Forget rigid, dust-coloured sacks – an increasing number of fashion brands are incorporating ‘marijuana’s cousin’ into their designs thanks to its sustainability credentials
Hemp could be an answer to the fashion industry’s repeated calls for sustainable materials – but is its reputation holding it back? Here’s what you need to know about the eco-friendly fabric that has caught the attention of forward-thinking designers.
What does hemp look like?
Despite being synonymous with dust-coloured sacks, hemp is, in fact, used in more than 25,000 products globally. The fabric is comprised of long strands of fibre from within the stalk of plants and bears some resemblance to a matted horse’s mane before processing. The fibres are then spun together to produce a thread that can be woven into a fabric.
Hemp’s strength and durability means clothes made from it last longer. However, this has fuelled the misconception that hemp clothing is rigid and uncomfortable. “It needs the drive of designers and makers to use hemp proudly in a fashion-forward way,” says Stephanie Steele, a customer experience manager at Offset Warehouse who specialises in eco fabrics.
Why is hemp associated with hippy and cannabis subcultures?
Hemp’s nickname as “marijuana’s cousin” often distracts from the fabric’s many beneficial uses. “A high percentage of citizens do not know the difference between industrial hemp and cannabis, and get the two mixed up frequently,” Sarah Hayes, director of material development at outdoor clothing company Patagonia, told Hypebeast.
“Cotton has become the more prevalent a crop, because of its wide availability and low price,” says Steele. “Because hemp was increasingly stigmatised and gained deeper negative connotations, it stopped being grown.”
What does the law say on hemp?
Hemp, like marijuana, belongs to the cannabis genus of plants. This genus as a whole is classified as a controlled substance in the UK and therefore hemp is illegal to grow without a licence from the Home Office. As a result, it is rarely grown in the UK. Across the pond, however, the legalisation of industrial hemp last December is allowing US farmers to gather government subsidies to farm the crop.
In addition to the stigma, brands are prevented from promoting hemp products on social media due to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook’s restrictions on cannabis-related products.
But is hemp really better for the environment than cotton?
As well as being a biodegradable fibre, hemp’s production requires less than a third of the water needed for cotton and yields 220% more fibre. The plant grows without the need for harmful herbicides and pesticides and also replenishes soil quality. Hemp has low carbon emissions and is capable of capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere, meaning it is considerably better for the environment than cotton.
What are the pros and cons of hemp for retail?
Hemp has not had the industrial support of its mainstream counterparts, such as cotton, and therefore its growth as an industry has been stunted. Demand is lower than that of other fabrics and therefore it is more expensive. Steele believes this is down to a lack of understanding. “There isn’t the awareness of where it can be obtained from, the blends available and what the fibre’s qualities are,” she says. “Without the supply, there isn’t demand, and without the demand, there isn’t supply.”
Hemp wrinkles easily and is not always rich in colour unless it is combined with other materials. However, brands such as Levi’s and Eileen Fisher have begun incorporating hemp into their collections by blending it with cotton to produce soft, wearable products that are significantly better for the environment. Paul Dillinger, Levi’s head of innovation, has spoken about the brand’s plans to improve the quality of its cottonised-hemp so that, in the future, its hemp garments will feel like cotton.
What’s more, recent developments in processes that allow hemp fibres to be made softer have signalled that hemp has the potential to be a frontrunner in the fabric market.
Why is there a buzz surrounding hemp now?
The legalisation of cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp in the US last December, combined with the increasing pressure on fashion brands to make their practises more eco-friendly, has resulted in more and more brands experimenting with using the fabric.
If anything can help boost interest in hemp it is legalisation from a world superpower. The US Farm bill has opened the floodgates to hemp production and the fabric’s incorporation into fashion.
With an increasing number of fashion brands using the fabric for more than just a quick gimmick to sell “hippy chic”, it looks as if hemp’s place in La Vie Bohème could soon become a distant memory.