Hemp: Weaving the Fiber into the Fashion Supply Chain

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By Roxy Rowton

Today’s consumer knows very little about hemp. Most mistakenly think hemp is the same plant as marijuana. It is a relative to marijuana, but the temperate cousin. (THC is the chemical that causes the psychological effects in marijuana. The THC level is so low in hemp that it is almost impossible to get high from smoking the plant. Hemp actually contains a chemical called CBD which blocks the effectiveness of THC.)

What is Hemp?

Grown from the Sativa plant, hemp is a type of “bast fibre.” That is one of the many fibers derived from the stalk of plants such as flax, jute, ramie and stinging nettle. It has been cultivated for thousands of years and on almost every continent. The bark of the hemp stalk contains bast fibers, which are among the earth’s longest natural soft fibers. When spun, it has an appearance similar to flax but thicker and coarser. Hemp is one of nature’s oldest fibers. It is also one of nature’s most sustainable and renewable fibers.

History of Hemp

The usage of hemp in the day-to-day life of ancient civilizations was substantial. Hemp was used for bandages, bed sheets, corpse shrouds, sailcloths, sacks, tents, ropes, papers and garments. Even today, hemp’s versatility and durability make it a fiber prized for use in miscellaneous products such as apparel, accessories, footwear, furniture and home furnishings.

Christopher Columbus voyaged to America on a ship rigged with hemp. Hemp was grown as a cash crop in Colonial America by farmers, including the founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag from hemp. The first pair of Levis Strauss jeans was fabricated from hemp. The garments that were designed from hemp ranged in quality from homemade peasant clothing to elaborate ceremonial robes for kings and emperors.

Production of Hemp

Most of the production of hemp is grown and produced in China with small pockets in other regions of Asia and Eastern Europe. Currently, the U.S. does not produce many hemp textiles. Past government regulation has kept hemp out of the fashion supply chain. In 1937, the cultivation of hemp became illegal under the Marihuana Tax Act in the U.S. Since then, there has been a widespread viewpoint that hemp was a forbidden crop and largely earned a bad reputation among established fashion brands. The 2014 Farm Bill legalized hemp research and opened the pathway for farmers to recover a forgotten agriculture crop. The 2018 Farm Bill further opened that pathway for cultivation of U.S. hemp.

Slowly but surely, hemp is reclaiming its venerable character.  Apparel brands are introducing consumers to the durability and comfort of hemp garments. Outdoor gear and apparel brand Patagonia has offered legally sourced hemp fiber in their clothing line since 1997.

Post Farm Bill the brand is collaborating with domestic supplies of hemp. Legendary fashion brand Levis featured a groundbreaking “cottonized-hemp” in collaboration with lifestyle brand Outerknown. The hemp went through a process that softened the textile giving it an appearance and a feel almost indistinguishable from cotton. Other apparel brands such as Toad & Company, Recreator and Hemp Tailor are offering consumers a selection of hemp garments to introduce  the benefits of choosing and wearing the fiber.

Properties of Hemp

Hemp is a lustrous fiber that closely resembles flax and its fibers can be mistaken for linen. Hemp is known for its strength and durability.  It holds its shape and stretches less than any other natural fiber. Although hemp is widely known for durability, it is also very comfortable. The more a hemp fabric or garment is used the softer it will become. Hemp enthusiasts like to say, “Hemp doesn’t wear out, it wears in.”

Due to the inherent chemical structure of hemp, the textile is resistant to moths, ultraviolet light and mildew. Hemp’s porous structure has the capacity to absorb moisture before it becomes damp. As moisture is released into the air, the cloth will remain cool and dry. This quick-drying structure hinders the growth of anaerobic bacteria and mildew, giving hemp antimicrobial and hypoallergenic properties. The fiber’s catacomb airflow system allows hemp to be naturally climate responsive. It keeps the wearer cool in very warm conditions and warm in cooler temperatures. Hemp’s chemical structure also makes its fibers more absorbent to dyes. The absorbent qualities of hemp means the cloth more or less will hold color for its life. Couple hemp’s absorbency with its ability to screen ultraviolet rays, and the wearer has a garment that is less prone to fading and sun protection.

One of nature’s finest performance fibers, hemp textiles wear comfy and soft, making for garments that wear pleasingly for a leisurely weekend in the city or a jaunt in the country. Hemp’s durability makes for a garment that is less likely to succumb to wear and tear.

Hemp’s Sustainability

Hemp is a more sustainable and regenerative agriculture crop than cotton. Almost everything that is fabricated from cotton can be made from hemp. Unlike cotton, which requires lots of water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, hemps grows clean, fast and resists pests. Hemp is a densely grown plant that literally chokes out any competitor. Therefore, herbicide usage is generally not necessary. Hemp is a natural pest repellant, so little to no pesticides are required. It is a gentle crop as it returns 60 to 90% of the nutrients that it takes from the soil. It also controls top soil erosion and requires a very relatively small amount of acreage to cultivate. And it can produce double the fiber yield per hectare than the cotton plant. It also requires four times less water to grow than cotton.

Hemp’s Future

The fashion industry needs sustainable alternatives. Getting hemp from the field to the factory and to the fashionista is a more sustainable, environmental and viable substitute for cotton and the majority of synthetic textiles. While 100 percent hemp may not produce a cloth that drapes exceptionally well or feels ultra-soft, it can be blended with other natural or synthetic fibers to overcome these limitations. Hemp’s future as a fashion alternative has yet to be fully realized. This humble cloth has the potential to transform the fashion industry and become an integral cloth of the conscientious consumer’s closet.

Roxy L. Rowton has spent three decades assisting women transform their wardrobe from a random assortment of garments into a curated collection of functionality and individuality. She shares her expertise on the Fashion Files at Prince William Living and “build a better wardrobe” blog at everydayrefinement.com.

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