People have been making rope, getting high, making food or creating clothes with hemp for about 10,000 years.
Cultivated around 8000 BCE in Mesopotamia, and having spread as far as Asia by 6500 BCE it was one of the original, and until the nineteenth century one of the largest agricultural crops in the world. The Declaration of Independence and the first edition of Alice in Wonderland were made on hemp paper.
But hemp production took a huge it in 1937 when Canada and the United States stopped production of hemp — even for clothing — with the Marijuana tax act, which was later lifted during WWII. Even then, global production of hemp was on the decline for a good while. Until the last decade, especially after the 2014 federal farm bill permitted cultivation of industrial hemp and states increasingly began allowing the growth of this crop for commercial purposes even without the explicit permission of the United States government.
While the hemp fiber used for clothing and textiles is from the same Cannabis Sativa plant you buy from your black-box toting cyclist dealer, divergent cultivation for fiber production and strength versus THC content means that the “industrial hemp” cultivated for textile production actually doesn’t have enough THC to create any psychoactive effects and doesn’t have those sticky bud clusters you get in recreational hemp plants.
Think giant poodle vs minipoodle. Both poodles. Very different physical qualities.
So here we are today, with hemp cultivation on the upswing, a bunch of brands touting it’s wonderful fabric properties and sustainability.
Is it any good? What are its properties as a fabric? Is it sustainable?
Before we talk about anything else, let’s first cover what hemp is and what it’s properties are.
Hemp is like Linen
The stalks of hemp plants consist of two layers: rope-like bast fibers around the outer layer and a woody “pith” core. There are uses for basically all parts of the hemp plant, but the part that is used for clothes is just those outer bast fibers. The inner part is often used for building materials, fuel, animal bedding, etc.
That textile construction process of using long external plant fibers is extremely similar to how linen is made from flax. And this similarity is more than just technical: the resulting textile created from hemp fibers is extremely similar to linen.
If you know how linen feels and acts you basically know how hemp feels and acts in apparel.
Both hemp and flax (flax being what linen is made from) are made from long fibers of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. Both can vary in strength and quality dramatically by seed variety, growth conditions, and time of harvest
This is why the yarns from the fibers are graded from A to D. You can also get an indication of strength (in many cases) from the number of twists per unit length.
And these yarns can be single or plied — depending on whether they are one strand or multiple woven together — plied yards usually corresponding to heavier fabrics with more structure.
In short, here are the primary qualities that hemp and linen have in common:
Exceptional durability, and a good way of “breaking in” — they get more and more soft through time with additional wearings. Hemp is more durable on single fibers, but this difference becomes insignificant versus the differences created by how it is woven and spun into yarn.
They absorb moisture (hemp is slightly more absorbent but it isn’t a significant difference).
They wrinkle extremely easily.
They provide essentially no natural stretch — hemp has even less than Linen. This can create difficulties when designing clothing with them: you really have to leave room to have mobility.
Mixed on insulation: Both have hollow fibers which makes them (in a way) good insulators — balanced against their extreme breathability.
They have anti-bacterial properties.
They are biodegradable.
A couple quick bonus notes: Hemp fibers to tend to be longer (4–7 feet rather than 1.5–3 feet for linen) which is on the margin a good thing, as longer fiber length even within linen varietals corresponds to higher quality fabrics (like with European linen), and it does have a slightly higher resistance to some potentially corrosive elements like UV light and salt water.
Agricultural Properties and Sustainability
Hemp has a higher yield per hectare than linen (almost 2x in some cases) and is a durable crop requiring few chemical treatments. It’s also great for crop rotations, and has 3+ ft deep taproots that help protect soil from runoff. The only edge linen really has over hemp here is that it is less nutritionally demanding: hemp requires around 80–100 kg/ha of nitrogen, 100 kg/ha of phosphorus, and 150 kg/ha of potassium, while flax only needs 60 kg/ha, 30–50 kg/ha, and 70–100 kg/ha, respectively.
If you want to net out the overall environmental impact as easily as possible they are very nearly equal. According to an European Environmental Agency ranking, flax came in overall fourth and hemp in overall fifth for their overall effect on the environment (a big driver at the end of the day was hemp’s greater need for watering — although flax requires more pesticides…)
But , whatever, they’re pretty close.
With all that said, the fabric type itself is generally less important than its production processes, and you really can’t know enough about sustainability practices in production without looking for third party certification. As a cut through — hemp is pretty good, if sustainability is your primary concern. But any GOTS certified fabric is better than non-GOTS hemp. But, organic linen, as an example, is more available and less expensive than organic hemp
Those certifications make a big difference, as conventional hemp can include formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors etc. etc.
Back to that pricing point about organic hemp and organic linen, despite it’s high yield and durability, even conventionally produced hemp remains more expensive than cotton, and even generally a bit more expensive than linen (although this can vary on quality, etc.). Given that hemp is a weed and so easy to grow, this probably has to do more with production levels, and the economies of scale achieved with cotton production (as well as subsidies etc. from the cotton lobby) — which means, perhaps, it could get significantly cheaper in the future if the market continues to grow.
In My Experience
I’ve only used a couple articles of hemp clothing and haven’t had them long enough to see them break in with any significant difference from linen, but I’ve been generally impressed. At the end of the day no linen or hemp product will compete, out of the box, with the hand-feel of cotton — but the hemp clothing will be broken in, soft, but still in good shape long after your cotton clothing has become worn out. If you want to go in the middle, some brands do cotton-hemp blends in order to try to get the best of both worlds (Jungmaven, as an example).
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