What is Hemp Fabric?
Hemp fabric is hip and happening.
You’ve probably only been hearing about it recently, but hemp fiber has been around FOREVER. Picture this, you’re in Egypt on a tour of an ancient tomb. That mummy you gawk over is wrapped in cloth—hemp cloth! Hemp fabric has been found in tombs that are more than 10,000 years old!
There are several reasons why hemp fabric was used in ancient civilizations in the Middle East, Asia, and China—they’re much the same reasons why it’s making a resurgence today. Plus some reasons that our ancient ancestors weren’t so concerned about, like eco friendly hemp clothing.
Thankfully, sustainable fashion is here, and it’s here to stay. With all of the environmental harm brought on by fast fashion, we’re excited about a future with more fields of hemp growing (and more hemp fabric clothes, too!).
WHAT IS HEMP FABRIC MADE OF?
So, where does hemp fabric come from? This may blow some minds but hemp actually comes from the Cannabis sativa plant. That’s right, the same plant responsible for marijuana.
Before you jump to conclusions and think that you can roll up that new hemp tee shirt for a little relaxation after a long day, think again. Some varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant are bred to be higher (pun intended) in THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis.
HOW TO MAKE HEMP FABRIC?
Once farmers have designated a variety of the Cannabis sativa crop for clothing, they remove the outer layer of the stalk to turn it into a textile material.
Once removed from the plant, the stalk can be processed into yarn or rope. This material is extremely versatile and used in a range of products—from paper, to canvas, to stalks, to even super-strong ropes for ships.
IS HEMP FABRIC SUSTAINABLE?
So, how sustainable is hemp fabric? What gives it higher eco street cred than, say, cotton?
Carbon Negative Farming
If we look at it from a production standpoint, we’ll see that the growth of hemp is an inherently eco-friendly process. It makes perfect sense that hemp has been grown for millennia because of its low water and resource requirements.
According to analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the water required to produce 1kg of hemp is somewhere between 300 and 500 liters. Now compare that to the 10,000 liters required to produce the same 1kg of cotton.
Hemp is also high-yielding and produces much more product on much less land, without the need for any chemical pesticides This, and the fact that it replenishes soil nutrients through growth gives it the ability to regenerate soil, a process known as phytoremediation (i.e. cleaning the soil and removing it of toxins).
Hemp is essentially a “self-offsetting crop” that actually absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere than forests, which is why industrial hemp farms are an ideal “carbon sink”. That’s all pretty much just a fancy way to say it’s a carbon negative raw material. .
Plus, hemp’s growth is quick—taking around just 120 days to become the stalk that gets turned into jeans. Hemp can also reuse land every couple of years, something that takes much longer with flax or cotton.
No Industrial Waste Byproducts
One of the other ways in which hemp is an eco-friendly fabric option is that the whole plant can be used. While it’s the stalks we want for clothing, the woody layer is great for animal bedding, building purposes, and fuel. It can even be heated, treated, and molded into a plastic substitute, a use that’s taking the German auto industry by storm. Life is a high-way, after all.
Fiber Strength and Durability
Remember how we mentioned that hemp ropes were used for ships? This should give you some idea of the material’s durability. If it’s a perfect choice for sails on maritime vessels, then you can accurately assume that your favorite hemp tee can withstand the elements, too.
Longer use = less resources required over time.
The necessity for choosing organic hemp
There’s got to be a negative hidden somewhere beneath the hemp leaves—and there is. Hemp production, as we mentioned above, requires very little to nothing by way of herbicides and pesticides, but it has been known to require more nitrogen (fertilizer) than other textiles.
Unfortunately, this is mostly due to USDA restrictions. However, in accordance with the 2014 Farm Bill, it became legal for industrial strains of hemp to receive USDA organic certifications. So if you’re shopping for hemp clothing, be sure to seek out organically certified sources.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF HEMP
Aside from being one of the more sustainable fabrics out there, hemp fabric has several other advantages to celebrate (and a few disadvantages to be aware of).
Advantages of Hemp Fabric
- Hemp is durable: the fabric can last a loooong time—we’re talking decades, up to 20 or 30 years with proper care! While hemp will get softer over time, the fibers won’t degrade.
- Hemp is not heavy, it is lightweight and breathable: In fact, it’s one of the lightest fibers on the market, in fact. Hemp weighs up to one-third less than wool or cotton (can you say lightweight AND durable comfort?!?).
- So can you exercise in hemp? Of course! Hemp’s lightweight nature makes it perfect for exercise (or perfect for comfort as you think about all the exercise you should be doing…).
- Hemp has a naturally high UPF (ultraviolet protection factor): Based on SGS testing by WAMA Underwear, it was found that hemp fabric was 99.9% effective in blocking UV-A and UV-B rays, meaning it qualifies as a top tier UPF 50+ fabric. Hemp is perfect for summer clothing. Still, don’t forget your reef safe sunscreen!
- It’s naturally antimicrobial: Hemp is resistant to harmful microbes, mold, and mildew, which means hemp garments won’t smell bad after one wear (less washing means more sustainability!). This also means it’s great for those of us with sensitive skin.
- Hemp is partially hydrophobic: This means that it reflects water, much like what you would witness on the cannabis leaf as it’s growing. While hemp is not waterproof by any means, it stands up to a light drizzle.
- Hemp doesn’t shrink: One of the biggest advantages of hemp fabric is that it retains its shape. Compared to a cotton shirt, hemp will retain its shape and integrity after hundreds, if not thousands, of washes.
Disadvantages of Hemp Fabric
- It’s a little textured: You might be wondering, “How does hemp fabric feel?” Hemp feels similar to cotton, just a little tougher (though far from scratchy or uncomfortable)
- While it is used for bedding and towels, it’s not as soft as high thread count cotton. It may be durable, but if you need silky-smooth sheets, you might prefer cotton or modal.
- Hemp fabric is expensive: One of the biggest disadvantages of hemp would have to be its price. This is interesting because although the production of hemp is generally cheaper than cotton, market factors have played a role in its higher cost. The availability of cotton is much higher around the globe, which makes it cheaper per volume.
- Also, like some other sustainable textiles, the novelty of hemp (especially given its controversial history and its appeal to marijauan enthusiasts) makes it something that brands can put a higher price tag on.
HOW TO CARE FOR HEMP FABRIC?
Hemp may be one of the longest-lasting fabrics we’ve got, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider the best washing and ironing practices.
How to wash hemp fabric
Like with most fabrics, try to be as gentle as possible when washing hemp. Use the gentle wash cycle or hand wash. Gentle, eco-friendly soap works best too.
We like to use cold water (warm if we must), but always avoid hot water.
Another tip: oxygen bleaches (hydrogen peroxide) work much better than chlorine bleaches.
How to dry hemp fabric
You won’t have to be too fussy when it comes to drying hemp clothes. If you do decide to machine dry, just be mindful of the time and don’t let the hemp fiber get too hot (aka low heat works best).
But considering it’s so quick-drying, you might as well save the energy and line dry your hemp items.
How to iron hemp fabric
If an iron is required, it works best when the hemp fabric is still damp. Use medium to high heat, and start on the wrong side (or the inside of the garment) first before flipping it over to the outside.
After ironing, just hang to dry fully and voila—that hemp dress is crisp and ready for date night!
HEMP FABRIC VS OTHER MATERIALS
Like some of the other fabrics we’ve mentioned in our sustainable fabric series (lyocell and modal, for example), hemp is commonly blended with other types of fabrics. Most commonly, you’ll find hemp/cotton and hemp/bamboo blends. Compared to those basic fabrics however, hemp is a little different.
Hemp fabric vs Cotton:
After it’s been processed, hemp feels pretty similar to cotton (just slightly tougher, like a soft canvas). It’s also light, faster drying, less absorbing, and more UV protective. Plantwise, it requires less water and half as much land to grow as cotton.
Hemp fabric vs Bamboo:
Bamboo is generally softer and silkier, but hemp is much more sustainable, hypoallergenic, and durable than bamboo.
Note that bamboo is a tricky fiber. As a plant, it’s super sustainable as it requires low water and consumes high amounts of CO2 (just like hemp!). Turning it into a fabric, however, can involve all sorts of toxic chemicals and most “bamboo” you see listed we wouldn’t consider sustainable.
Hemp fabric vs Linen:
Linen is very similar to hemp, except that it’s derived from the flax plant (another really sustainable, low impact crop). Both fabrics are light and breathable, but hemp’s longer fibers (which can reach up to 15 ft) make it more durable than shorter flax fibers (which reach a max of 3 ft)
So, is hemp fabric better than cotton or bamboo? We’re going to have to go with an overwhelming yes here.
Not only can hemp last much longer than cotton (20-30 years compared to just 10 years), but it’s also stronger. Some estimates show that hemp is nearly three times as strong! Plus, its production doesn’t require harsh chemicals, like those used in so much cotton farming and bamboo production!
Sometimes hemp is mixed with silk, too. While we’re not getting into the ethics of silk quite yet, be wary with these silk blends as they’re often not sustainable or ethical.
HEMP CLOTHING BRANDS
Once you start looking, you’ll quickly find several sustainable clothing brands that use hemp. Most commonly, you’ll see hemp being used with fair trade sweaters, underwear, men’s clothing, and even sneakers (here we talk about a brand called DopeKicks… need we say more?)
Outdoor brands prAna and Patagonia are big hemp users (because again, hemp is good for active wear in the sun!). For comfy and sustainable basics, like T shirts, Thought and Groceries Apparel are a couple more of our faves for clothes made with hemp.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON HEMP FABRIC CLOTHING
Even with such a lengthy history and a tremendous range of sustainable uses, the world is only getting a small taste of hemp fabrics now. The poor Cannabis sativa plant still has a pretty bad rep as most of the world instantly assumes that marijuana and hemp are totally synonymous.
Stigma and legal regulations make it really hard for farmers to grow the plant—even though we’re well aware of all of its ecological benefits! In fact, hemp was actually banned in the UK until 1993 and by 2003, it still only comprised 0.15% of global textile production.
Fortunately, the stigmatization is already starting to change in places like Canada and the United States, where governments are not only legalizing recreational marijuana but also recognizing the sustainability perks of planting industrial hemp.
So, while you may be excited about hemp clothing now, be prepared to see even more use of this textile in the future. Now that is a sustainable future we’re feeling pretty hempowered about.