Hemp has long been a mainstay of sustainable wardrobes worldwide. The early marketing of this fiber was mainly focused on a niche group of customers. And hemp was predominantly featured in tie-dyed t-shirts, fisherman’s pants and peasant-style dresses that appealed to their aesthetic tastes. Because of this and its embrace by hippy generations for a long time hemp has been viewed as a textile that was somewhat incongruous with an elegant and stylish wardrobe. Thus was largely overlooked by designers. However, since hemp offers significant environmental benefits it has meant that it couldn’t continue being ignored for too long.
Hemp grows very rapidly, and has the highest fibre yield of all natural textiles. The plant has twice the yield when compared with cotton. Additionally, such rapid growth naturally smothers weeds and controls pests, making pesticides and chemical fertilizers unnecessary. Unlike many other crops, hemp can be grown on marginal or degraded land. Its strong roots prevent soil erosion, and are good at clearing the land for other crops. It can also successfully grow in cool climates. Hemp is the least water-intensive textile fibre of all natural fibers and can be completely rain-red, with no need for irrigation. When compared with cotton in its production process it incredibly uses only 3% of water the cotton would use.
The narcotic properties of the plant (Cannabis sativa) from which hemp is extracted have meant that its cultivation has been banned in many countries. Ban is irrespective of the fact that varieties with a low psychoactive compound Tetrahydocannabinol (THC) are available. Furthermore, optimal quality fibre is harvested using hand-methods, which can be costly, but are beneficial to communities and reduce quantities of fuel used for machinery. Preferred mechanical extraction technique is enzyme retting, because this creates just as strong fibre as cotton is. This method does not reduce fibre’s quality as it would be the case if it was steam blasted. Additionally, hemp fabric loses its softness after many washes, so may not last as long as some other fabrics, however blend fabrics are addressing this issue.
Hemp, along with new hemp blends are beginning to be embraced by eco-conscious designers and makers. Hemp is possibly the most sustainable natural textile that we have available and you can’t go wrong with hemp-based clothing. Be sure to choose textiles that have been treated with low-impact dyes, which fortunately hemp excels at holding onto as well. Hurrah!