Hemp: The future of sustainable fashion

As we continue to look for sustainable solutions for fighting the climate crisis, hemp is gaining momentum as one of the most versatile yet underrated crops, with a market that is projected to grow steadily over the next few years, more than doubling in size by 2027.

While the plant has many practical uses, one of the most significant at the moment is its potential for use within the fashion industry, which raises the question: Can “the most misunderstood plant in the world” revolutionise the way we think about our clothes?

A zero-waste process

The words sustainable and zero-waste are used a lot to describe anything that is merely less damaging to our planet. But hemp is one of those ‘miracle’ plants that comes closest to a perfect zero waste process, because every part of the plant can be used.

From its roots to the seeds, nothing goes to waste. Hemp can be turned into paper, hempcrete for building, food, fabric, and even renewable energy.

What’s more, hemp also gives back to the Earth: one acre of hemp can produce more oxygen than the same area of apple trees; once planted, its deep roots can purify and regenerate the soil by absorbing hard metals, while as a crop, hemp requires little or no pesticides and smaller amounts of water – up to four times less water than cotton.

A ceramic bowl filled with hemp seeds

Hemp seeds, a superfood [Ana Drula]

Can hemp also address any immediate climate concerns? According to a recent Hemp Grower survey, industry experts think so. For 2022, hemp predictions are fairly positive, and thanks to growing awareness and a recent boom in the Cannabidiol (CBD) industry, the industrial hemp sector is getting more attention too. Scientists are developing new varieties hemp optimised for fibre and seeds, and with little or no Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is the psychoactive chemical associated with cannabis. This means we can expect more hemp-based foods and fabrics to appear on the market.

Hemp seeds in particular hold great potential in terms of improving food and nutritional security – 100 grams of its seeds contain more protein, more iron, and less cholesterol than the equivalent in meat.

Another benefit hemp has over other crops is its accelerated growth rate. From planting to harvesting, it only takes between 90 and 120 days for the plant to fully develop. For comparison, cotton is ready to harvest in approximately 160 days.

Hemp fabric is also significantly sturdier than synthetics and even cotton. There’s a reason why one of the oldest clothing items ever discovered is a hemp baby wrap from approximately 9,000 years ago — a Neolithic treasure.

So, if hemp clothing becomes a mainstream thing, it might challenge capitalism’s current design of planned obsolescence. A hemp garment once manufactured is definitely here to stay.

What’s holding us back?

sunlight and shadow of some flowers against a fabric background

The beauty of natural fabric [Unsplash: Sydney Rae]

Though hemp activists and industry insiders have been preaching about its benefits for decades, the general public has not been able to discover the benefits of hemp for many years.

It’s quite clear that hemp seems great on paper – it checks all the boxes: green, sustainable, good for the environment, with infinite potential uses. So why don’t we grow it more? And why aren’t we wearing it?

“Hemp continues to be associated with marijuana and thus for many places associated with the stigma of illegality”, explains Ian King, a professor of Aesthetics and Management at the London College of Fashion. Indeed, even from inside the field and in many academic papers, the terms “hemp” and “marijuana” are often used interchangeably.

But how did hemp lose its cultural value and why does the market face so many obstacles even beyond farming and manufacturing?

The United States has a long history of anti-hemp propaganda, which started in the 1930s. Deeply rooted in racism and lobbying interests, the action against hemp proved effective and soon the crop was also banned in Japan, China and all across Europe.

This, coupled with the success of DuPont’s newly-patented nylon and the rapidly-growing cotton industry virtually wiped hemp off the market.

Screen shot from a youtube video about the history and benefits of hemp

Media mogul William Randolph Hearst also contributed to the anti-hemp efforts [Youtube: Our Changing Climate]

But movements to promote the crop have been going on since the 1960s. A New York Times archive article from 1995, which talks about hemp’s many benefits, is not much different to the ones being written nowadays. If the information is out there, why isn’t hemp further embraced by designers and manufacturers?

“Questions remain about the ultimate contribution of hemp. For example, hemp is often not worn against the skin because it can become itchy for some wearers (so it cannot be underwear) but it also seems to crease easier and possess less variety of colour – so limited in terms of outer wear — especially when smart appearance is important,” Professor King explains.

“The result of these limitations suggests less flexibility and variety of use. This together with greater cost makes hemp presently less attractive and therefore designers are less likely to experiment.”

Hemp for future fashion

Despite the stigma and decades of anti-hemp propaganda, in recent years the hype surrounding hemp has been slowly building. Bigger brands and independent designers have patented all sorts of hemp goodies, from underwear to athleisure and wardrobe basics. But what about trends and high fashion?

https://www.tiktok.com/@thealgorythm/video/7016401497206295813?lang=en&is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1

According to trend-analyst Agus Panzoni (@thealgorythm), “Clothes for life” might play a huge role in our future, and this is where hemp might finally get to shine, as it is, by design, more sustainable and made to last.

“[The concept of] clothes for life is focused on mending and durability, with designers having fit and timelessness on top of mind, moving away from seasonality and trends,” Agus explains.

Designers who adopt this path focus on “removing the stigma around wearing mended garments”, while producing pieces which are timeless and durable. This would mean having a wardrobe which consists of high quality basics which can be layered, embroidered, repaired and adjusted, and live in your wardrobe for much longer.

Screenshot from an Instagram post depicting a model wearing blue hemp overalls and a hemp shirt

A head to toe hemp outfit via Hemp and hope on Instagram

Levi’s and Patagonia are two of the bigger brands that have recently come out with sustainable hemp lines. Jeans made out of cottonised hemp, outerwear and workwear made out of hemp blends and fortified with cotton or Tencel lyocell. Both brands have also implemented repair services for their products.

Hemp’s links to 1960s counterculture and eclecticism could also make it a great fit in the recent end-of-trends wave, which prioritises personal style and comfort over micro-trends.

“2022 and 2023 fashion will be all about rebellion. Changed priorities towards personal time, mental health and flexibility has 40% of people swapping jobs in what is known as ‘The Great Resignation’. Though a change of scenery can help us cope, there’s no escaping the fact that our survival depends on changing the systems in place,” Agus says.

The notion of work from home outfits has also been forever changed by the pandemic — but it’s not hard to imagine future hemp wardrobes, since the fabric naturally creates a fluid, breathable and comfortable fit.

Current state of the industry 

What does hemp feel like? To get a better look at the fabric, we reached out to Prodin, a hemp and linen manufacturer located in southern Romania. We spoke to Paul Vasile, the company’s 87 year-old owner and visionary, who shared some of their patented hemp samples with us.

The fabric feels textured yet soft at the same time. At a closer look, you can see parts of the actual plant woven into the sturdy fibre. The finer blend can be used for blouses and the denser one is actually hemp denim.

All three samples also have a delicate scent that is earthy and soothing. This is due to the natural hemp oil, which, thanks to gentle processing, makes its way through to the end product. Pure and unbleached fabrics such as these are a rare find in Europe, Paul tells us.

Three samples of hemp fabric: raw, fine blend, and denim

Hemp fabric samples: textured, fine blend, and hemp denim [Ana Drula]

Prodin, which was founded in 1955, is in fact one of the few remaining centres which still operate with the old technology and know-how of hemp processing. Paul, a hemp veteran, has led the factory through several regime changes, before and after the anti-hemp legislation was enacted.

Despite his age, he continues to come into work every day. His back aches now and then, but he blames it on the “wicked work” he did in his youth — years of manual labour handling heavy rolls of fabric. He has dedicated his life to the making of hemp and linen and knows everything about the detailed processes.

He also remembers the ripples of the initial ban on hemp, which are now part of history: “The destruction of hemp production in Europe originates from the US, as a consequence of the consumption of a petrochemical corporation called DuPont,” he confirms.

“DuPont patented the fabrication of synthetic fabrics from petrol and coal, and shareholders were advised to invest in this new division. Synthetic products, plastic, cellophane, celluloid, nylon, etc. could all be manufactured from petrol. Then, hemp had to be declared illegal, as it was a threat to a million dollar business. The Mexican word marijuana was introduced and forced into the American collective consciousness as propaganda,” he told us.

yarns of hemp thread

Inside Prodin: hemp thread spun into yarns [Ana Drula]

“The danger of marijuana was always front page news. Readers were taught that this plant was responsible for all evils, from car accidents to low natality rates. On April 14th, 1937. the tax on cannabis was approved by US Congress. European countries gradually restricted it as well during the 1950s. Eastern Europe was the last to join this ban, but during the 1990s, hemp entered a dark period.”

Today hemp is making a comeback, and Paul and his team would be grateful to return to the high volume of work they are equipped for. But for manufacturers like Prodin, inconsistencies in the production chain can make work unpredictable.

From hemp farmers, the crops usually make their way to a foundry, where they’re selected and processed into raw fibre. The fibre is then spun into thread at a filature, and sent off to different producers.

But during this last winter, when energy costs sky rocketed, and the facilities that supplied Paul’s factory with these services were forced to go on indefinite hiatus. Without a steady supply of threads and little demand from clients, it’s difficult to sustain a hemp business.

This situation is not unique across Europe. In fact, even though long term market predictions are encouraging, surveys indicate that 2022 won’t be an easy year for small hemp farmers. Without demand, there cannot be production.

Hemp economics 101

Interior of a fabric manufacturing facility, detail of an industrial loom

Inside Prodin: a vintage industrial loom [Ana Drula]

So, why isn’t there a bigger demand for hemp clothing? What about the “greater cost” that Professor King described?

Simply put, hemp is more expensive because it is a rare commodity. If the supply and variety of hemp garments were to increase, the prices would eventually balance out.

Another factor is the general misinformation surrounding hemp, which makes it less popular, feeding back into the loop of low demand. Hemp also requires a lot of manual labour during harvesting and processing.

Can hemp be farmed anywhere? In short, yes. Hemp is highly resilient and adaptable, and it can be grown in almost every climate, but it still needs water and a lot of sunlight to grow to its full potential. The plants which grow taller are more sought after. That’s because a longer stem means more raw fibre for textiles.

In Europe, the leading producers of hemp are France, Estonia, Lithuania, Italy, The Netherlands and Romania. In a global context however, China is the largest producer, responsible for approximately 70% of the world’s hemp crops. The state of the industry in the UK was recently featured on the BBC’s Countryfile programme.

But in an ideal world, could hemp replace other harmful crops and become a central part of our economy? Would things change if we replace the crop but don’t fix the underlying inequalities of our economic system?

“We used to grow our own clothes. I’d like to see a future where our tribes are part of an integrated hemp economy. Whether it is for bioremediation, whether it is for fabric and clothing, whether it is for hempcrete, whether it is for hemp based insulation,” said activist, farmer and author Winona LaDuke in a recent statement .

“Whether it is about food products or CBD, I’m interested in the full spectrum of hemp. I want to see the whole plant utilised and I want to see hemp as a part of an integrated farming economy,”

LaDuke, founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and co-founder of the non-profit group Honor the Earth, envisions a post-petroleum economy centred around hemp and led by native voices. She has her own hemp farm for harvesting fibre and seeds, working towards a local economy: “local food, local energy, local hemp”.

In his 1973 book Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered, E. F. Schumacher argues that civilisations decline in direct relation to the rate at which they “despoil” their land. Industry and nature, he writes, are fundamentally opposed. The solution is not to seize creation, but to change the way we view our resources.

“There is no escape from this confusion as long as the land and the creatures upon it are looked upon as nothing but ‘factors of production’,” he wrote.

Perhaps hemp can be the crop that teaches us to create growth without exploitation.

What do we want from our clothes?

A screen shot from an documentary interview with actvist Winona LaDuke.

Winona LaDuke in Misunderstood: A Brief History of Hemp in the US [Youtube: Patagonia]

Another challenge has to do with our role as consumers within the fashion industry. The climate crisis is forcing us to fundamentally change the way we think about our clothes. In a recent lecture hosted by the London Colleges of Fashion and Communication, fashion writer Bel Jacobs reiterated what activists have been saying for years. Fashion as we know it is a luxury, and a Western construct.

The skills she recommends journalism students should exercise are the same that any informed consumer should put into practice: “Ground yourself in knowledge about planetary challenges. Keep up to date with new systems of thinking. Discover the intersection between fashion and other areas of culture and industry.”

Though it might seem idealistic, an alternative to our current wasteful cycle is Janine Benyus’ biomimicry theory. In her book Biomimicry, Benyus proposes a set of criteria that might help us distinguish whether a design is good and useful for us, by integrating it in nature.

Detail of traditional Romanian embroidery, burgundy thread and gold sequins on hemp fabric

Traditional Romanian embroidery on a hemp blouse [Ana Drula]

“Will it fit in? Will it last? Is there a precedent for this in nature? Does it run on sunlight? Does it use only the energy it needs? Does it fit form to function? Does it recycle everything? Does it reward cooperation? Does it bank on diversity? Does it utilise local expertise? Does it curb excess from within? Does it tap the power of limits? Is it beautiful?”

But before we reach a fashion utopia, how do actual customers feel about hemp? We asked Ioana Corduneanu, the owner of Semne Cusute, an online store that supplies creators with organic fabrics and traditional embroidery supplies.

The store’s online community is designed by and for women who want to reclaim their heritage and history, by creating their own traditional Romanian blouses.

“We first introduced hemp in 2018,” Ioana recalls, “in an attempt to recover the traditional wisdom and solutions offered by nature to our ancestors. At first, clients were skeptical, but most were curious and willing to try it out. Now, there’s pretty much no way of going back, wearing a living, breathing fabric makes you feel like your creation and your embroidery are alive.”

The store used to offer cotton fabric as well, but it’s been discontinued due to a clear customer preference: “The comfort hemp fabric offers, protection from heat and sweat, the silky sensation, the natural look. Everyone’s excitement convinced me more and more that hemp is the future.”

 

 

 


Featured image by Nancy Gallardo via Unsplash CC
Edited by Atiyyah Ntiamoah-Addo and Robert Wallace.