric made organically typically doesn’t use much water, whereas organic cotton production still does, although much less than conventional cotton production.
As a high-yield crop, growing hemp also requires less land than cotton, making it one of the most sustainable textiles around the world.
This doesn’t mean that organic cotton ranks lower on our list of the most eco friendly fabrics! Organic cotton is still, undoubtedly, one of the best options you can buy. It now boils down to what you’re preferences are and what you’re looking for in a fabric.
If you want a cross between hemp and cotton, you can easily find a fabric blend made of the two. Look for hemp blended with cotton or other fibers as this often results in a comfortable and strong eco friendly fabric.
Caring For Hemp Fabric
We are all well aware that washing is one of the largest contributors to how clothes age. As such, it is very important to care for your hemp textiles with care.
Laundering hemp fabrics is best done by hand to preserve their quality and color. If you are using a washing machine, make sure to use a gentle cycle. You should also wash dark colors separately as hemp isn’t the most color-fast fabric.
Using cold water is always best, but you could also get away with using warm water. However, never use hot water as this could affect your hemp fabric significantly.
When drying, it’s much better to just hang or line dry your hemp products. If you are using a dryer, just use the gentlest possible setting and avoid using too much heat. It’s also important to consider that hemp materials dry pretty quickly, so hang drying really isn’t that bad of an alternative.
And there you have it! All you need to know about hemp fiber and why it’s starting to become so well-loved all over the world. As you can see, hemp fabric really sets itself apart from other fabrics, especially when we consider that it is an incredibly versatile fiber.
But just like with any other fiber we recommend on our platform, we will always encourage remaining critical when purchasing hemp fabrics. Whenever possible, always choose organic hemp. It is so much better for our environment and ensures better social and ethical practices during production.
- https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/hemp#:~:text=Hemp%20is%20a%20natural%20p lant%20fiber.&text=Organic%20hemp%20is%20one%20of,%E2%80%93%20the%20best%20possible%20rating).
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