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Q: Do you use hemp fabrics when designing your shirts?
A: Not yet, but I plan to incorporate some hemp fabrics into my designs in the future. Since starting my clothing line, I have looked over various pure hemp and hemp blended fabrics during meetings with textile reps. A lot of the hemp fabrics I've seen would make sharp-looking shirts and other clothing.


Hemp is one of the oldest known fibers used to make textiles. It's unfortunate that, for many people, hemp still has a bad image, associated with drugs and counterculture. Today you can, for example, buy hemp cereal in many grocery stores, and state governments have acknowledged that hemp was even used for the drafts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, the bad image persists.


I do not imagine that anyone will fail a drug test because of wearing clothing made of hemp fiber. Nor do I imagine anyone will get a contact high by wearing hemp apparel. I myself have never tried to smoke any hemp fabrics, nor do I plan to. I do not foresee anyone else trying to smoke a garment I have designed that incorporates hemp fabric. And I do not imagine that smoking a piece of hemp fabric would give a person cannabis intoxication.


History of Hemp


When hemp fiber is used to manufacture textiles, it is done in the same manner as with flax for making linen. Hemp has been used in textiles about as long as flax has. Both the hemp and flax plants have also been used for human and animal foods for a very long time.


Hemp is often referred to as “flax with an attitude.” The hemp plant has all the same uses as the flax plant. However, hemp plant fibers are much stronger, and hemp grows faster than flax. Hemp needs less water and less fertilizer, and it is more resistant to pests and diseases. And hemp is generally hardier than flax.


To make hemp textiles, first, the woody stalks of the hemp plant are cut at the base. As with flax, this process is referred to as winnowing. The next step is retting, which is the process of using bacteria to dissolve the plant matter surrounding the fibers in the stalks, similar to the process when making linen. The retting process can be done in the same field where the stalks were winnowed, or in a pool of water. After the retting, the hemp stalks are usually crushed and dried. This crushing process, referred to as scrutching, is usually done between rollers. As with flax, the hemp scrutching process can produce some useful oils. Last, the hemp fibers are sorted in a process called hackling, just as when flax is made into linen.


Ecological and Social Impacts of Hemp


Q: Could hemp provide a large-scale alternative to cotton as a base component of textiles?
A: Yes, easily. Hemp is one of the most environmentally responsible crops. Hemp requires far less fresh water than cotton or flax to produce the same tonnage of fibers per hectare under cultivation per year. Moreover, hemp produces 250% more fiber suitable for textile making than cotton, per cultivated hectare, and 600% more than flax.


Commercially grown hemp plants can be very large. Hemp is second only to bamboo in growing rate. Hemp plants can grow to 30 feet in a very short time. Hemp can also grow almost anywhere, in any condition. Hemp sometimes requires no synthetic fertilizer and few, if any, fungicides, herbicides, or pesticides. However, hemp requires more of these, and more water, than hemp advocacy groups would like the public to believe.


Hemp is a lot like bamboo in that both seem to have an almost unlimited number of uses for humans. Hemp also has certain uses that bamboo does not. Both hemp and bamboo have been cultivated for a very long time.


Hemp is a viable, more ecologically and socially responsible alternative to cotton. Hemp fiber can also be blended with cotton, lessening demand for cotton. Hemp fiber, like natural bamboo fiber, can be cut into shorter sections and spun on cotton-spinning equipment. This gives the hemp fabric a cotton-like feel. Part of the interest in these newer cotton-like hemp fabrics is because so much of the world textile industry has textile production equipment designed only for cotton fibers. Cottonized hemp cloth would be a bit more durable than standard cotton cloth, and a bit stronger than cotton. However, cottonized hemp is still not as soft and pliable as pure cotton fabric.


Also, to some degree, although cottonized hemp fabrics have many of the good qualities of cotton fabrics, they also acquire many of the undesirable qualities.


Q: When comparing hemp and bamboo, which plant is more ecologically benevolent?
A: The overall ecological impact of hemp, as opposed to bamboo, is hard to be sure of. Here's what we know: Bamboo is more ecologically benevolent to cultivate than hemp. Bamboo grows faster and requires less water and fertilizer, is less attractive to pests, and is more disease resistant. Hemp cleanses toxins from soil and watersheds, but bamboo does so too, and to a better degree. Bamboo is a perennial grass, so requires no replanting. Commercially grown hemp requires replanting annually, and the repeated tilling of the soil tends to foster soil erosion.


Hemp, like bamboo, has the potential to help change the world for the better, beyond the realm of textiles. When made into paper, hemp needs less water, energy, and bleaching chemicals than bamboo. Hemp-based paper can be recycled more times than any other paper. Estimates vary, but a reasonable guesstimate is that hemp paper can be recycled twice as many times as a comparable wood-fiber paper.


Both hemp and bamboo can be made into engineered building materials, such as fiber boards and laminates. However, bamboo stalks can be made into a great building material without any processing. Bamboo is the logical favorite for building materials.


Bamboo has a long history as a food crop. However, hemp has a definite edge, in that hemp seeds are very rich in protein, while bamboo does not really produce any protein-rich food.


Both hemp and bamboo could be energy sources. Both can be used to produce large amounts of ethyl alcohol and charcoal. However, ethyl alcohol is not the environmentally friendly energy source that some people imagine it to be, regardless of whatever plant matter is used to produce it, because ethyl alcohol requires huge amounts of fresh water in its production process. The amount of charcoal that would have to be produced to replace coal is so large that plant-based charcoal sources are not a feasible replacement.


Unlike bamboo, hemp produces huge amounts of oils usable as a complete substitute for crude oil. Hemp can be used to make many different bioplastics (plastics made from renewable biomass sources). Hemp oil can also be looked at as a base source of carbon, and the carbon in hemp oil can be refined into non-bioplastics.


Thus far, the cost per barrel of hemp oil is still higher than crude oil, and it will likely remain this way. Hemp oil has to be kept cold, or it will decompose and cease to be useful as fuel, while crude oil does not have to be temperature-regulated. Hemp oil is much more prone to absorbing water then petrol. Many troublesome and potentially expensive precautions need to be taken to keep water out of hemp oil while being transported or stored.


Q: Could cultivation of hemp or a combination of hemp and bamboo replace coal and crude oil for energy needs?
A: Hemp oils could definitely be produced in sufficient quantities to substitute for crude oil when manufacturing plastics and other chemicals. Hemp advocacy organizations claim that hemp cultivation could completely eliminate the need to burn petrochemicals for energy. I doubt that hemp cultivation could meet all of the world’s energy needs, although it is theoretically possible. For energy needs, I believe no known planted crop could produce enough oils or cellulose to substitute for the mind-boggling, staggering, and disturbing quantities of crude oil and coal burned everyday worldwide. For the making of liquid biofuels, it appears that lakes of specialized algae would be much faster and more efficient than growing any land-based plant.


Q: If hemp is so fast-growing and resistant to disease, could hemp be considered an invasive species and a pest?
A: Yes, the hemp plant is referred to as “weed” for a reason. Hemp has been a banned plant in the United States for decades now, but attempts to eradicate wild hemp have been unsuccessful. Wild hemp plants are very resistant to herbicides.


Q: Bamboo has certain advantages over hemp when cultivated. Which plant would get the edge concerning textile production?
A: Cultivating bamboo has a lower ecological impact. Hemp still gets a slight edge concerning textile production. Hemp fibers are a little stronger and more durable than bamboo, and hemp textiles can be recycled more times.


Q: What are the advantages of having a hemp garment?
A: There are a few advantages. Hemp produces the strongest and most durable of all the natural fibers. Estimates are that hemp fiber is about eight times stronger than cotton, on a fiber-by-fiber basis. Hemp gives the wearer better UV protection than cotton. Hemp, like flax-based linen, is very resistant to abrasion, gets softer with time, breathes well, and stays cool in hot weather. Like linen, hemp does not shrink too much, even after a very hot ride in a dryer, and takes ironing rather well. Hemp fabric is a bit more flexible and stretches better than linen. A hemp fiber garment also holds its shape well and is not a big magnet for lint. Hemp is not very prone to fading or bleeding color. And hemp is biodegradable.


Q: Ok, so what are the negative aspects of incorporating hemp fabrics into your clothing designs?
A: Aside from the negative associations with drugs and counterculture, there are a few practical downsides to incorporating hemp fabrics into a clothing design.


Hemp has all of the same basic drawbacks as linen. For starters, hemp fabric is derived from a plant stem—like linen, natural bamboo, and banana cloth. Nearly all plant stem-derived fabrics are not as soft and supple as cotton or rayon. Hemp wrinkles more easily than some other fabrics, and it does not stretch as much as cotton. However, for this same reason, hemp holds its shape better than cotton. Hemp, cotton, and linen, all have the same problem of fraying at the fabric sheet edges, and broken fibers showing up over time on the areas of high wear and constant creasing, such as collars and cuffs of shirts. Although hemp still has somewhat of a reputation for being a little scratchy, today’s finer hemp and linen fabrics are really not too scratchy, even though not quite as soft as good quality cotton.