This post was written with help from Delilah Home, who gifted me hemp sheets and organic cotton towels to try. As always, all information has been verified and fact-checked, and we only work with brands that we truly believe are moving the industry forward. Support EcoCult editorial by supporting them!
We were promised hemp fashion.
Since the 1990s, we’ve been told that soon, we will all be wearing sustainable, local, American-grown hemp fabrics. That it would replace king cotton and become the new must-wear textile for conscious consumers.
It seemed like it might finally happen in 2018, when the Farm Bill removed hemp as a controlled substance. There’s since been a gold rush into growing hemp. It’s already a $1 billion market, and sales are projected to double by 2022.
And yet, even in my ultra-sustainable closet, hemp has failed to take over, even as CBD products have flooded stores. The few hemp pieces I own are from China. Even Jungmaven, founded in 2012 to promote the environmental benefits of hemp farming to American consumers, features organic cotton and hemp blend products made in California using Chinese hemp.
First discovered thousands of years ago in the Himalayas, hemp was used to make Christopher Columbus’ sails, the first American flag, and is rumored to be the fabric for the original Levi jeans. Why can’t we get it together and bring all-American hemp back to our fields, our mills, and our homes?
Well, as with many things in sustainable fashion, the hype has gotten way ahead of the actual facts. Let’s get into it.
How Sustainable Is Hemp?
Before you can learn about hemp fashion, you need to understand what hemp fabric is. While closely related to the cannabis plant you smoke, hemp lacks enough THC to get you high. Despite this, it was swept up in the 1937 illegalization of marijuana, with India following suit in 1985 due to pressure from the U.S. Since then, China has come to dominate the global hemp industry both in volume and fiber quality, followed by Nepal and some Eastern European countries.
Industrial hemp is in turn split into three categories: oilseed (which is used for food and CBD), fiber, and a hybrid that can produce both seed and fiber. Not surprisingly, the quality of the fiber in the hybrid is not as fine as the specialized varieties. It’s usually used for paper or rope.
Hemp is a bast fiber, meaning it’s made from the stem of a plant. Other bast fibers include jute and flax, a.k.a. linen. According to the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, bast fibers are the second most sustainable out of all the natural fabrics, after wool. Lifecycle analyses tend to report natural fibers as having a higher negative impact on the environment than synthetic fibers when it comes to water and land use. But as I’ve pointed out before, this analysis doesn’t include chemical usage (which biases the analysis toward synthetic fibers) or post-consumer disposal. Pure, undyed and unfinished hemp can be composted once it’s at the point of falling apart, a huge mark in its favor.
Hemp as a fabric is also stronger than cotton, and lasts longer. It’s said to break in, not break down, making for products that will last your lifetime. It’s sweat-wicking and anti-odor, similar to merino wool, meaning you can treat hemp products like denim products and go a long time between washings.
Here comes my first debunking: I’ve seen almost every hemp brand claim that hemp is anti-microbial. But according to this review of the scientific literature, its anti-microbial properties are related to CBD oils, which are harvested from a different type of plant, and from a different part of the plant. Hemp fiber won’t kill microbes or give you a sense of calm when you put it on. Sorry.
My second debunking is this: According to the CFDA and other internet sources, “hemp produces 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more fiber than flax [linen] on the same land, and has the highest yield per acre of any natural fiber.” Unfortunately, I was not been able to confirm this statistic. Instead, I found that hemp yields an estimated 1,300 pounds of fiber per acre, versus somewhere between about 600 to 1,400 pounds for cotton fiber, and around 500 pounds per acre for flax. That’s anywhere from equal to double cotton, and 160% more than linen.
Not quite as impressive, but still another mark in its favor! And you don’t need to fluff (yep, I did that) hemp’s statistics to make it look good even compared to linen. Hemp is as hardy as a weed — the federal government has spent millions ripping up wild hemp plants (the kind that won’t get you high) that have sprouted of their own accord in roadside ditches. According to Soucing Journal, hemp uses half as much water per season as irrigated cotton and requires no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer. (Though sometimes farmers can and do use fertilizer and herbicides to juice production.) It’s ready to harvest within 100 days of being planted, compared with 150 to 180 days for cotton. Hemp is so good for the soil, that it’s been known to grow for 20 years straight in the same location without any need to rotate crops in or replenish the soil health, according to the National Hemp Association. It provides excellent ground cover for crop rotation, and there’s evidence that hemp can draw heavy metals out of the soil it’s grown in, and so can be used for bioremediation of toxic sites.
All this makes hemp look great for consumers who want a sustainable wardrobe, and for U.S. farmers who want to practice regenerative farming methods.
So, where are we on that?
Why Hemp for Fabric Isn’t Grown in America
Fortunately for your nerves but unfortunately for fashion, most of the hemp grown in the U.S. is of the CBD-producing variety, even though it is more difficult and riskier to grow. That’s the downside of any gold rush: The 2019 hemp growing season was seen as a “disaster for farmers,” with an overabundance of CBD-variety hemp rotting in the fields because there wasn’t enough CBD processing capacity in the states.
Meanwhile, there’s one hemp fiber processor located in the U.S. who has produced for Patagonia and construction material companies, and they say they can’t find enough of the textile variety to process.
There are questions about whether a domestic hemp textile market could ever be established in the U.S. Remember, it’s only possible to grow cotton in the United States today because of massive subsidies for farmers. Otherwise, it would be completely wiped out due to cheaper competition from Asia and Africa.
The rejoinder from hippie types is that those cotton subsidies should just all be shifted to hemp. But hemp, while stronger and longer-lasting than cotton and linen, is also stiffer and coarser. Until recently, it was only ever used for things like rope and sales, or as a last resort for the poor.
Modern hemp is often softened up in something called wet processing, which I’ll explain later. There is also a startup called CRAiLAR that created a process using natural enzymes to turn hemp into a softer, more cotton-like material. Even after it’s processed using modern methods, it’s often blended with other fibers to create something that consumers want to wear. Patagonia imports hemp from China (photos of the process here) and blends it with Tencel, polyester, and cotton. I myself wore a silk-hemp blend wedding dress. It acted a lot like linen with a slight sheen. Last year, Levi’s and Outerknown together introduced introduced “cottonized hemp” denim garments. But they still combined 70% cotton with 30% hemp. The materials, Levi’s states on its website, are imported.
Pure hemp that is wet-proccesed feels more like rustic linen, and makes for beautiful sheets, sundresses, and lightweight men’s shirts and suiting. I adore our hemp sheets from Delilah Home, and my husband loves his B Label shirt from India. But it’s not quite ready to completely replace cotton. Delilah, for example, sells only 100% cotton towels (they need to be soft and fluffy!), and bedsheets certified to the GOTS standard. However, according to their CEO and Chairman for the Organic Trade Association Fiber Council, Michael Twer, they are in the process of building on their hemp success and will have more products made with hemp later this year.
What We Would Need to Manufacture Hemp Fabric in the U.S.
Even if we managed to subsidize hemp in the U.S., we would then need to install the infrastructure to refine and spin it into fabric.
The first step is retting, a process to break down the freshly harvested plant. This can be done with water, chemically, or through dew-retting, in which the stalks are laid out in the field for several weeks to let weather and microbes do the job. North American farmers can only do dew retting, as the other processes require specialized facilities that North America doesn’t have. Most hemp of the quality high enough for textiles is produced in China and Hungary using water retting. If it’s not regulated, the wastewater can be dumped into local waterways and can suffocate aquatic life (similar to fertilizer dumped into rivers). This is one reason why it’s more expensive to produce hemp fabric in developed countries with environmental regulations. The certification GOTS does require that wastewater from water retting is properly handled. And there are a growing number of GOTS-certified manufacturers, mostly in Turkey and China, with a few scattered across Romania, The Netherlands, Bangladesh, India, Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland.
Next comes skutching, or removing the fibers from the inner core. This is a mechanical process that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. In the fall of 2019, a Pennsylvania farming company had a huge piece of processing equipment called the HempTrain (which is supposed to process hemp plants into CBD feedstock, food seeds, and high-quality bast fiber) delivered from Canada to Pennsylvania, and the company is taking inquiries on hemp fiber products. But that hemp company in Kentucky that produces fiber for Patagonia? It filed for bankruptcy in January, mainly due to conflicting federal and state regulations around the legality of hemp—a bad sign.
Once dried, hemp is dipped into a vat of caustic soda to de-gum the fiber. Right now, this step can’t be done in the U.S., though research is underway by several startups to find a cost-effective and scalable process. Then the fibers are readied for spinning in the “hacking” step, by shaking out the pulp and combing and carding the fibers. It’s spun, starched, bleached, and scoured with soap and water. The last optional step is dyeing.
There are no hemp mills in the U.S. who can take pure hemp fiber through to apparel-quality fabric, though it could be blended in with cotton and wool. But even cotton mills are struggling in the U.S. The most famous denim spinning mill in North Carolina recently closed down, dealing a blow to the Made-in-America dream of field-to-closet fashion.
What do we need to create American hemp fabric?
So, are we ever going to get a farm-to-closet hemp fashion label in the U.S.? Well, a few things would have to happen. First, the federal government needs to make hemp fully legal and take away all the red tape so that it’s as easy to grow and process as cotton. Next, the federal government needs to subsidize hemp farming. Then, we need investment in technology and manufacturing facilities that can process and mill hemp into a fine fabric. Finally, we need a tariff system that financially supports hemp fabric manufactured in the U.S.
Only if all those pieces fall into place will we get our closets full of American hemp. Until then, the finest hemp that is suitable for fashion and home textiles will have to come from China.
Hey, it’s still way better than Chinese cotton.