Hemp fabric 101: Why I love hemp and hope you will too

This article focuses on the amazing world of hemp fabric, including it’s history, sustainability credentials, the benefits of hemp and how it compares to other natural fibres.

If you’re looking for hemp fabric suppliers, check out our article on where to buy hemp fabric.

OK, full disclosure. I’m totally obsessed with hemp. The fabric that is, not the other, er forms of hemp.

So, let’s just get that little myth busted right up front.

Hemp fabric is made from the industrial hemp plant. Both marijuana and industrial hemp have the same botanical name of Cannabis Sativa. They are essentially different varieties of the same plant. Industrial hemp contains almost untraceable amounts of THC, the ‘active’ ingredient in Marijuana.

Industrial hemp is one of the world’s miracle plants and has a fascinating history.

Let’s start with a few fast facts.

Fast facts about hemp

hemp ropes
Hemp is the longest and strongest natural plant fibre.
Hemp cloth is extremely hard wearing. It outwears cotton and other natural fibres and improves with washing and wearing.
Hemp is one of the oldest plants and has been found in archaeological excavations throughout the World. Some of the oldest paper found in tombs in China was made from hemp fibre. Hemp cloth has been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt.
Hemp ropes, cords and fabrics were essential to the early exploration of the World, providing ropes and sails for ships, shelter and clothing for settlers.
Many famous artists painted on hemp canvas.
Hemp was, for many years, essential to the economy of many countries.
Hemp requires little or no use of fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides or herbicides to grow successfully.
Ukraine grew industrial hemp to naturally remove radioactive elements from the soil and groundwater at the Chernobyl site.

The history of hemp

Hemp has served civilisation for thousands of years. The fibre has always been valued for its strength and durability. Christopher Columbus sailed to America on ships rigged with hemp. Hemp was grown extensively in colonial America by numerous farmers.

For thousands of years hemp was traditionally used as an industrial fibre. Sailors relied upon hemp for strength to hold their ships and sails, and the coarseness of the fibre made hemp useful for canvas, sailcloth, sacks, rope, and paper. However, the coarseness of the fibre restricted hemp from being used in clothing and for home decorating. Hemp needed to be softened. It therefore remained an industrial fabric.

Over time, researchers developed a process to successfully soften hemp fibre without compromising its strength. The de-gummed hemp fibre could be spun alone or with other fibres to produce textiles for clothing and home decorating.

This breakthrough has catapulted hemp to the forefront of modern textile design and fashion. Given hemp’s superiority to other natural fibres, the benefits of this breakthrough are enormous.

In fact, Levi Strauss chose hemp for their very first pair of jeans due to the combination of ruggedness and comfort.

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Benefits of hemp Fabric

Not only is hemp fabric strong, but it also holds its shape, stretching less than any other natural fibre. This prevents garments from stretching or becoming distorted with use.

The more hemp is used, the softer it gets. It doesn’t wear out, it wears in.

Textiles spun from hemp are also naturally resistant to mould and ultraviolet light.

Hemp fabric sustainability

Hemp is an extremely fast growing crop, yielding more fibre per acre than any other source. It can produce substantially more fibre than cotton or flax using the same amount of land.

Hemp leaves the soil in excellent condition for any subsequent crop, especially when weeds may otherwise be troublesome.

Where the ground permits, hemp’s strong roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff, building and preserving topsoil and subsoil structures similar to those of forests. Hemp plants shed their leaves all through the growing season, adding rich organic matter to the topsoil and helping it retain moisture.

Is hemp fabric biodegradable?

Yes, like other natural fibres, hemp fabric will break down entirely over time.

Is hemp fabric organic?

As hemp needs no pesticides or herbicides to grow, it is generally considered to be naturally ‘organic’. However, there is no guarantee that the hemp fabric isn’t treated with harmful bleaches or other agents when it’s processed.

If you are particularly concerned that what you are buying is certified organic, then look for certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or OEKO-TEX certified.

Can you dye hemp fabric?

Dying hemp fabric

Yes. Due to the porous nature of the fibre, hemp is more water absorbent, and will dye and retain its colour better than any fabric, including cotton.

This porous nature also allows hemp to “breathe,” so that it is cool in warm weather.

How does hemp compare to other natural fibres?

Hemp fabric vs cotton

Compared with cotton, hemp fabric certainly wins the environmental prize hands down.

Here are some other differences:

  • Hemp uses just over 2000 litres of water to produce one kg of raw fibre for textiles, whereas cotton needs about 10,000 litres to produce the same amount. Cotton also uses significant amounts of chemical fertilisers during production.
  • Hemp produces three times the amount of fibre compared to cotton on the same plot of land.
  • Hemp has traditionally been woven into a more textured style of fabric than cotton. More recently though, I’ve seen many really sophisticated fabrics woven from hemp, so this is not always the case.
  • Cotton will usually be slightly softer than an equivalent style of hemp, but that gap is also closing with modern processing techniques.
  • If you’re using hemp fabric for home decorating, especially upholstery, it is definitely more durable than an equivalent weight cotton.

Hemp fabric vs linen

Hemp fabric vs linen

When comparing natural fabrics, hemp and linen are probably the most similar.

Some of their similarities are:

  • They both breathe well which makes them both lovely to wear or sleep on.
  • Hemp and linen wrinkle easily which is part of their earthy, textured look – a core part of their natural attraction.
  • They both absorb moisture, hemp just slightly more than linen.
  • They both benefit from washing, becoming softer and more appealing with each wash.

Some differences between hemp and linen include:

  • They are both strong fibres, but if all other factors are the same (eg they are spun and woven in a similar way), hemp is considerably stronger and longer lasting than linen.
  • They are both quite durable having anti-bacterial properties and being resistant to moths and other insects. However, Hemp is also highly resistant to rotting, mildew and salt water and light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight.
  • Hemp doesn’t stretch as much as linen or other natural fibres. This can be a good or bad thing depends on how you’d like to use it.

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Hemp fabric

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