Stuff you should know about hemp!
It has been a while now since we really wanted to write about hemp. It is a very intriguing crop, which we see around increasingly more often - both in cosmetics and food, but also fashion. It has both fans and skeptics, but not very many brands actually incorporate it as a viable option for their clothes production. What is hemp and how to source it? How could it be used? What are the advantages and disadvantages? We will try to give you an idea - dig in!
A couple of months ago, during Berlin Fashion Week at one of the panels at Neonyt Fair, we witnessed an interesting exchange. We were sitting and listening to a panel discussion which was moderated by a person from Kaleidoscope and involved a number of really cool speakers from across the industry related to sustainable fashion - mostly from ethical brands. The topic was organic cotton and denim. At some point, after the main body of the panel, a member of the audience asked the panelists about their opinion on hemp as a more sustainable crop to use instead of cotton, which is very water thirsty when cultivates in regions that require a lot of artificial irrigation. As a response to it, one of the panelists, who works for a brand which produces organic cotton denim (we will leave out the names), hurried to explain how hemp is cool but actually not doable, because it makes a very harsh and stiff fabric, which is consequently uncomfortable to wear, and how we actually still lack proper technology to work with hemp and make it soft and comfortable enough. The reply that followed from the moderator was honestly worth gold: “Well, I own a pair of 100% hemp pair of jeans, I wear them frequently and they are absolutely comfortable”.
The situation that we describe above is very characteristic to when we talk about hemp. There is a common misunderstanding of this crop and fabric - a lot of us think about it as a stiff, scratchy fabric that was maybe practical and fashionable hundreds of years ago, but now we don’t need to, and as a result, don’t know how make great clothes out of it. Nothing more wrong!
THE ORIGIN OF HEMP…
… as a crop that gets spun into a fabric probably goes back to as far as 10.000 years ago. The garments made of it, needless to say, had only a couple of essential goals in times when people did not have heating or comfort of cars: warmth, durability and practicality. But let’s back up for a second and explain the most important question what everyone has instantly when thinking about hemp: is it the same stuff that we smoke?!
Well… if you really tried it would probably be possible (the world belongs to the brave), but truth be told, psychoactive smokable marijuana is derived from a different strain of hemp than the one we weave the fabrics with. You can think about it as two species from the same plant family, but clothing is made of industrial hemp, which has lower concentration of THC (the psychoactive component which gives you deep thoughts and munchies), and if you really insisted in drying and smoking it - it would probably not do all that much. But yes - the origin of both of those strains is virtually the same, namely cannabis sativa.
But back to the topic: hemp has been used for clothes, as said above, long long time ago - before sustainable brands even looked that way. It was a comparatively easy crop to cultivate, as it takes a very short time to grow and it requires relatively small amounts of water - it also did not and still does need pesticides to be grown. According to some, even up to 80% of clothing made before 1920s was made of hemp. Even though garments are rarely made of 100% and more often involve mixing it with other fabrics - like cotton, polyester or flax, it always was and is, perfectly possible to make a soft and comfortable piece of purely hemp fibres.
Why is hemp awesome?
One of the main and obvious advantages of hemp is its biodegradability. If the fabric is a 100% made of hemp fibres with minimal chemical processing and natural dyes - theoretically one would be able to compost it. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world and this scenario is nearly never the case - but its other ecological advantages remain clear. Since it is not synthetic, it does not release micro-plastics to the water circles anytime it is washed, unlike polyester for instance. Secondly, it goes without saying that it is a vegan fabric that does not involve any animal material in its production and ideally, it might due without the common violations of human rights. Since hemp thrives best mostly on Northern hemisphere in a slightly colder climate, there might be hope that it could be cultivated in regions that regulate working hours, child labour and its production could be free of violations incidents that we hear about all too often. Hemp is also a type of fabric that breathes very well, it also grants a great thermal protection from both low and high temperatures, keeping the warmth in and cooling when needed. It is also relatively easy to dye, as it receives the colour very well and holds it for a long time. That means another remarkable advantage over synthetics, which are typically very hard to dye as the colour needs to stay on the outer layer of the fibre. That is why their dyes are often chemical and the process itself requires loads of water and synthetic processing. If that is not enough, thanks to its durability hemp does not lose colour easily and is very resistant. It does not need to be washed as frequently - since it is harder to properly sweat in it (thanks to the good thermo-regulation), and even when washed, it does not release the dye in large amount. For those who live in more humid climates, there is another amazing feature of hemp - it resists mould well. If in the beginning some of us can complain about a certain rigidness of hemp, it softens up as it gets worn.
With all those miracles listed above, one might ask - why the heck don’t we only use hemp if it’s so amazing?! The most mundane reason comes down to regulation. Since plantation of industrial hemp is anyway usually tightly connected to the cultivation of the “weed” hemp, some countries have regulations that prohibit farmers to plant significant amounts of this plant - and especially amounts that could result in producing a significant amount of fabric to make it worthwhile. As to environmental cons - it really is hard to find any. The only negative side effect of hemp would be originating from its chemical dying - which is actually not common and necessary when adding colours to hemp fibres. The rarity of hemp plants and problems with cultivating it, imposed by governments, makes it also an exclusive fabric and, therefore, relatively expensive. That is probably, right now, the only and the hardest to overcome reason for why we do not produce from hemp instead of being cheap polyester and shady cotton which have both extremely negative impact of environment. Modern customers want cheap garments fast, and synthetic fabrics can give us exactly that. But if we wish to have durable, breathing, natural and compostable piece of clothing, we need to make twice the effort to find it, and sometimes spend twice the money to have it. For us it is totally worth it, but sadly still just a little percent of consumer population thinks alike.
The options are available and hemp is actually one of the best ones out there. As elusive and rare as it might seem, hemp is actually all around if we know where to look. A short google browse will take us to a lot of brands that create either mixed or pure hemp garments and constantly innovate their production techniques. Check out My Green Closet Youtube channel (we attached a video for your convenience, you welcome) to learn about pros and cons of choosing various fabrics - both natural and synthetic.
All things considered, each of us is responsible for our own choices. 10.000 years ago and until the Industrial Revolution we really did not have much choice. We used only natural fabrics, because synthetic materials had not been invented yet. Everything we disposed of as trash was biodegradable because it was derived from plants or organic matter, one way or another. Even if our waste landed in rivers, it made them stink a little more and darkened their waters, but it did not kill everything that lives inside. Nowadays, we are unfortunately a part of an entirely different story. The waste we create, both in food, industrial waste and fabrics, is largely synthetic, so it does not belong in any natural ecosystems and habitats. It not only disrupts them, but causes sickness and death - work even since it is absolutely indestructible. Plastic, microfibres and chemical particles will stay in soil, rivers and, ultimately, our food for all generations to come. The choice is ours therefore - do we want to contribute to the build-up of synthetic waste, or not. Choosing natural fabrics, like hemp, linen or even cotton, over synthetics is one step we can all take to at least start relieving the planet of the obvious burden. Even if it costs a little bit more.