Years ago I was on a trip in the northwest of the Netherlands with my family. During one of our walks we passed a field with a very tall crop. Strangely enough, its tops looked exactly like those of a cannabis plant. As these are not uncommon in the Netherlands, we joked about the revenue their farmer must make. I remember there was a big sign on one side of the field that explained this was industrial hemp. When I looked it up back then, I found out that even though it was indeed a version of the cannabis plant, it contained too little THC to provide intoxication when consumed. While learning more about sustainable fashion, hemp keeps popping up as a very promising material. Still, it doesn’t seem to be commonly used at all. I decided to do a little research and it turns out that this amazing plant has a rich and political history.
We have been using hemp to create textiles for centuries. There is evidence that it was already used over ten thousand years ago. It is one of the first agricultural crops and one of the first plants spun into textiles (Condé Nast Glossary 2021). Not only was hemp easy to grow, it was also softer, warmer, more absorbant and durable than cotton. The material remained popular throughout the centuries. During the 19th century in Northwestern Europe, almost all textiles used for clothing, bedlinen, towels and so on, were made of hemp (Jack Herer 2020, Nyttnorge).
Hemp scores high on the parameters of sustainable materials for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it is an easy crop that grows fast and nearly anywhere. It needs little fertilizer and little to no chemical pesticides. Compared to cotton, this means its production has way less effect on its direct and the global environment. In addition its yield per hectare is higher compared to cotton. The hemp plant can be used for many more things than just clothing and isolation. It can be made into food, cosmetic products, paper, animal bedding and much, much more (Health Europe 2019). Because of this, the entire plant can be used, leaving next to no waste. Making textiles from hemp can be done without chemicals (though it’s not necessarily always done this way) and on top of that, hemp textile is softer, warmer and more durable than cotton. Wearing and washing the fabric only makes it more strong and supple. (Condé Nast Glossary 2021). Hemp fabric is said to be anti-bacterial and last but not least; it’s bio degradable.
During the 20th century, however, the popularity of hemp decreased rapidly. Not much earlier, the mechanical cotton gin was invented. This made the production of cotton faster and cheaper than that of hemp. In addition, something strange happened in the USA. From 1937 until 1940 and from 1945 onwards, the country banned all hemp growth as part of the war on drugs. (Even though it had promoted the growth of the crop during the second world war under the slogan ‘Hemp for victory‘, as there was a high demand of textiles.) The ban included industrial hemp growth which is, as mentioned before, not effective as a drug (EIHA 2021). Many countries actually joined this ban on hemp growth, and in some of them, like Norway where I live, it is still illegal to grow industrial hemp (Harvest. 2019). The interesting thing is, that the war on drugs was supposedly heavily financed by the petroleum industry. Coincidentally, this was right about when synthetic fabrics made their entrance to the global market. A commodity that, like many other things in our current societies, is created from oil.
Let’s think about that for a second. We had an amazing natural and sustainable textile that was an important and big part of cultures across the globe for a very long time and within decades we nearly completely replaced it by unsustainable and synthetic materials. It makes me sad to think that capitalism and specifically the interests of the petroleum industry have had such an enormous part in this. I wonder whether the effects of the fashion industry today would have been as devastating if hemp textiles would have continued their popularity.
Luckily, the production of hemp is increasing. From 2013 to 2018 there was an increase of 70% in the numbers of hectares dedicated to industrial hemp in Europe (EIHA 2021). In 2019, the crops revenue was expected to grow from 1 billion dollars in 2018 to 1,5 billion in 2020 (Health Europe 2019). However, the current demand for clothing made from hemp is still very low. The material is relatively unknown to consumers and its high costs and the lack of supply and manufacturing facilities are not helping (EIHA 2021). As consumers, we can contribute by making sure that any necessary clothing items we might need to buy are made from hemp. So hereby you are all encouraged!
It’s not always very easy to find nice shops that sell hemp clothes. Here’s my top 5 from the ones that I found:
Want to learn more about hemp? There’s a lot of TEDX talks about the topic on youtube. This one by Amy Ansel has a clear overview of hemp’s many qualities and applications and she talks a little about hemp textiles. Enjoy!