Hemp Fabric: Sustainability, Pros, and Cons

With the ever-growing interest in sustainable textiles within the fashion industry, many eco-friendly alternatives have sprung up. From organic cotton to bamboo and hemp fabric, designers are prioritizing eco-consciousness. Hemp fabric joins the club and is becoming more popular in apparel making.

Additionally, hemp is popular for many qualities. These include its usefulness, versatility, and durability. Hemp is one of the oldest textile fibers2. Are you Looking to understand this versatile fiber that brands are turning to fabric? This article provides a holistic look at hemp textiles. 

What is Hemp Fabric?

Hemp fabric or textile comes from the stalks of the Cannabis Sativa plant. The cannabis Sativa plant is the same plant that produces marijuana and its derivatives. However, farmers breed this plant for various purposes.

Of course, the most well-known category is breeding tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces a stoned high. This is the primary psychoactive chemical in cannabis and the active ingredient in recreational marijuana.

On the other hand, the breed of cannabis Sativa fiber for eco-friendly clothes contains low THC. The cultivators of such plants deliberately reduce the levels of the psychoactive cannabinoid their crops produce.

The process of cultivating this breed leads to producing stronger fibers for fabric and clothing. This resulting fabric is often called industrial hemp. 

Versatile for Fabric and More

Hemp fiber, a renewable resource, has many qualities and benefits that make it versatile. This fiber serves various purposes, from paper and canvas to clothing, ropes, and hemp blankets. More and more sustainable clothing brands are now using hemp fabric to make clothes. 

People regard this fabric as one of the most sustainable fabrics. Hemp grows fast, and therefore it requires fewer resources. The hemp crop requires little water to grow from farming and cultivating. Also, the cultivation of organic hemp fabric replenishes soil nutrients which helps to improve soil health. 

How is Hemp Fabric Made?

Industrial hemp pilot farm at the University of Kentucky. Photo Credit: Matt Barton, University of Kentucky Ag Communications (CC BY 2.0)

The process of producing hemp fabric can be a labor-intensive method. The fast-growing hemp plant goes through the following processes to become the fabric for clothes:

Cultivating and Harvesting the Hemp Fiber 

People have been cultivating hemp for thousands of years. The pattern of hemp cultivation for hemp seed is different from cultivating hemp for fiber. The farmers sow the seeds close together for fiber use at around 300,000 plants per acre. For seeds, this is only about 150,000 plants per acre.

Farmers harvest the plant during the early to mid-flowering stage. They use a special machine to harvest most plants that they grow for hemp fabric.

Many traditional farmers in the United Kingdom believe that male hemp plants produce finer and silkier fiber compared to female hemp plants. In support of this, a study revealed that the female fiber is a bit stronger while the male fiber is finer.

Retting

After the farmers cut the plant, they place the stem on the ground for several weeks. The purpose of this is to allow retting to occur. This is a decay method whereby the pectin, which binds the hemp fiber, decomposes. Alternatively, retting also occurs in water tanks to speed up the action of decay. Sometimes producers use additives and enzymes to speed up the procedure. 

Decortication

Decortication occurs either when the stems are wet from retting or after being dried. Decorticating hemp fiber means removing the central woody core from the stem's outer layer.

When the stems are wet, remove the damp fibers from the core. Then, you dry them. On the other hand,  you can dry the stems and run them through a specialized machine. This separates the woody core from the fibers. 

Treating the Hemp Fibers

The farmers then form the fibers into bales after separating them from the woody core. Afterward, they remove the fibers from the field to take them for processing into yarn. Producers now implement chemical or mechanical processes to make the fibers softer and boost elasticity. Alternatively, some producers just spin the fiber without processing it further. 

Getting Rid of Lignin from the Fiber

Removing lignin from hemp fiber is necessary to ensure soft hemp textiles' production. Lignin is an organic polymer that forms a major part of the wood and makes plants woody. This component adds stiffness and compressive strength to a plant cell wall.

Lignin is also responsible for traditional hemp fiber's scratchy and rough texture. This makes the hemp fabric strong and tough to feel. Producers remove the lignin to provide a softer and smoother hemp fabric feel. The resulting hemp fabrics produce skin-friendly hemp clothing. 

Spinning into Yarn 

Machines spin and twist the fibers together to form long threads which are woven into textiles. At this stage, blending can occur whereby other fibers are added and mixed with the hemp prior to turning them into hemp garments. Traditionally, producers used a hand-spinning method to achieve this. They used two tools which are the distaff and drop spindle. 

History of Hemp Textiles

People have grown the crop and used hemp fiber for thousands of years. Cannabis can be traced to the steppes in Central Asia and was initially cultivated in China. At first, people in India and China made use of this plant for human and animal food.

Over time, they discovered the qualities of hemp fiber for making non-food items. In 2000 BC, the people of China considered hemp one of the sacred crops. This was due to its discovered importance and versatility. Its uses included producing building materials, garments, medicine, and paper.

Around 500 to 1000 AD, hemp made its entrance to Europe. At that time, hemp was primarily used to produce paper. It was also used to print Bibles. The popularity of hemp began to spread around the world. 

The commencement of the 20th century served as a critical point in the account of hemp. In Utah, in 1915, the government outlawed the use of hemp. The reason was largely due to the known history of the uses of this plant as marijuana. The prejudice against immigrants from Mexico also contributed to this.

The US government had not recognized that hemp or cannabis Sativa had species that have a small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and useful breeds not cultivated as a drug for marijuana.

Just before the hearings to outlaw this plant, the American Medical Association (AMA) came out to testify. They had realized that the cannabis plant the government was planning to outlaw was important in the medical field. 

Present Day

Technological advances have made producing several products using the hemp crop possible. People are becoming more knowledgeable about the various uses of hemp, and we can find hemp in a growing number of applications, from hemp oil to hemp seeds.

Hemp fabric is used within the textile industry to make clothes. It embraces hemp clothing for its durability and sustainability. As a naturally strong and lightweight fabric, it is perfect for many clothing applications like sustainable yoga clothes and

How Sustainable is Hemp Fabric?

One of the reasons that make hemp a sustainable option for clothing is it is a carbon-negative raw material - the crop absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

Also, when compared with cotton, hemp requires less land to grow. Hemp is a high-yielding crop that can produce more on less land. It also requires less water. A study revealed that cotton requires 9,758 kg of water per kg. However, hemp requires 2,401 to 3,401 kg of water per kg1

Fewer Pesticides

One of the biggest wins for hemp materials is that it doesn’t require pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides to grow. These chemicals are toxic to the environment, including the people and animals around the farmland. This distinguishes it from cotton, which requires a significant amount of these chemicals during farming.

Related read: Environmental Impact of Pesticides.

Better for the Soil

Furthermore, hemp has a deep root system. This allows for constant soil improvement. Also, the entirety of the crop is useful. While the stalk is used for fiber, the hurds and leaves can be plowed into the soil to serve as fertilizer. This replenishes soil fertility and aids the growth of upcoming hemp fabric crops. As a result, it is a fact that industrial hemp enriches the soil it grows on. 

Less Waste

During production, we can also see more of hemp’s eco-friendly nature. Since the whole plant is useful, it produces no industrial waste by-products. Manufacturers convert the stalks to textile fibers and woody parts into hemp products like eco-friendly dog beds and animal bedding.

Hemp Fabric Blends

However, because hemp can sometimes be rough in feel, manufacturers can blend it with synthetics. As a result, the biodegradability of hemp fabric blends can prove lesser than pure hemp material. Always check the label when looking for pure organic fabrics made from 100% natural fibers.

Hemp Fabrics Pros and Cons

Pros

Clothes made from hemp fabric are often praised for their eco-friendly and beneficial qualities. These are some of the pros of one of the most eco-friendly fabrics in the world:

  • Durable: When we examine the strength of the fabric, hemp is known for its durable nature. Hemp fabric can last a very long time without degrading. When laundering hemp fabrics, they become softer with each wash without losing their durable nature. 
  • Breathable: Hemp fabric resists mildew, and you'll find it has good breathable qualities making it great for summer wear or in humid climates.
  • Biodegradable: Organic hemp fiber is completely biodegradable, unlike some fabrics that pollute the environment. This means that when you dispose of your organic hemp t-shirt, for instance, it won’t be a source of pollution. 
  • Blocks UV Rays: UV Rays are a common cause of cancer, and this fabric has natural properties that block these out. The results of fabric testing revealed that the UV-blocking effect of hemp fabric was 50% higher than that of polyester. This makes hemp fabric great for the summertime. 
  • Hypoallergenic: The hypoallergenic property of the fabric, hemp, in this case, makes it suitable for sensitive skin. 

Cons

Highlighted below are the cons of hemp fabric:

  • Feels Textured: Hemp is not as soft as cotton, and many feel tougher on the skin. However, with every wash, it becomes softer. Some manufacturers also blend it with other fabric types for a softer texture. 
  • Wrinkles Easily: Hemp tends to wrinkle easily. As a result, this fabric requires extra care when washing and drying. 
  • Cost: The price of these fabrics is a major disadvantage. One of the reasons for this is that hemp fabric is not as mainstream as other fabrics like cotton. 

Brands that Use Hemp

WAMA

According to the brand, WAMA is a pioneer in making premium hemp underwear. This brand creates organic hemp underwear made with hemp fabric. Underwears are delicate products that can benefit from hemp's breathable, antibacterial, and soft qualities. Also, WAMA has a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification and only uses natural fabrics. 

Shop WAMA

Groceries Apparel

This brand uses 100% organic sustainable fabric and non-toxic dyes to make its pieces. It offers hemp clothes such as t-shirts, crop tops, and skirts. 

Shop Groceries Apparel

Tentree

Pictured Hemp Step Hem T-Shirt by Ten Tree. Photo Credit: Ten Tree

Tentree places the planet and people first throughout its processes. This brand makes pieces using eco-friendly fabrics such as hemp fabric, organic cotton, TENCEL, and recycled polyester.

Shop TenTree for great basic lines like hemp socks, classic t's, sustainable joggers, and sweats.

Shop Tentree

Thought Clothing

Pictured: Brielle Hemp Belted Woven Shift Dress by Thought. Photo Credit: Thought

This company uses natural and sustainable materials to make its clothes. These include hemp fabric, bamboo, and organic cotton. 

Shop Thought Clothing

Hemp vs. Linen

Hemp fabric and linen fabric are both breathable and light when worn. However, hemp’s longer fibers make hemp fabric more durable than linen. This is because linen fabric has shorter flax fibers. When growing, farmers require less land to produce hemp. It also has a higher yield than linen. 

Hemp vs. Bamboo 

The procedures of acquiring and manufacturing hemp fabric are more sustainable than bamboo fabric. Bamboo fabric is silkier and softer than hemp.

Hemp vs. Cotton

When comparing the sustainability of the fabrics, hemp is significantly more sustainable. The method of growing hemp requires less water and no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Cotton, on the other hand, requires more of these ingredients for growth. However, cotton fabric is softer on the skin compared to hemp fabric. When it comes to durability, hemp is more durable than cotton. 

Read more: Environmental Impact of Cotton from Growing, Farming & Consuming

Conclusion

The usefulness of hemp fabric cannot be ignored within the textile and fashion space. In this article, we discussed the properties, the process of converting hemp to clothing, and how sustainable hemp fabric is.

We also highlighted brands that subscribe to hemp fashion and a comparison of hemp and other materials. In general, hemp is sustainable in nature. However, some brands mix fiber with other materials, which can alter their level of sustainability.

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1Cherrett, N., Barrett, J., Clemett, A., Chadwick, M. and Chadwick, M. J. (2005). Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester. Report prepared for and reviewed by BioRegional Development Group and World Wide Fund for Nature – Cymru. Stockholm Environment Institute
2

Shahzad, A. (2012). Hemp Fiber and its Composites–A Review. Journal of Composite Materials, 46(8), 973-986

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Luca Laurence on Unsplash
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