A Brief History Of Hemp Clothing

One of the biggest challenges of the fashion industry today is its impact on the environment. From chemicals used in fabric dyes to microfibers in the ocean, there’s a lot to be done if we would like to preserve our planet. In this blog, we are going to talk about a possible solution for some of these challenges: hemp!

First, we’ll dive in for a little bit of history about hemp and after that, we’ll compare it to the most used materials in clothing: cotton and polyester. To get your first question out of the way: no, you can’t get high if you tried to smoke clothes made from hemp since it’s the non-smokable version of cannabis.

The history of hemp in a nutshell

What a lot of people don’t know is that the use of hemp as a crop dates back at least 8000 years. The first application of hemp was in the making of cordage for pots. Back then they already knew the immense strength that hemp offers. The other main applications of hemp, such as textiles and food came up around 4000BC in China. Imagine that for a second: hemp clothing was there before the pyramids of Egypt!

Another interesting fact is that the first pieces of paper were also made from hemp around 100BC in, again, China. This rich history of China with hemp is probably also the reason why around 80% of all the hemp textiles still come from China right now.

Fast forward to the 19th century. Hemp was doing just fine and was still widely used as a source of food, textile, paper, ropes, and sails. Most of the ships that were discovering the planet needed tons of hemp for their sails and ropes, which made hemp a very popular crop for farmers to grow.

So what happened to hemp? Well … industrialization happened. It made other materials like cotton, wood and later plastics a lot cheaper to process, which is one of the reasons hemp lost its industrial throne. Also, the US thought it’d be wise to criminalize cannabis (and thus hemp), so it became unviable for farmers to grow it.

Luckily, we humans got smarter and smarter, and now we realize that hemp is actually a great natural source for clothing, food, homes etc. Countries are allowing hemp to be grown again (jay!)

“Why is it that good?” you may ask. Well, let’s compare it to polyester and cotton to get an idea.

Hemp vs polyester

Polyester is mainly used because it is strong, cheap and can be made in all different kinds of garments. The disadvantages though are that it needs a lot of energy (high CO2 emissions) to be created and that it releases microfibers when washed. These microfibers account for up to 30% of all plastic pollution in the water, they are then eaten by fish and end up on our plate. Well done humans!

While polyester requires little water in the production process, it emits around 60% more CO2 in production than hemp. Hemp also doesn’t release any harmful microfibers when washed, so there’s a lot of reason why at least some polyester should be replaced by hemp.

Hemp vs cotton

When we compare regular cotton to hemp, it’s easy to see what the environmental benefits are. Hemp needs around 75% less water and 33% less land when compared to cotton. On a global scale, this could mean billions of liters of fresh water saved each year and more land available for other purposes. Also, in contrast to cotton, hemp does not need any pesticides or insecticides to grow, so that’s a win-win-win for hemp. (Organic cotton doesn’t use any either, but that usually requires more land and water than conventional cotton). The only real disadvantage that hemp has over cotton, is that it wrinkles more and is a bit rougher. A full list of the (dis)advantages that hemp has can be found here: https://alissonsimmonds.com/2018/08/21/natural-fabrics-101/

So why is it so hard to find nice clothing made from hemp, when it has so many benefits? The main reasons are that currently, it is more expensive to create clothing out of hemp when you compare it to cotton or polyester, and since there’s not that much demand, there are also a lot of technological steps to be made until it can compete completely with cotton or polyester.

Picture: Unsplash

This guest blog post was written by Erik de Groot. Co-Founder of the natural athletic apparel Iron Roots.

 

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