There are many reasons you would choose hemp fabric over cotton, bamboo, or linen. Understanding the process of creating the fabric is just the beginning of understanding these properties.
It Starts With a Plant
Like cotton, bamboo, and linen, Hemp comes from a plant. Each of these four plants has a different path to becoming fabric, with linen being the most similar to hemp.
Cotton is a stunning plant. It was domesticated and used for fabric as long as 8,000 years ago. 40% of clothes in the Unites States are made from cotton.
After it flowers, the flowers go to seed. That seed is surrounded by a fibrous webbing that helps with seed dispersal. If you have ever blown on the seeds of a dandelion, you know the concept. Only cotton keeps it all together in a ball to be carried off by wind or sticking to a passing animal.
It’s that fibrous ball we are interested in. During processing, the seeds are removed and the cotton is brushed out into thin fibers to be spun into yarn or thread.
The cotton plant is native to the tropical world. Like many tropical plants, it is a thirsty plant, with each plant requiring 10 gallons of water. Cotton fields take up 3% of all of our agricultural land. That would be the same as receiving 20-30 inches of rain.
Cotton uses 2.5% of the world's farmland and consumes 16% of the world's pesticides.
Cotton is also a heavy feeder and consumes more than 16% of the world’s pesticides. The good news is, cotton seeds do not go to waste. They are fed to cattle or pressed into cottonseed oil. Cottonseed oil is used in the food industry as an inexpensive cooking oil.
Unlike cotton, bamboo is a very easy plant to grow. There are varieties to grow under almost any climate, and most are aggressive spreaders. Many people who grow bamboo come to regret it because they struggle to control it. Bamboo is a member of the grass family and makes up some of the fastest-growing species of plants in the world. Although it doesn’t form wood, bamboo fiber is similar in strength to a strong softwood. As a gardener, I find there seem to be infinite uses for bamboo in the garden, as a climbing pole for beans, as a marker, as wood for a trellis. With enough bamboo, you can even build a retaining wall.
Bamboo is great and a sustainable solution for all fof these problems. However, the problems start when you make fabric from it. While you can make textiles directly from bamboo fibers, they would mainly be for structural purposes, such as for the frame of a corset. To make fabric, bamboo fibers go through a 7 step mechanical and chemical process forming a fabric called rayon. Rayon is so worked over that it resembles plastic to such an extent that many people carry the mistaken belief that it is plastic.
The process of creating rayon is energy-intensive and involves many dangerous chemicals that pollute the environment. There is an alternative method that produces Lyocell. Lyocell does not use highly-toxic carbon sulfide and is therefore preferable to rayon, but it is more expensive and rarely used. Creating rayon or lyocell does not require bamboo as an input, but bamboo is a good starting plant material because it grows so quickly. Bamboo, beech, and pine are all common sources of pulp for producing rayon.
At Junu Jungle, we like to stick to the truly natural fibers, but we have not entirely ruled out using Lyocell at some time in the future. Lyocell has properties that cannot be achieved with natural fibers alone, such as spandex-like stretchiness.
The production of linen is the most similar to hemp. In fact, whenever we work with someone new in the fashion industry, that tends to be their first comment when we put the hemp in their hands. “Oh, it feels like linen.” Linen and hemp have important differences, but, for the most part, are very similar.
Linen comes from flax (Linum usitatissimum), a flowering plant. Flax can be found all over the world. There are native species of flax in North America and Europe. But commercial flax only comes from a domesticated version of the plant. Flax has been domesticated for at least 9,000 years. Flax for both linen fabric and linseed oil comes from the same domesticated plant.
Linen is generally considered a sustainable plant. Flax requires only 6-8 inches of water during the growing season, about half that of cotton. It helps that it is a Mediterranean plant, adapted to a dry climate. Most of the world’s flax is grown in Kazakhstan, Canada, Russia, and China. When harvested for linen, the flax has to be pulled up by the root, so they use a special harvester designed to grab the whole stalk. The flax is then left standing upright in stalks to dry out in a process called “retting”.
Sometimes retting is sped up in a process called “chemical retting.” This process is rarely used because it is more expensive and results in a weaker fiber. It also adds pollution to nearby waterways.
After retting, the stalks are “dressed”. Dressing is the process of separating the flax fibers from the straw. The fibers are then spun into thread or yarn.
Hemp is comparable to flax. The process of retting and dressing is nearly identical. But hemp offers a few advantages over flax. Hemp is faster growing. Hemp and flax reach maturity in about the same time, 3-4 months. However, at that time, hemp is 50% larger. In fact, on an acre of land, hemp produces up to 600% more fiber than flax and 250% more fiber than cotton.
Hemp fiber and linen fiber have similar properties. Imagine very long, hollow strings with some perforations. These fibers make for a fabric that is breathable and absorbent. Hemp fabrics have excellent wicking. It stays cool in warm temperatures but is insulating in cool weather. Both hemp and linen fabrics are very flexible, moving with the body, not feeling stiff.
The main difference between the two fibers is that hemp fibers are 2-3 times as long as linen fibers. The length of hemp fiber adds to its durability. Both hemp and linen fabrics are prone to wrinkling, but this is a bigger problem with linen because of the length of the fibers.
One significant advantage of hemp is that it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. Hemp actually has a net positive effect on biodiversity, a rare find in monocrop farming. Linen, unfortunately, has a net-negative effect.
An acre of hemp generates 250% more fiber than an acre of cotton and 600% more fiber than an acre of flax. Yet it requires almost no water, no pesticides and no herbicides. And it leaves the soil healthier than before it was planted.
Hemp naturally outcompetes weeds because it is fast growing. When grown for fiber, hemp is grown tightly together. The plants have to fight each other for sunlight which causes them to become longer and longer, producing more and better fiber. If you have ever grown houseplants that became long and stringy from lack of sunlight, you have seen this adaptation in plants. As the hemp plants are growing, they also crowd out any would-be weed competition. Since hemp is a fast growing plant, it establishes itself quicker than weeds would.
With a proper crop rotation schedule, hemp has a restorative effect on soil. Rodale has shown in a classic rotation schedule hemp fits naturally into the crop rotation. It would simply take place of corn in the rotation. Growing hemp just before wheat leads to a gain of wheat yield of 10-20 percent.
Flax, on the other hand, depletes the soil. A field of flax has to rest for five years before flax can again be grown on the same soil. Although it might not be the most optimal way to farm, there are hemp fields in the world that have exclusively grown hemp for thousands of years, proving hemp does not cause any major depletions in soil.