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 where 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.
One of the most commonly known attributes about hemp fiber is its exceptional tensile strength which is three times that of cotton. In addition, the fiber is naturally antimicrobial and resistant to ultraviolet light as well as mold, mildew, heat and insects which makes it excellent for outdoor wear. The fiber is not only many times more durable than cotton but warmer, softer and more water absorbent. This also makes hemp more absorbent to dyes and thus less prone to fading. Because of hemp's superior insulating properties, it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Hemp fibers actually soften with each washing without fiber degradation. Hemp production uses significantly less chemicals than cotton which makes it more sustainable and naturally more suitable for people with chemical sensitivities. The fiber is completely biodegradable, holds its shape as good as polyester but also has breathability. The fibers, which are naturally light in color, require little or no bleach.
Fiber to fabric:
While it is legal in the US to own hemp products such as clothing and foods derived from the plant, it is illegal to cultivate it here. This makes the US the only industrialized nation on earth that does not allow its production based on a law that does not make the distinction between industrial hemp from marijuana. All hemp fabric is therefore imported. The primary countries supplying hemp to the US include China, Hungary, Thailand, Romania and Chile with production coming from other nations including Australia, England, Canada and New Zealand as well.
The basic process of creating hemp fabric for garments is four fold:
-Separation of the fiber
-Spinning/Weaving the fiber into Yarn
Centuries old traditional eco-friendly methods of mechanical hemp processing are still used in countries such as Romania and Hungary. Modern methods include chemical rather than mechanical processes which are faster, less labor intensive and ultimately less expensive. Unfortunately, there are manufacturers out there who are more interested in profits and as a result opt for the chemical methods as opposed to protecting the health of the consumer and our environment.
The process of separating the bast fibers from the stalk is called "retting". The organic methods of separation are both natural and mechanical. The retting process breaks down pectin and lignin, the substances that glue the fibers to the stem core. Two natural retting techniques are dew and water retting. Both methods use a bacterial action to break down the glue, the former aided by dew or rain where as the later takes the bundled hemp and floats it in water to loosen the fiber from the stem.In dew retting, stalks are first cut in to 12-18" lengths and are then left in the moist fields. In order for the stalks to dry, they are then racked together every few days followed by bailing when drying and retting is complete. The dew retting process takes approx. 2-3 weeks to finish based on weather conditions. In water retting, the stalks are soaked for approx. 20 days to loosen the fiber. This method produces a higher quality fiber but is costly and if the water is not disposed of properly can pollute the body of water used in the process. In both methods, the stems must also be monitored to avoid excessive degradation.
A seemingly primitive labor intensive mechanical process is called scutching Once the stems are removed and washed, they are beaten to remove the soft tissue. This is followed by drying so that only the fibers remain. More modern mechanical methods use steam and specially designed machinery on site to separate the fiber from the hurd (the pulp by-product after fiber is removed). In eastern Europe the primary means of processing rely on traditional organic methods including new cleaner biologically-based enzyme technology. In contrast, China, the worlds leading producer of hemp fabric uses chemical methods of processing.
Spinning hemp fiber in to yarn which is then weaved or knitted into garments is essentially the same for hemp processed by chemical or organic means. The only real difference between the two is the fiber length. Organic fibers are generally longer whereas chemically processed hemp becomes "cottonized" and tends to have short fiber. The spinning equipment may vary as a result but the process remains same.
Organic cleaning and softening methods and machinery are currently being researched and developed by ecologically-minded hemp textile manufacturers. This enables the fabric to remain organic and chemical free as well as retain its softness and durability, a characteristic that is often diminished using chemical means. The natural light color of hemp fiber prevents the need to use toxic chlorine bleach. If lightening is absolutely necessary, an eco-friendly non-toxic alternative is hydrogen peroxide.
The environmental friendliness involving the dyeing and finishing of hemp textile varies greatly around the world. In the US, there are laws in place which regulate the types of dyes and dyeing methods being used, especially in CA where many dye houses exist. The dye itself is another consideration. The toxic content of the dye as well as the disposal of excess dye and chemicals determine the measure of harm done to the environment. The proper disposal of the waste is of the utmost importance in order to minimize any potentially detrimental environmental effects.
Hemp garments can be dyed or left in a "natural" state, which means no dye at all. When left un-dyed, garments come in varying shades of beige which is the natural color of the hemp fibers after processing. An obvious consideration for a sustainable garment business would be to choose dyes which are the least harmful to the environment (such as low impact and fiber-reactive dyes made from natural components that are water soluble containing no heavy metals). In addition, it is essential to work with dye houses that use such dyes and employ strict ecological safety measures as well. Equally important is to eliminate or at least moderate the amount of synthesized chemicals used in the finishing process in an effort to increase the fabrics overall sustainability. Finishing can involve anything from applying compounds to improve smoothness, stiffness and strength to processes that change surface appearance and texture. Eco-friendly methods of both dyeing and finishing have been developed.
There are chemical processes that can be used at each stage of turning fiber into fabric and fabric into garments. We encourage transparency at every level from the field to the factory so merchants and consumers alike can make the most educated choices possible regarding the products they wish to either sell or wear. The process of growing is only half the equation when creating healthy organic and/or sustainable garments. The various stages of processing must be done using methods that take into consideration the health of both the environment and the consumer.
Hemp can be considered in many ways nothing short of miraculous. This sustainable and easily renewable resource is used for food, clothing, energy and shelter (yes shelter, hemp is also used in making building materials). It's no wonder why so many people and organizations have become passionate about spreading the message of hemp as a world saving plant! Supporting the growing hemp industry by purchasing apparel made from hemp can be considered by some a revolutionary act. I'm sure our founding fathers would agree, after all George Washington and Thomas Jefferson sowed hemp on their plantations! Make a statement and set an example by choosing hemp garments as part of your business and/or wardrobe today!
Fredric Schwartz is the founder of Vayu, a grassroots company dedicated to creating eco clothes inspired by yoga and made from hemp fibers and organic cotton. Hemp cotton blends make up incredibly sustainable eco clothing made for the conscious consumer. The company follows a strict model of sustainability integrated into the core of its business model. The result is green clothing born from Fredric's long time commitment to living in harmony with the Earth. Shop sustainably today! http://www.vayuwear.com/store