FIBRE 101: HEMP
Let's debunk some myths, discover some dark truths and chat hemp. Why is this elusive fibre so elusive? Why did it disappear for so many years, and why is it blowing up now?
Image by Ewan Kingsbury
Fibre 101 : Hemp
Hemp - A Fraught History
Hemp is thought to be one of oldest cultivated fibres used in fabric, clothing, fuel, cordage, paper and food since the beginnings of human agriculture. With origins in Central Asia, and cultivation across the USA, Canada, Europe and beyond, hemp was utilised for many purposes and had thrived in many regions. Once greatly valued for its incredible versatility, strength, durability and resistance to rot, hemp was used as a primary material in ship building. Fun fact. The word "canvas" is derived from hemp's scientific name Cannabis Sativa, as it was used to create the canvas sails for ships.
While hemp was the fibre of choice in clothing for centuries, the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 set cotton on the fast track to become the world's most popular natural fibre in textiles. However, it was the guilt by association to its narcotic relative, marijuana, that caused it to become highly stigmatised. Cannabis was the poster child for propaganda, enforcing stereotypes around drugs, immigration and race. In 1937, the United States imposed the Marijuana Tax Act, placing crippling taxes on the sale of cannabis with no distinction made between industrial hemp and marijuana.
Then in 1970 the Controlled Substances Act was introduced which effectively banned the cultivation, possession and processing of hemp in North America while similar scenarios unfolded in the United Kingdom and Australia. Despite the great benefits of industrial hemp plus its many thousands of applications, the abundantly growing bast fibre was effectively laid dormant for decades to come.
Industrial hemp has continued to be grown in specific regions of China and Western Europe and the appetite for both hemp products and the slow incline towards medicinal cannabis and legalised marijuana has helped its cause. Hemp has many amazing properties, it's incredibly strong, holds its shape, it's durable and comfortable to wear, with breathability properties similar to linen. It's also resistant to mould and UV light, is extremely water absorbent and therefore holds dye better than any other natural fibre. Hemp has environmental advantages, it grows fast, and in some regions may produce more fibre yield per acre than any other crop. Due to the lack of investment in this fibre and therefore research, it is difficult to know exactly what optimal hemp yields, pest management and water usage would be. With less than 120,000 hectares of hemp crop around the world, compared to the 309 million hectares of cotton crop, a lot more research is needed to re-learn sustainable cultivation of hemp.
A study completed by CSIRO in 2020 found that in Australia at least, that land and water usage were very similar between cotton and hemp, while yields for hemp were much lower than cotton. However this might be due to Australia's incredibly high cotton yields - the highest in the world.
Now. I know you might be wondering, what about marijuana? And my favourite question; can I smoke my hemp clothes and get high? The answer is no. According to Agriculture Victoria, although industrial hemp and cannabis are from the same species, they are variants of each other and the psychoactive ingredient (THC) in marijuana is only present in very low levels in industrial hemp. In fact, the industrial hemp that’s farmed and used in clothing contain levels so low in the THC that no-one could ever get high from it. Sorry!
Overall, I think hemp is pretty special for all its wonderful qualities, proven by people's persistence to bringing it back to prominence after decades of drama. At A.BCH we are actively looking for hemp products that meet our high standards of traceability. Often this is found in blends, with organic cotton and hemp coming together to make beautiful, breathable textiles. Most of our hemp pieces are sourced from dead-stock or in our specialty fabrics from Japan, however the hemp component is notoriously difficult to trace to origin.
How Could it be Better?
Hemp is notoriously expensive. It’s also very hard to find traceable suppliers or organically grown hemp. However, while we continually look for great suppliers who can provide full transparency from farm to finish, we are also committed to supporting the hemp industry in its infancy and from time to time will purchase it when working with trusted suppliers. It's probably our biggest blind spot, however we commit to keep working to find better solutions and continually ask for more transparency. For better traceability from a bast fibre similar to hemp, check out our info on Linen.