With an increasing concern towards the environmental issues surrounding the textile industry, the rise of sustainable fabrics and fibers is an inevitable market change. Industrial hemp is one of them. And after a lifetime of negative associations with rough textures and a less than appealing look, hemp is one of the most sustainable options when it comes to fabrics, providing it has the right certifications. Ready to find out more about this environmentally-friendly material?
First, Debunking The Myths
Though industrial hemp comes from the same plant as marijuana, Cannabis Sativa, the term "hemp" is only used to classify the types of the plant that contain 0.3% (or less) THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component), and therefore describe non-intoxicating Cannabis. "Marijuana", on the other hand, is used to describe plants that contain more than 0.3% THC and consequently induce psychotropic or euphoric effects.
However, both types look exactly the same, which has led some countries - like the US - to prohibit the cultivation of industrial hemp. It was considered an illegal substance under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 since the aerial technology at the time was unable to distinguish hemp from marijuana crops. It was removed as an illegal substance under the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018.
A Brief History of Hemp
Hemp fibers have a very long history. In fact, many believe it was the first crop ever cultivated by humans over 10,000 years ago, and probably the earliest plant cultivated for textile fiber. Its uses are many -- paper, rope, cloth, fuel, food, housing material, banknotes, canvas… Historically, over 25,000 diverse uses, including being the textile of the original Levi's jeans!
The detail of a 19th-century hemp textile with indigo dye from Japan. Credit: The Met Museum, Seymour Fund, 1966
Surprising Properties Of Hemp
Like linen, hemp is a bast fiber (derived from the stems of plants), and it requires a retting process to soften and release them. These fibers are among the longest and most natural (and also rich in cellulose, which explains their popularity in the paper industry as well). As they are longer, the yarn is strong (3 times more so than cotton) and pieces made with hemp are usually long-lasting -- a typical cotton T-shirt might last 10 years at the most, but one made of hemp could last triple the amount of time, becoming softer with each wash.
Its insulation properties are also impressive, keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer -- not to mention it has natural UV rays protection. That means this material is less prone to fading, maintaining its color for longer. As a result of its low elongation percentage, hemp pieces will hold their shape, are unlikely to shrink and resistant to pilling. It can be blended with a wide range of fibers as well, including cotton, linen, and silk, adding even more softness.
Forget about the brown-ish and rough hemp textiles: it can be incredibly soft, especially when blended with other yarns like linen and silk. Credit: Shutterstock
How Is Hemp Sustainable?
There is a reason Cannabis sativa plants are popularly nicknamed "weed". They grow fast, reaching maturity within 3-4 months, and it grows densely -- another plus, as it can produce double the fiber yield per hectare than cotton -- is that it smothers out other plants, requiring no herbicides. No pesticides are needed either since it naturally reduces pest attraction.
The sustainable fame from industrial hemp shines especially when compared to cotton. When it comes to chemicals used during the growing of crops, cotton consumes almost half the total number used on all American crops. Water usage during the growing of the crops is another win for industrial hemp, given its growth in most soils and low necessity for irrigation due to its deep roots -- which also prevents soil erosion, removes toxins, aerates the soil for future crops (when grown in rotation), and even returns 60-70% of nutrients taken from the soil.
An incredibly fast-growing crop, industrial hemp plants can reach maturity within 3-4 months, ready for extraction and retting.
Though much of industrial hemp production is naturally sustainable, it's worth noting that further manufacturing steps like dyeing could have an extra environmental effect. If possible, find organic and clean certifications to ensure the sustainable credentials of the hemp material you are buying.
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