The chances are that when you think of hemp you associate it with cannabis and getting high. Or you may associate it with CBD oils that have become popular in recent times. If it does cross your mind that hemp can be made into clothes, the image you conjure is probably a brightly coloured, thickly woven garment worn by a 1960’s hippie. Government regulations as well as these images and associations have meant that hemp hasn’t been a mainstream fabric since the first half of the twentieth century.
In this post I’ll look at why we need to get over these issues and embrace hemp as a fabric that can have better, more sustainable, environmental credentials than the alternatives.
If hemp is so great, why aren’t more clothes made with it?
If we look at the long history of humans wearing woven fabric clothes then arguably hemp has been one of the most popular fabric of all time. Although estimates vary greatly, we started making clothes out of hemp fibres at least 7 thousand years ago. Hemp was also used to make canvas for sails, ropes and paper amongst other products. The problem came in the first half of the twentieth century when many countries banned the growing of hemp because of its association with cannabis. Very quickly hemp clothes mainly became a thing of the past.
Why is hemp associated with cannabis?
Well, hemp actually is a variety of Cannabis, but there’s a key difference. The cannabis plant that you’re thinking of is the plant that can get you high when you smoke it. Hemp is a distinct strain of the cannabis plant  that has such low levels of THCs that it won’t get you high.
The problem is that hemp tends to get lumped in with ‘standard’ cannabis from a legal perspective. This means that in many countries it is either not possible to grow hemp, or restrictive licensing and regulations make it too difficult to.
There’s lots of other types of fabric around now, why go back to using hemp?
It’s true, there are many types of fabric used in modern day clothes that are either made from natural fibres or made from oil-based petrochemicals, such as polyester. All of them have their disadvantages from an environmental perspective: oil-based fibres are not sustainable, lead to microplastics in the oceans and don’t biodegrade, whilst natural fibres can consume large amounts of water in their growing and production or require large amounts of land to grow the crops on. While hemp isn’t perfect, it does represent an improvement in almost all the areas.
Here are some of the advantages that hemp has:
Currently, the most used natural fibre is traditional cotton occupying 2.5% of the world’s farmland. This cotton consumes 16% of all insecticides  and 5.6% of all pesticides . Hemp doesn’t require either, mainly because it outgrows other weeds and grows so densely that it chokes them out. This has a number of advantages, not least the reduction in ground water pollution due to the lack of chemicals used and the reduction of the carbon footprint associated with manufacturing them.
The fast growing nature of hemp means that it is often used in crop rotation where more than one crop is grown in a year. The ‘choking out’ of the weeds has been found to benefit the yield of crops planted after the hemp has been harvested .
Quantity of fibre per acre
With the availability of agricultural land being under pressure, the amount of crop that can be produced per acre is an important factor. Hemp farmed for its fibre grows very closely together in dense fields producing more than twice the amount of fibre than cotton per hectare of land .
Quality of the soil
There is increasing concern for the quality of soil as modern farming techniques deteriorate it through regular tilling and the application of pesticides and insecticides that can adversely affect soil micro-organisms .
Hemp has particularly long roots which helps improve the soil structure and also locks carbon into the soil after the crop has been harvested. This improved soil quality is beneficial to the yield of subsequent crops .
If you live in a country where rain is plentiful, it may not be apparent how important the amount of water needed to create fabric is. For natural fibres, water is required in the manufacturing process and to irrigate the crops in the fields. When we look at the some of the areas that natural fibres are grown, we can see that water is important.
Hemp is at a distinct advantage over cotton as it has longer roots. These roots are often able to access water that is deeper in the ground than other crops can. Depending on where the crop is grown, this reduces the reliance on irrigation. A 2005 study showed that hemp only requires around a quarter of the water that conventionally grown cotton does .
Are there any disadvantages of using hemp to make clothes?
There are certainly some hurdles that need to be overcome. Over the last 50 plus years, the techniques and processes for making clothes out of other fibres has developed considerably, particularly in terms of mechanisation. Due to falling into relative obscurity, hemp hasn’t benefitted from significant development and is still reliant on using more workers. This results in higher prices for the fabric.
Despite Hemp’s long history of clothing humankind it has pretty much been forgotten in modern times. Because of this the development that other fabrics have gone through have been missed by hemp. For hemp to catch up, it will take people to start buying hemp clothes. As hemp becomes more mainstream, as I believe it needs to, the price of hemp will come down and in the long term may become cheaper than cotton.
So, is hemp the wonder fabric we need? If we are going to embrace more sustainable material for clothing, then I believe so.
But, this is only part of the story – hemp is so much more than a fabric. Amy Ansel‘s excellent TEDx talk gives an excellent overview of some of the modern (and rediscovered) applications for hemp and how this wonder crop could help put us onto a more sustainable future.