Hemp fiber has been used by mankind to make eco clothes since before recorded history. It is currently thought that hemp is the oldest cultivated plant in the world with uses dating back to the stone age. Bits of hemp fabric have been found dating back to about 8,000 B.C. revealing the oldest example of human industry. Fiber imprints have been found in pottery shards in both China and Taiwan dating back an estimated 10,000 years. Archeologists believe that, in addition to flax, hemp has been weaved since the Neolithic period right through to the middle ages. Hemp has a more recent history as well in a variety of applications (including an important role in early America) and has been a very valuable crop leading up to the modern era.
While the fiber is one of the most valuable parts of the hemp plant (commonly referred to as Bast) used in the creation of textiles, industrial hemp has a wide range of uses including but not limited to paper, cordage, bio-fuel, health food and biodegradable plastics. While truly a remarkable plant, the purpose of this article is to examine the use of hemp fiber in the manufacturing of textiles and ultimately clothing. We will also look at the sustainability of hemp as a crop but highly encourage you to research and explore some of the other roles this important plant plays. You will undoubtedly be led into an eye-opening and wondrous path regarding hemp's many uses and colorful history.
Unlike cotton, which accounts for approximately 50% of all chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, etc.) used in American agriculture today, hemp requires virtually none. Hemp is naturally resistant to most pests and grows very densely. As a result, it does not need chemicals having practically no weed or insect enemies. It has been noted that when grown in rotation, pests in future crops are actually reduced. In addition, the plant is an excellent source of oxygen production. With each growth cycle the soil is renewed returning from 60-70% of the nutrients it takes. Its long roots aerate soil for the benefit of future crops, remove toxins and prevent soil erosion as well. As a crop, hemp requires little to no fertilizer and grows quickly and effortlessly in moderate climates. From a cost perspective, hemp is less expensive to farm because of its minimal growth requirements. Canadian hemp farmers are earning 10X the revenue per acre than American grain farmers making hemp a viable alternative to crops experiencing reduced demand. Perhaps tobacco farmers should take notice!
Compared to cotton or flax, hemp is considered a high-yield crop producing significantly more fiber per square foot and with less water requirements. When grown on the same land, hemp will produce twice the amount of fiber as cotton and six times that of flax. It would take four acres of trees to yield the same amount of fiber as a mere one acre of hemp. In other words, hemp can yield 4X the amount of fiber of an average size forest. What an extremely productive natural fiber! Trees on the other hand require 50 to 500 years to grow were as hemp can yield three to four times annually (approx. 100 day life cycle). Hemp cultivation could significantly decrease if not completely stop the destruction of our forests!
Up until the 1920's, approx. 80% of all garments were made from hemp textiles. Even the now famous Levi Strauss used a light weight hemp canvas for its original pair of jeans. Since that time, hemp has been used to make many types of garments and accessories. Big names such as Patagonia, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren have recently marketed products made from hemp.
The valuable bast fibers, which give the plant its strength, are contained within the hollow wood-like core of the plants stalk under the outer most bark. Grown densely packed (up to 150 plants per square meter), tall plants suitable for the production of the long primary bast fibers are the result. The hemp fibers run the length of the plant anywhere from 3 to 15 ft long.The primary fibers average 8" in length and can be spun or woven into a fine linen-like type fabric. These fibers are now commonly blended with other fibers such as flax, cotton, wool, linen or silk.A variety of tactile experiences can be created by weaving hemp as intricately as lace, smooth as silk or as coarse as burlap. Modern hemp blends created today for the garment industry are cool to touch and comfortable to wear. While hemp garments are often comparatively more expensive than those made from cotton due to higher processing costs and limited quantities, its superiority is clear.