101 Hemp Fabric Facts: Benefits, Disadvantages, And Production

Helga Khumanthem
Jan 23, 2024 By Helga Khumanthem
Originally Published on Mar 02, 2022
Edited by Jade Scott
Fact-checked by Pratiti Nath
Hemp fabric facts beat all the rest, so why doesn't it get the attention it deserves?
Age: 3-18
Read time: 13.3 Min

Hemp is not marijuana, let's get that out of the way first.

One of the biggest barriers stopping this superb fabric from getting the reputation it deserves is the fact that most people can't distinguish it from its closest but also wildly different relatives. We're hoping this article will help set the record straight.

Hemp has been growing for many millennia, long before cotton was introduced to human civilization. The word 'canvas' originated from the Latin word cannabis because hemp was so widely used in ship-making, textile weaving, and a bunch of other things. The reason organic cotton replaced hemp as the world's most cultivated crop was due to the invention of the cotton engine, or 'cotton gin'.

You may or may not have heard about the hype surrounding the movement to bring back hemp cultivation. Hemp was grown in the US and Canada until the 1930s. With the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the hemp industry was caught in a downward spiral. Even though the tax applied to cannabis a recreational drug, industrial hemp was impacted by the strict laws. The hemp market grew smaller and cultivation decreased, due to the 'illegal' status that was now attached to hemp plants.

Hemp fabric is one of the most versatile fabrics out there, hands down. It's extremely sustainable, long-lasting, and it can be used to make anything from ship sails to sofa covers. Hemp produces more than twice as much fiber as cotton and three times more fiber than flax on the same amount of land. Renowned designer Ralph Lauren revealed that he had been using hemp fiber in his collections since 1984, describing the blend of hemp and silk as 'romantic'.

This fabric sounds almost too good to be true but nothing is really perfect so this article will explore the pros and (few) cons of hemp fabric, and why we should be using hemp fabric a lot more.

Where does hemp fabric come from?

You're probably wondering where in the world this seemingly perfect fabric first came from. Find out about the multipurpose plant and its life story.

Hemp clothing comes from the cannabis Sativa L, a species of flowering plant. The L stands for Linnaeus, after Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who first identified the species.

The stalk or stem of the hemp plant is the part used for making hemp fabric.

Industrial hemp is the source of hemp fabric. It is grown for medicinal or industrial purposes.

The cultivation process differs based on whether hemp is being grown for its seeds or its fibers. For fiber cultivation, hemp seeds are sown very close together. Around 300,000 plants are grown per acre. For seeds, only half that number is required.

Other than for making, hemp is also grown for its seed, seed meal, and oil. Hemp seed is rich in nutrients and a source of good fatty acids.

The aversion towards hemp happens because people tend to lump it in with cannabis Indica (marijuana), which is used for its psychoactive properties. Both look very similar, and the term 'cannabis' is more popularly associated with marijuana and 'hippie culture'.

However, there is a large difference between marijuana and industrial hemp. Industrial hemp has much lower levels of tetra hydro cannabinol (or THC for short).

THC is what gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. In some strains of marijuana THC levels can go up to 25%. Hemp, on the other hand, contains less than 0.3% THC. In some varieties of cannabis Sativa, THC levels can even reach zero.

Instead, the main component in hemp is CBD or cannabidiol. CBD is procured from the flowers of the hemp plants.

Other than cannabis, there are a few 'faux' hemp varieties such as Manila hemp and New Zealand hemp. Hemp is also often confused with Jute, another natural fiber with similar properties to hemp.

Hemp was first grown in Central Asia, particularly in China around 2800 BCE. Cannabis sativa has been called a 'camp follower' because it would flourish near open areas, streams, and fertile soil, usually where ancient communities would take up camp.

Hemp was considered a very important crop in Chinese culture. In around 200 BC, Chinese inventors made hemp paper. In ancient Chinese books on cultivation techniques, it was recommended to fertilize hemp with silkworm and pig excrement.

Hemp is a versatile material. In the past, it has been used as a food source, for pottery, clothing, and even for making warfare tools. Hemp was also a very common item in ship making. It was used for the sails, rigging, and ropes.

Industrial hemp was the material Betsy Ross used to make the first American flag.

Benefits Of Hemp Fabric

Hemp fabric is more than just eco-friendly. The fabric has a wide range of properties that make it one of the best options, and not just in the fashion industry.

Hemp is used for making a variety of materials for men's and women's wear, children's wear, and it is also used in accessories such as shoes, caps, and bags. Hemp is even used for making jeans, usually blended with wool or cotton.

Other than apparel, hemp fabric can also be used for towels, upholstery, tablecloths, and more.

The fashion industry is known to be a huge contributor to pollution. Organic hemp challenges that. It is one of the best natural fabrics because it has virtually no negative environmental impact and is considered to be very eco-friendly.

The process of turning hemp fiber into yarn is mostly mechanical and affects the environment very little.

Made By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres gave organic hemp a fabric rating of A, which is the best possible rating.

Hemp is a tall plant, and the fiber bundles can reach up to 15 ft (457 cm) long, as compared to cotton fibers' 3/4 in (around 2 cm).

Hemp fabric is three times stronger than organic cotton, better for the environment, and requires less land to grow.

Hemp fabric is light, and yet extremely durable compared to other natural fibers.

Hemp fabric is also resistant to soiling. The reason is that every time the fabric is washed it releases a microscopic layer of fibers and you get a fresh surface to wear.

Hemp fabric is known to be hypoallergenic, naturally possessing antimicrobial properties, and, therefore, suited to sensitive skin.

Since hemp fabric is resistant to bacteria and mold, it can be reworn more often. Rewearing clothes also means not having to wash them as often, so you save water as well.

The antimicrobial properties of hemp fabric also keep body ordor at a minimum. It's great for hot weather or places with a hot climate.

The hemp plant grows very fast and has been recorded to grow 12 in (30 cm) in one week.

The deep roots of the hemp plant hold the soil together, so soil erosion is kept to a minimum.

Hemp, therefore, does not deplete the soil and instead replenishes soil nutrients.

Hemp requires very little water, approximately 12-15 in (30-40 cm) per growing season. In other words, the crop can survive and even thrive on rainwater.

One of the biggest advantages of growing hemp is that it requires no fertilizers or pesticides. It's a win-win for the cultivators and the environment.

Most of the nitrogen nutrients used by the crop are returned to the soil through the 'waste' parts of the plant. Even after harvesting, the hemp leaves and roots help keep the soil healthy and continue to provide nutrients. Growing the crop does not require rotation.

The core fiber of hemp is very absorbent and can be used for garden mulch or animal bedding.

Due to the fibers' absorbency, hemp clothes dye beautifully and have a natural luster even after many washes.

Hemp clothing is very long-lasting. With proper care, hemp fabric can last decades, unlike your regular cotton T-shirt which can last at most, up to 10 years.

Pure hemp is 100 % biodegradable.

Hemp fabric is very breathable. Another reason why it's a good choice for summer, or places with humid, warm climates. As the fabric is good at absorbing moisture, hemp fibers keep you cool while still feeling dry and lightweight.

Hemp clothes have proven to be 99.9% effective in blocking UV rays and are deemed the most UV-resistant fabric around. According to SGS testing, the results remained the same even when the hemp fabric was wet.

The resistance to UV rays also means that the colors on hemp garments are slow to fade.

Organic fabric usually undergoes 5-15% shrinkage when washed, but hemp is more resistant than its rivals. Hemp fabric retains its shape even after many washes.

Hemp is stain-resistant by nature, and releases stain better than other fabrics. If by chance you do manage to spill something on your hemp rug, it cleans easily so there's no need to worry.

Disadvantages Of Hemp Fabric

It's important to see both sides of a situation. While hemp has very few cons as compared to other fabrics such as cotton, there's a whole lot of work that needs to be done to broaden its influence.

It's not so much an actual disadvantage of hemp fabric, but the stigma and legislative restrictions that come with cannabis Sativa and cannabis, in general, which are a big challenge to hemp's reputation as an ideal source for fabric.

Agriculturists have been trying for a long time to bring down the misconceptions that surround hemp. In 1942, the US Department of Agriculture produced a movie called 'Hemp For Victory'. It was meant to spread awareness about the hidden potential of hemp and encourage American farmers to grow the crop.

Although hemp farming has been on the rise in the past few decades, the market for the plant is still very small compared to organic cotton or linen.

Before growing hemp, it's crucial to understand the regulatory framework and legal requirements surrounding such an investment.

Although hemp cultivation has been legalized in many states, some states still place a ban on the crop.

Due to the stigma surrounding it, there have not been enough studies on breeding and cultivation techniques for the hemp plant.

Although hemp is not a very demanding crop, it does require high amounts of nitrogen and does not develop its fibers properly if the nitrogen requirement is not fulfilled.

Though hemp fabrics soften over time, it is initially rough compared to other fabrics. Hemp cloth has a lower thread count than cotton fabric or linen.

Hemp blended with other fabrics gives it more desirable properties. Blending hemp with cotton in different ratios gives varying amounts of softness to the fabric, while still maintaining its durability. It is also commonly blended with silk.

If you recall, it was mentioned earlier that hemp clothing tends to shed microfibers after the first few washes. While this helps to keep the fabric as good as new, it also contributes to microfiber pollution. If you don't like the idea of the fabric shedding while you're wearing it, it's recommended to wash your new hemp apparel before using it.

Untreated hemp is the best, but when additional processing and toxic chemicals are added to it, the environmental impact increases, and the preferable qualities of hemp such as its biodegradability, and it being an eco-friendly material, are endangered.

The price attached to hemp fabric is one of its bigger disadvantages. Most organic fabrics are priced higher due to the demanding production process. Added to that is the fact that hemp is not as mainstream as other fabrics. So, it's usually a bit more expensive than its rivals, such as cotton and linen.

As with most sustainable choices, the best way to bring down the prices is to popularise hemp fabric and make it a more sought-after option.

Like most organic fabrics, hemp fabric is prone to wrinkles and creases as pure hemp is not treated with anti-wrinkle agents. This tendency to crease puts the fabric in danger of weakening. However, since hemp fabric is highly durable, this is not a big point of worry.

To avoid wrinkles in any organic fabric including hemp, you can implement the usual measures such as not wringing the wet fabric, drying flat, and not letting the clothes sit in the dryer for too long.

Some blends of hemp fabrics with synthetic fibers are created to keep creasing to a minimum.

While hemp fiber can carry dyes well, organic hemp comes in muted, neutral colors. That might put off some people who prefer bright clothing, but it's important to remember that these colors are a sign of sustainable, eco-friendly fabric.

With the increase in cultivation, hemp fabric will soon become more readily available.

The Production Process Of Hemp Fabric

Organic fabrics typically have a more complicated and demanding production process than their synthetic counterparts. Thankfully, hemp is known for being surprisingly easier to grow.

Hemp is an annual plant, but the busiest month in terms of hemp harvesting is usually October, or as it's popularly known, Croptober.

It generally takes only about four months to get a crop of mature hemp stalks.

The crop is harvested with a specialized machine called a hemp harvester. The harvesting has to be done after the flowering stage, but before seeds began to form.

Hemp is a bast plant; it has a bark-like inner layer and a fibrous outer layer (the bast). The pectins and lignins (jelly-like substances) that hold the hemp fiber together have to be broken down.

Hemp fiber is prepared in a similar way to linen. The process of breaking down the pectins is called retting.

The retting process can be done in multiple ways. One is 'dew' which involves leaving the hemp in a field for three to six weeks and allowing the stem material to decompose naturally. It is crucial for the stalks to be completely dry before the next step in the process.

Chemical retting and water retting are also common techniques, but dew is the most environmentally conscious.

The dried stalks are then broken. Next is a process known as scutching. The bark-like core or the hurds have to be separated from the stems. This is usually done with a machine called a decorticator.

The hurds are used in construction as green building materials. Hemp concrete (hempcrete), tiles, and boards can all be made using hemp hurds.

Hempcrete has been shown to maintain resistance against not just mold but also fire.

The bundles are twisted and drawn out to make them stronger and softer. To make sure there are no more woody pieces in the fibers, they are combed and arranged. Combing decreases the length of the fibers.

The next step in the production process is spinning. In a process called wet spinning, the fibers are passed through hot water and then spun, producing a soft yarn.

The fibers can also be dry spun. It is a cheaper method than wet spinning but the resulting yarn is coarser.

Cultivating hemp requires soil that is non-acidic and rich in nitrogen. One of the few downsides of hemp, as we've established, is that it needs a lot of nitrogen during the growth stage to maintain its sturdy shape and structure.

Hemp can trap more than twice as much carbon in a year as eucalyptus trees. Moreover, when hemp is turned into materials such as hempcrete, it acts as a carbon sequester, which basically means that it draws out CO2 from the atmosphere.

In 2017, Canada emerged as the largest cultivator of hemp crops worldwide, followed by China. France, the UK, and Chile are also major cultivators of hemp.

Nowadays, with awareness being spread about the cannabis plant, the stigma surrounding hemp is slowly breaking down. A 'modern renaissance' of hemp fabrics is on the horizon.

The demand for hemp textiles has been slowly growing, but it will still be some time before the production can reach desirable levels.

As of now, there is a disbalance between demand and availability of raw materials. There has to be a bigger consumer base if farmers are to grow hemp on large scales.

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Written by Helga Khumanthem

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English Language and Literature

Helga Khumanthem picture

Helga KhumanthemBachelor of Arts specializing in English Language and Literature

A dedicated and passionate writer, Helga brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the team. She holds a Bachelor's degree in English Literature and Language from Lady Shri Ram College For Womenand has a keen interest in charitable work, particularly in animal welfare, which drives her commitment to making a positive impact. Previously, she volunteered for the Friendicoes National Service Scheme, managing their social media platforms and organizing charity events for animals in need.

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