By Adrienne Suhm
What if there was a single plant that could shelter you, feed you, dress you, and more? Allow us to introduce you to hemp, a rising star in sustainable fashion and arguably the world’s most versatile plant.
Although hemp is usually associated with marijuana, the two plants are actually cousin crops due to the much lower THC content in hemp. Hemp has endured the millennia as one of humanity’s earliest domesticated plants, with its first recorded appearance in Neolithic China. Hemp contains two usable parts: the seed offers a source of milk, oil, and other consumables high in omega-3 fatty acids and complete protein, while the fiber can be used to create products such as paper, clothing, and rope. There are 25,000 known uses for hemp and it is a common ingredient in body care products, highly durable construction materials called “hempcrete,” biofuels, and plastic composites. Interestingly, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag with hemp fabric and a draft of the Declaration of Independence was signed on hemp paper.
From its early growth stages, hemp is a more sustainable option than other fabrics like cotton, linen, or polyester. Hemp can be grown in a variety of climates and soil types and is naturally resistant to common pests. It replenishes the soil by returning nitrogen rather than extracting nutrients and absorbs soil pollution, meaning that new crops can be planted immediately after harvesting hemp with no fallow period. Cotton requires around 50% more water than hemp during the growth process with only one third of the crop yield per acre of land due to hemp’s minimal land requirement.
Hemp can be pulped using fewer chemicals than wood and requires only one quarter of the water that is needed for manufactured cotton. It has a naturally light color that eliminates the need for chlorine bleach, and depending on the processing method, hemp fabric can take on a number of different earthy tones.
Hemp is extremely durable due to its long fibers, which remain strong even when wet. Nonetheless, it is breathable and moisture-wicking in warm temperatures and maintains heat in cold weather. Hemp becomes softer over time and is anti-bacterial, biodegradable, and easily blended with other materials. Although the idea of hemp fabric might evoke images of itchy burlap, it has a similar texture, drape, and appearance to linen.
With the laundry list of benefits that hemp has to offer, you may be wondering why it isn’t more widely used in fashion today. Hemp remains extremely difficult to grow in the United States due to regulatory limitations. Aside from the differing THC levels, hemp is genetically identical to marijuana, so all hemp farms in America are subject to testing by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The regulatory process involves a number of costs and manufacturing hurdles that do not apply to other textiles such as cotton or polyester. As a result, most companies turn to hemp imports primarily from China and Canada to avoid the costly and time-consuming process of sourcing hemp within the United States. However, the hemp industry is growing and was recently valued at around $500 million dollars as companies like Patagonia pioneer in developing hemp-based apparel. Expect to hear more about hemp in the coming years, as this miracle of the plant kingdom is making its way into the mainstream.