Once widely used, hemp clothing has recently been making a bit of a comeback. It’s rightly promoted as a sustainable alternative to microplastic-shedding synthetics or pesticide-needing cotton. The benefits of hemp clothes are becoming increasingly documented, so we decided to take a look at what makes this fabric one of the most sustainable textiles out there.
Hemp fabric has been used through the ages, with its origins traced all the way back to the Iron Age. This historic material is incredibly versatile and has been used in everything from jeans, dresses and t-shirts, to ropes and canvas.
What is Hemp and why is it sustainable?
Hemp is created from the stems of the Cannabis Sativa plant. Its association with cannabis has made its production difficult in some areas, however, hemp plants used for the fashion industry contain less than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
Hemp is a very hardy plant and incredibly sustainable:
- growing without the need for pesticides
- needing very little water, and
- returning over half the nutrients it takes from the soil
How is it Made?
Only the outer layer of the stalks of the hemp plant can be used for fabric production, the inner woody segments are more commonly used in the construction industry.
Once the outer layer has been stripped, the hemp fibres are then retted. Retting is a microbial process of separating plant fibres, often by leaving them to be broken down by the weather. It can take four to six weeks. The hemp is then cleaned and processed into a fibre that can be turned into a yarn and then woven into a fabric that is durable, lightweight and resistant to shrinkage and pilling.
While it is similar to organic cotton or linen in feel and appearance, hemp is often considered a more durable fabric choice.
Hemp fabric can be made with or without the use of chemicals. Unsurprisingly, when chemicals are used, there is a greater negative impact on the environment. Hemp that has undergone processing with the use of chemical treatments is generally labelled as hemp viscose.
What are the Benefits of Hemp Clothing?
So, now we have a better understanding of what hemp is, what are the benefits of hemp clothes?
1. Good for the Water
When compared to cotton, the production of hemp uses 50% less water per season and requires 80% less water than conventional fibres. When the processing stages of fibre production are also included, hemp uses a staggering four times less water than cotton.
With a fashion industry that currently uses four percent of all freshwater extracted around the world each year, the more water-friendly crops we grow for clothing production the better.
2. Good for the Soil
Over 60% of the nutrients that hemp takes from the soil it returns, promoting better soil health than most crops and aiding in soil regeneration. The cultivation of hemp is so good at aiding with soil regeneration that it can even be used to help clean land of contaminants and heavy metals. Studies have found that hemp is able to remove lead, cadmium and nickel from contaminated soil.
3. Pesticide Free
Hemp cultivation requires no pesticides, making a dramatic difference in its sustainable credentials when compared to cotton which uses up to $3 billion worth of pesticides every year.
However, just because hemp doesn’t require pesticides doesn’t mean that all hemp farmers grow a pesticide-free crop. When shopping for sustainable hemp clothes, make sure that they are from organic supply chains, meaning pesticide free.
4. Grows Anywhere
While the crop originated in Central Asia, it has been successfully grown on every continent, and hemp farming can now be found everywhere from China to France to Canada. While hemp can grow almost anywhere, farming and growing hemp crops is often complicated by restrictions due to its close association with cannabis production.
In Europe, France has the largest area of land dedicated to hemp production.
5. Grows Quickly
Hemp crops can grow on small land areas, producing 250% more fibre per hectare than cotton. Hemp grows quickly, reaching maturity in 3-4 months. When grown for fibre production, such as for the clothing sector, hemp crops are densely planted and are harvested soon after reaching maturity. Hemp crops for the fibre sector often grow to a height of 2-3 metres on average.
6. All the Plant can be Used
Not only does it grow quickly, there is little wastage from the hemp crops in the production process. The woody interior is used for fuel and building materials and the exterior of the stalks are used for fabric production. Oil and seeds from hemp plants are also used in beauty products.
7. Microplastic Free
Just one laundry cycle including synthetic clothing can release up to 700,000 microplastic particles, and these microplastics end up polluting our air, rivers, ocean and our soil. Microplastic particles have even been found in our food.
As hemp is a natural fibre, when it isn’t blended with synthetic fabrics, it contains no microplastics so doesn’t contribute to microplastic pollution.
Hemp production uses no toxic chemicals or plastics and is biodegradable, able to decompose in around two weeks. This means that hemp products, when disposed of correctly, won’t be littering the Earth for generations to come. It is, however, important to note that only hemp that is not blended with synthetic fibres is completely biodegradable.
For our article about which fabrics can biodegrade, see Styles that don’t last forever: which fabrics are biodegradable?
Its durability also makes it possible to recycle hemp fabric so it can be made into brand new products. Like many other natural and recyclable fibres in the fashion sector, hemp can be recycled for use back in the clothing sector or turned into new products for use in other industries.
10. Holds Dye Well
Hemp’s capacity for absorption makes dyes take to it well and the fabric holds its colour well. The natural lustre of the fibre also gives it a unique shine when coloured with certain dyes. Hemp is also naturally UV resistant, meaning that the colour of the fabric is less likely to fade over time from sunlight.
When compared to cotton and flax, hemp has superior insulating properties. This makes it the perfect fabric for clothing that can be worn all year long. Its insulating capabilities, particularly when layered, will keep you toasty in the winter months and cool all summer.
Much of hemp’s insulating qualities come from it being a porous fibre. These insulating properties mean it’s used in everything from hoodies and sweaters to t-shirts and dresses.
Hemp is more than just a sustainable option. It is also odour wicking, meaning that one of the more unique benefits of hemp clothes is that it will keep you smelling fresh all day long! Part of hemp’s odour-wicking abilities come from its natural anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties. Hemp’s odour-expelling features make it particularly valuable in warmer climates.
13. Good for the Skin
Hemp products are comfortable to wear and soft on the skin. The fact that it doesn’t require pesticides to grow means that it is less likely to harbour chemical residues that can cause skin irritations and discomfort.
14. Softens with Time
While hemp fabric may start stiff it only gets better with time, getting softer and more comfortable with every wash and every wear. This provides a unique level of longevity to hemp clothing that only helps to add to its sustainability credentials.
Another property of hemp products that makes them perfect for year-round wear is that hemp is moisture-wicking. Hemp is so good at absorbing moisture that it can absorb up to 20% of its own weight in moisture while still feeling dry. The true benefit of this becomes even more evident when compared to polyester which can absorb just 6% of its weight in moisture before starting to feel wet.
Hemp moves moisture to the edge of the fabric, away from the skin where it can evaporate.
16. Hemp is Breathable
The same porous properties that make hemp so good for moisture-wicking clothing also make it highly breathable. Hemp’s mixture of durability and breathability make it a perfect piece for a summer wardrobe and a makes hemp clothes particularly valuable for building a capsule wardrobe.
17. Hemp is Durable
Hemp is an incredibly strong fibre. It has high tensile strength, and as previously mentioned, the more it is washed, the softer it becomes. Some sources state that hemp may be up to three times stronger than cotton, and while a cotton t-shirt is estimated to last five years, a hemp shirt is expected to last at least ten.
18. A Versatile Fabric
The sheer number of products that hemp is used for, both within and out of the fashion industry, is a testament to its versatility. Hemp is found in everything from t-shirts to footwear in the fashion sector and is also used in industries as diverse as construction and shipping.
Making hemp even more versatile is its ability to be mixed with other fibres. When blended with other fibres hemp can increase its uses. For example, if blended with bamboo, hemp remains highly durable and takes on the softer feel of bamboo fibres.
19. Anti-Microbial and Mould Resistant
Hemp not only has naturally mould resistant properties but is anti-microbial and anti-fungal. This makes it an ideal fabric for use in clothing that is worn close to the skin or in intimate areas, making it a perfect fabric for underclothes and socks. It’s anti-microbial element also makes it a valuable material for use in the bedding industry.
20. More Sustainable than Cotton
Making up 24% of fibre use, cotton is a popular material. While cotton and hemp may share some characteristics, hemp, overall, is usually a more sustainable choice (as long as organic farming principles have been adhered to). From their water-saving origins to their pesticide-free cultivation, hemp clothes offer a clear benefit to the environment when compared to conventional cotton.
On the Made By Benchmark, organic hemp scored Class A, the highest for sustainability, while conventional hemp scored Class C. Comparatively conventionally grown cotton was ranked in Class E and organic cotton Class B.
21. Helps Fight Global Warming
Making this crop even better, it helps to fight global warming. An acre of hemp crop can remove ten tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air and hemp plants can take in four times more CO2 than many species of trees. A fabric that has a positive environmental impact, this has to be the future for fashion!
22. Growing in Popularity
The good news is that this awesome, sustainable and versatile fibre is growing in popularity. As the fabric is becoming more mainstream, it’s becoming more available, and as such, easier for consumers to access.
This means conscious consumers can now score casual hemp t-shirts, trendy dresses and even hemp denim made from this incredible fabric!
To find epic brands creating sustainable hemp clothing check out our article Cool & Sustainable Hemp Clothing Brands for the UK.
The Benefits of Hemp Clothes
Hemp is an ancient and important crop that has been used for thousands of years. Durable, versatile, and when farmed organically, very sustainable, it represents a unique and excellent choice as a sustainable fabric. Able to be used for industrial purposes and offering advantages to both consumers and the environment, hemp can hold a valuable place in the sustainable fashion sector.
While hemp isn’t likely to dethrone its less sustainable cotton or synthetic counterparts in the fashion sector soon, the more we support businesses using sustainable and natural materials, the closer a sustainable fashion future becomes.