Fabric on Focus: Hemp

November 10, 2022

hemp fabric

There are lots of misconceptions regarding hemp. The biggest one being that it can get you high. Well, it can’t.

It is true that hemp originates from the same species of plant, Cannabis sativa, as marijuana. However, industrial hemp contains only 0.3% of THC, the substance causing the buzz when smoking weed. For comparison, marijuana has about 20%.

However, let’s focus on what it can rather than on what it cannot do. But first, some interesting historical facts to get an idea of this plant’s significance since ancient times.

Hemp has a rich history

Hemp has been extensively used across the world for paper, fabrics and even medicines for ages. 

Researchers agree that the plant originates from Asia. Archaeological excavations in Japan show that it may have been harvested there for at least 10,000 years. Plus, people in ancient China produced textiles from hemp fibers from around 4,000 BC. Also from China come the earliest written records of hemp being used as a medicine.

The plant was then brought to Europe, spreading initially through the Mediterranean countries early in the Christian era and throughout the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. Hemp reached America in the 1500s, planted initially in Chile and a century later in North America.

When it comes to hemp’s significance, you may not know that:

  • Ancient hemp clothing was significant for the development of letterpress printing. Johannes Gutenberg‘s revolutionary printing press used paper made from clothing rags and hemp fibers, for instance.
  • Christopher Columbus‘ ships typically used sails, nets and ropes made of hemp as in damp conditions the fiber does not rot or go moldy.
  • Also, the first two drafts of the American Declaration of Independence were recorded on hemp paper. Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers were not really concerned about animal welfare and opted for parchment made from animal skin for the final copy.

With the advance of motorized shipping, however, it became much more convenient and cheaper to import easier-to-process raw materials cotton and synthetic fibers in bulk. This led to the decay of the hemp industry and by the mid-20th century, even ropes and sails started using synthetic fibers instead of hemp.

hemp fabric spinning
Hemp fiber manual spinning

Hemp is back and this is why

Today, it seems hemp is having a comeback, mainly due to the plant’s positive environmental impact. According to specifics provided by CFDA:

  • Hemp is a renewable fiber and grows easily in a variety of climates. Most importantly, it does not require the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers to grow. 
  • Since hemp requires little water, usually no extra irrigation is necessary.
  • Hemp can be beneficial on soil by replenishing vital nutrients. It is often used as a “rotation crop” to heal the soil between growing other crops. In some areas, it is grown on land to extract pollutants like zinc and mercury from the soil. Plus, its root system minimizes soil erosion. 
  • Hemp is quite a productive plant. On the same land, hemp produces 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more fiber than flax on the same land. Additionally, it has the highest yield per acre of any natural fiber.
  • Untreated hemp is completely biodegradable

Hemp can be harmful if not in the right hands

Of course, hemp processing can be quite harmful if not done properly.

For instance, chemical and water retting (the process in which the natural fibers are separated from the stem of the hemp plant) can have a negative impact on the environment due to the intensive use of chemicals and water resources. Therefore, dew retting is a preferred alternative as it does not require extra energy, water or chemicals. 

When it comes to processing hemp into yarn, this is largely mechanical. However, the additional processing of hemp (e.g. wet spinning, flattening, etc.) is what can be quite intensive in term of resources. 

On the other side, though hemp is completely biodegradable, things like toxic chemicals, dye, blended fibers and trims can hinder its biodegradability.

Therefore, to ensure the maximum eco-friendliness of the fiber, brands and customers better demand certified hemp that is dew retted and naturally colored.

Hemp Fabric: why is it so good?

More and more brands seem to be including hemp in their portfolios. The reason for that is the fabric’s quite long list of advantages benefiting both people and the planet. Here is what you should know:

  • Hemp is one of the most durable natural textile fibers.
  • What is even better? It gets better with age! Yes, the more hemp is used, the softer it gets.
  • Hemp resists mold, mildew, and UV light.
  • Hemp is highly absorbent. Therefore, it is the perfect canvas for natural dyes. At the same time, its natural color can be quite versatile – from creamy white through grey to almost black, or green.
  • The fiber has excellent thermo-regulating properties. Basically, it can keep you warm during the winter and cool during the summer.
  • Hemp possesses anti-bacterial properties.

However, due to today’s small-scale production of hemp, the fabric is often blended with cotton or synthetic fibers, resulting in the so called “viscose hemp”. The journey of viscose hemp starts from a clean hemp plant. However, its complete processing requires lots of chemicals. Therefore, be aware of that when checking product information.

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