Material Series VI: Happy hemp!
Next in our material series is Hemp.
I must admit that I have never actually bought anything made from hemp so it was interesting to find out more about it.
I believe hemp has made a good name for itself, maybe it has a bit (ok maybe a lot) of “hippie” feel to it, but let’s see how it compares to others when it comes to ecological sustainability.
Where does it come from?
Hemp or industrial hemp is mostly found in the northern hemisphere. It is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species and is one of the fastest growing plants. It seems hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibre 10,000 years ago.
Hemp has also been facing some challenges due to the link with Cannabis, the drug, however, this is not really fair as I’ve found out.
Even though cannabis and industrial hemp both come from the same species and contain the mind-expanding component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), they are different strains with unique chemical compositions and uses.
Hemp has lower concentrations of THC and higher concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD), which decreases or even eliminates its hallucinogenic effects. Regulations around hemp are very country-specific. Some governments regulate the concentration of THC and permit only hemp that is bred with an especially low THC content.
Hemp is incredibly versatile and can be used in a multitude of commercial items such as paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed but we will focus on the textile/ fibre application.
Currently, France is the biggest producer of hemp worldwide, with more of 70% of world output, followed by China with 25% of world production.
There are a lot of benefits related to hemp, both the plant and the fibre.
The plant is low-maintenance, resilient and able to grow in many places. It grows extremely fast, has high yield, doesn’t require a lot of water and doesn’t need herbicides or pesticides.
Another amazing quality of hemp is that it helps to detoxify and regenerate the soil where it’s grown, which makes it ideal as a rotation crop for farmers. Next to the natural benefits of falling leaves replenishing the soil with nutrients, nitrogen and oxygen, hemp roots absorb and disperse the energy of rain and runoff, which protects fertilizer, soil and keeps seeds in place. Something even more astonishingly I found out is that hemp can pull nuclear toxins from the soil! Hemp was actually planted around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to help clean the polluted sites. This process is called phyto-remediation. Phyto-remediation can be used to remove nuclear elements, and to clean up metals, pesticides, solvents, crude oil, and other toxins from landfills. Hemp breaks down pollutants and stabilizes metal contaminants by acting as a filter. Hemp is proving to be one of the best phyto-remediative plants found.
This is probably the single most amazing quality I have learned about hemp!
That brings us to the fibre. The touch and feel of hemp is a bit similar to linen.
The fibres drawn from the hemp plant are the strongest and longest in nature.
Hemp is a superior fibre that holds its shape and is incredibly strong. It is a natural material and if treated accordingly also biodegradable.
Clothing made from hemp is typically highly absorbent and lightweight. Hemp clothing matches the characteristics of the plant itself and tends to be hardy and long-lasting.
It is also a breathable fabric that can keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.
It’s particularly good in hot climates because it resists degradation by heat, and is less prone to fading. One particularly unique advantage of this fibre is that it helps block UV rays.
Hemp may also be blended and mixed easily with other fibres depending on what type of qualities are required from the garment, making hemp an extremely versatile clothing material.
Because hemp can be used for so many different application, all parts of the plant get utilised.
After that long list of positive qualities, we will also talk about a few challenges related to hemp.
Similar to linen is hemp’s rough nature. Due to this, it does not feel soft against the skin. However, it can be blended with other fibres to make it feel softer. It proves to be quite tricky to find 100% hemp items.
Garments made entirely from hemp tend to wrinkle easily, because, like linen, it’s elasticity is very poor.
Another point of attention is that while it resists degradation in heat, hemp fibres can be attacked by fungi and bacteria under hot and humid condition. Mildew rots and weakens the material. This can be avoided by impregnating the fabric with chemicals such as Copper Naphthenate.
Something we always need to be aware of with any type of material is that the processing techniques followed during the softening, cleaning and finishing may involve chemicals. Synthetic dyes containing heavy metals may be used for dyeing and chlorine is commonly used in the cleaning stage. Chemical processing with heavy caustic sodas and acid rinses are the techniques followed to improve softness and clean the fibre.
Verdict: I’m a fan!
Based on what I have I learned from my research, I believe we can easily conclude that it is a fabric with excellent scope for sustainability and even regeneration. Not only is the crop organic, but it is also cheap (doesn’t require a lot of care) and environmentally friendly in almost every aspect. Unlike (non-)organic cotton which immensely contributes to environmental pollution, energy and water use, hemp is eco-friendly and even benefits the soil and air where it is grown.
What is there not to love?!
Would love to hear about your experiences with hemp!