6/30/2022  Garry Atkinson

Fit, style, color, and price are just a few things to consider when finding the right clothing. Have you ever found that perfect shirt or dress to add to your wardrobe—only to experience durability issues after a few washes? You are not alone in experiencing clothing that doesn’t last quite as long as you’d like it to. Durability remains important for apparel shoppers. What if you could get that desired durability from a garment that is also beneficial to the environment? Hemp fiber is the answer.

sun-dappled hemp plant

A Long-Lasting Natural Fiber

Hemp is one of nature’s most durable fibers. It’s a vegetable fiber like cotton, linen, and ramie. Other natural fibers include animal fibers like wool, cashmere, and other hair fibers. Cotton, wool, jute, linen, and silk are a few of some of the most often used natural fibers. While natural fibers are generally accepted as better for the environment, thanks to their biodegradability, they are sometimes not as durable as manmade fibers such as nylon, polyester, and rayon. However, these synthetic fibers lack the biodegradability of natural fibers and require processes that are relatively more harmful to the environment. This is where hemp offers the best of both worlds—strength, and sustainability.

Close-up of hemp fibers

Hemp is a coarse, durable bast fiber of Cannabis sativa found all over the globe. Originating in Central Asia and the Altai Mountains, the hemp plant has been used in various applications, including clothing, paper, pottery, rope, and food byproducts.

Cannabis sativa also produces marijuana which can be used for medicinal and recreational purposes due to its psychoactive effects. Over time, these psychoactive effects have led marijuana to be classified as a drug. The stigma associated with marijuana carried over to hemp.

Before the early 20th century, hemp was popularly farmed in the US. In the US, laws specifically from the 1930s made farming and the trade of all forms of hemp difficult, if not prohibited.

Governmental regulations around the world generally classify Industrial Hemp as hemp containing less than 0.3% THC and Commercial Hemp as Hemp with more than 0.3% THC content. THC is the component in the cannabis plant that produces a psychoactive or “high” sensation.

Thanks to recent agricultural regulations, hemp has been further differentiated from marijuana, which is expected to make farming and research of industrial hemp a more viable path.

Thanks to its high tear and break resistance, hemp is still used today to produce paper products from archival papers, bible paper, cigarette paper, and hygiene products. Historically, it has been used in twine, cordage, halyard, ship sails, and tarred rigging.

In textile production, adding hemp to other fibers increases the overall strength of the blend as hemp has high tensile strength and is highly durable. These characteristics make it a great choice for sturdy fabrics.

Hemp’s durability is noteworthy; however, it has several other value-adding natural properties, including high porosity—which leads to breathability, moisture-wicking, dyeability, stretch resistance (allowing it to maintain fabric structure), and UV resistance—actively blocking UV-A and UV-B rays when worn outdoors. Additionally, hemp has been shown (in a study conducted by EnviroTextiles) to demonstrate antibacterial activity, which can significantly benefit military and healthcare applications.

Environmental Benefits

Compared to cotton, one of the most popular natural fibers, hemp requires less water and pesticides for its growth. Thanks to its ability to capture carbon dioxide in its growth cycle, hemp has shown promise as a regenerative crop. This property can help improve the soil’s health and fertility.

Hemp, when used organically, is completely biodegradable within months, which solves for waste at the end of a garment’s life cycle. With these natural benefits, many applications for hemp in apparel products continue to be explored.

Research and widespread application development on hemp have largely been delayed due to the governmental regulations and stigma attached to the plant. Regulations in most countries have significantly limited the use of hemp plants in the textile industry. Over the years, driven largely by the benefits to medical research, many countries have lifted the regulations on industrial hemp.

The Potential of Hemp

Clothing made from hemp fiber

The future of hemp as a natural fiber in the textile industry has limitless applications. Unfortunately, until recently, hemp has failed to meet its potential, primarily attributed to the barriers placed by governmental bodies based on its association with marijuana. However, recent changes in policies are opening up the acceptance and scope for the uses of hemp. This change in attitude is currently allowing hemp to experience renewed fervor as a viable fiber and textile option.

Many academic and research institutions like North Carolina State University (NCSU) are encouraging academic investigation into the study of hemp and related topics. Recently an NCSU graduate research team comprised of Zoe Newman, Kadena Henriquez-Thompson, and Garry Atkinson had the opportunity to share their paper entitled ‘A Review of Hemp Fiber in Global Agriculture and the Textile Industry’ with Hemp Industry experts, and made a video about it.

Hemp is a versatile fiber that has been used for various purposes from medicine to pottery, clothing, boating, and food for thousands of years. Industrial hemp has demonstrated proven benefits to the medical industry. Hemp fiber is emerging as a sustainable option for textile products. As a natural fiber, it has many of the environmental advantages that cotton, wool, ramie, linen, and other natural fibers have. Hemp displays benefits to the soil when regenerative agricultural growing processes are used. Hemp is one of the most competitive fibers suitable for many textile products when grown in the right environments. The durability of hemp as a fiber can help offset the sustainability issues caused by textile waste and fast fashion. Further research and innovation are likely to find more applications for hemp in the textile industry, proving that it naturally stands the test of time.