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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 was a gold rush into growing hemp, with 580,000 acres planted in 2019.
And yet, even in my ultra-sustainable closet, hemp failed to take over, even as CBD products flooded stores. The few hemp pieces I own are from China. That’s a shame, because hemp as a fabric is stronger than cotton — 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.
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 growing 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 is used for rougher products like 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.
Here comes my first debunking: I’ve seen fashion brands 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. That’s still an improvement!
And you don’t need to fluff (pun intended) 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. It’s ready to harvest within 100 days of being planted, compared with 150 to 180 days for cotton. 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.)
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.
“We’re thrilled to be working with hemp for our tees and look forward to expanding our offerings with this natural fabric because of its low impact on the environment and versatility,” says Desiree Buchanan, founder of the sustainable basics brand Poplinen, whose products are all made in the United States. “With sustainability being one of our three value pillars, it’s important to create clothing with premium fabrics that are plant-based, biodegradable, and get better with time.”
Wow, hemp does seems pretty perfect. What’s the catch?
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. University researchers have been rushing to study hemp varieties so they can advise farmers on how to get the best yields, but, again, that’s mainly been focused on CBD. A hemp fiber processor located in the U.S. that has produced for Patagonia and construction material companies said in 2019 they couldn’t find enough of the textile variety to process. And after the initial hype, 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. Acres planted in 2021 dropped 80%.
There have been questions about whether a domestic hemp textile market could ever be established in the U.S. For comparison, it’s only possible to grow the commodity of upland cotton in the United States today because of subsidies and crop insurance for farmers. Otherwise, cotton farmers would be completely wiped out due to cheaper competition from Asia and Africa. The rejoinder from sustainable fashion optimists is that those cotton subsidies should just all be shifted to hemp.
But that is too simplistic of a solution. Hemp, while stronger and longer-lasting than cotton and linen, is also somewhat stiffer and coarser. Until recently, it was only ever used for things like rope and sails, or as a last resort for low-income rural folks.
With new processing technology, pure hemp feels like rustic linen, and makes for beautiful sheets, sundresses, and lightweight men’s shirts and suiting. Even fashion brands that sell what they call “cottonized” hemp still blend it with other fibers. Patagonia imports hemp from China (photos of the process here) and blends it with Tencel, polyester, and cotton, and Levi’s cottonized hemp products feature denim made from hemp and cotton blends. Poplinen uses hemp blended with organic cotton jersey for its t-shirts. “It makes for a very durable piece of clothing that is also breathable, comfortable, and naturally odor-mitigating,” says Poplinen‘s Desiree Buchanan.
The Long Process of Getting Hemp from Field to Fashion
It’s in the processing of the hemp plant to make it ready for weaving that things get more complicated.
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. Up until now, North American farmers could only do dew retting, as the other processes require specialized facilities that North America didn’t have. 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. Once dried, hemp is dipped into a vat of caustic soda to de-gum the fiber. Then the fibers are readied for spinning in the hacking step, by shaking out the pulp and combing and carding the fibers. Then, finally, it’s spun, starched, bleached, and scoured with soap and water. Now, you have a fiber.
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 dumping fertilizer into rivers). The certification GOTS does require that wastewater from water retting is properly handled. There are few GOTS-certified hemp fiber producers, mostly in China and Germany.
It’s been a slow process in the States to get facilities that can process hemp into fiber up and running. In the fall of 2019, a Pennsylvania farming company bought 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, and said it was taking inquiries on hemp fiber products. Today, it only produces products for food, cosmetics, and supplements. That hemp company in Kentucky that produces fiber for Patagonia? It filed for bankruptcy in January 2020, mainly due to conflicting federal and state regulations around the legality of hemp.
Despite all these setbacks, Eric Henry, President of the North Carolina, dirt-to-shirt apparel company TS Designs, says he thinks 2022 might be the year we can buy North Carolina-grown and processed hemp fashion. He’s been working with the textile processors Bear Fiber, Renaissance Fiber, and Cellulose Solutions, connecting them to North Carolina hemp farmers, with the hope they can produce a spinnable fiber that will work in TS Designs’ machines.
“It really comes down to the de-gumming, getting it to where you have spinnable yarn,” Henry says. “I think we’re going to get there this year.” If all goes well, they’ll have hemp-cotton blend socks this year, as proof of concept.
And Cone Denim, the heritage mill, recently debuted a ridiculously sustainable collection of fabrics made from American cotton, Kentucky plant-based indigo, and American hemp processed by BastCore. While it hasn’t shown up in any products to my knowledge yet, maybe we’ll see some indigo-blue, American-made hemp products in stores soon.
What Do We Need to Create American Hemp Fabric?
This is all very exciting, but there’s still work to be done before we can reclaim our heritage of American hemp clothing.
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. University extensions need to fund and engage in research to breed the best fiber hemp for each region. 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., so that it doesn’t have to compete with artificially cheap fibers created in China.
“It will become available,” Henry says. “Brands might say they can’t afford it, but Chinese fiber comes with so many problems: climate change, Uighur forced labor, pollution, all that. You gotta make that transition to domestic manufacturing.”
In the meantime, imported hemp-cotton blend products still have a big advantage over pure cotton products. Even if they don’t bring a sense of calm and relaxation.