As one of the oldest and most ecofriendly natural fabrics in the world, hemp fabric can be counted among the most sustainable textiles in existence. However, the controversy underlying the production of hemp is its relation to the Cannabis sativa plant, more commonly known as marijuana. The Fiber Watch series investigates the superlative qualities of the hemp plant and the fabric made from it, alongside discussing the legal difficulties of producing this exceptional fiber.
According to the Columbia History of the World, the oldest relics of our human history are fragments of hemp fabric found in tombs dating to 8,000 BC. The fiber obtained from the hemp plant has proven to be extremely durable, which is why it was historically often used for rope-making and heavy-duty canvas cloth. Hemp was widely used in the U.S. for centuries before the mid-twentieth century; Levi Strauss’ first pair of jeans was in fact made out of hemp fabric, as he found the combination of durability and comfort ideal for robust workwear. (See a more modern version of that hemp-based denim in the image above: Feral Childe’s Jean ValJean.)
The hemp plant grows quickly and efficiently without any need for pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, making it naturally organic. Hemp plants fix essential nutrients back into the soil, making them an ideal crop to grow on land the needs nourishment. This gives it significant headway when compared to cotton cultivation, which uses some of the most toxic pesticides on the market, immense amounts of water and yields much less fiber per acre.
The stem of the hemp plant contains the fiber used for fabric production, meaning that hemp belongs to the bast fiber group alongside flax, jute, ramie and kenaf. These types of plants contain the softest fibers in the inner core of the stalk, while rougher fiber makes up the outer layers of the plant stalk. Unlike other cellulose based natural fibers, hemp contains less lignin (a viscous, glue-like substance that holds the fibers together) making fiber separation relatively easy. Traditional, mechanical methods of hemp fiber processing require no chemicals, although modern, chemical intensive methods have been adopted by several Asian producers. Since hemp fibers are naturally very long, it is difficult to find machinery that will easily process and spin them into yarn, as many modern machines are made for processing shorter fibers.
Once spun, hemp fiber is often blended with other fibers like cotton, wool and silk for textiles that combine the best qualities of each fiber. Hemp and cotton blends are extremely soft, wool and hemp blends are superbly warm, and silk and hemp blends create a lustrous fabric that is strong and durable. Hemp fiber displays superior qualities as a fabric, as it insulates excellently, breathes well, efficiently blocks ultraviolet rays and is often not processed with the use of chemicals. Hemp fibers are actually much longer and stronger than cotton with eight times the tensile strength and four times the durability.
Other uses for hemp fiber include paper, rope, cording, animal bedding, biomass fuel and car interiors. Hemp seed is a by-product of hemp fiber production, and offers numerous health benefits when enjoyed in one’s diet. Many health food brands use hemp seed and oil in foods like salad dressings, dairy-free milk, granola, veggie burgers, protein bars, breads and crackers. Hemp oil can also be found in skin products, soaps, and household cleaners as it is a natural cleansing alternative to harsh chemicals.
Despite all these benefits, cultivation of the hemp plant is illegal in most of the U.S. because it is related to marijuana. Unlike marijuana, hemp contains very low level of the psychoactive component THC, which is essentially what gets you “high”; hemp contains less than 0.3% percent THC, while marijuana contains 3-20% THC. Smoking hemp would provide you nothing more than a bad headache. Therefore, there is really no viable reason to outlaw the cultivation of the plant, as it would provide nothing but a subsidy-free crop alternative for farmers and a naturally organic resource that could be domestically produced into a number of products. Despite our ridiculous laws against growing the plant, it is currently completely legal to sell products made out of hemp grown outside the U.S.
Although it has been federally illegal to grow either hemp or marijuana since the 1940s, both Colorado and Washington legalized the plants and marijuana for adult recreational use last year. The first legal U.S. hemp crop of this century was planted in early 2013 by a Colorado farmer who also grows alfalfa for sale. Hemp is currently mostly cultivated in China, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania, Thailand and Chile, although it is also grown in Canada, Australia, England and Finland. Hopefully, the United States can get past its unreasonable phobias and realize the potential that hemp has to provide us with sustainable solutions that benefit this country’s farmers, producers, businesses and consumers.
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