Hemp fabric is made from the fibres of the plant genus ‘Cannabis’. There are several species of cannabis which are used for the manufacture of textiles, health food, medicinal drugs, oilseed and biodegradable plastics.
Hemp is an extremely adaptable textile. It is used to manufacture fabrics for clothing, upholstery and footwear. Hemp fabric looks very much like classic linen and feels like a piece of flannel. Hemp fibres are highly absorbent and with good insulation as compared to cotton for example. Thus hemp garments are liked for their fresh, cool feel but also their warmth during cold weather.
Hemp fibres are extremely strong. In comparison to cotton, hemp is eight times stronger according to tests done. This fibre is also resistant to ultra violet light and mould. It can also be mixed with other fibres such as cotton or silk thus incorporating the benefits of both fabrics.
Hemp can be bought as Greige which is the natural, unbleached, un-dyed fabric but this kind is often not the best for retail clothing as it is less presentable. Half-bleached hemp fabric is better for garment making whereby it has been treated with light oxygen bleach.
The strength of hemp fabrics means that garments will not over-stretch or disfigure with time. Also, the longer a hemp item is used the softer it gets, without wearing in. The ultra-violet resistance means that the fabrics don’t get bleached by sun rays.
When buying hemp material, also check if has been pre-shrunk. If not, you will have to pre-shrink it prior to use as it will inevitably shrink once the garment is produced and washed. You can pre-shrink a whole roll, but piece-by-piece shrinking gives better results. The easiest way to pre-shrink fabric is to wash in hot water followed by hot tumbling in a regular machine. Depending on the weave and fibres, the textile will shrink between 5 -15%. Commercial driers cause more shrinkage due to their higher temperatures.
In recent times, the use of hemp in the manufacture of textiles has grown in popularity again. Historically, it was cultivated by many traditional communities to make fabrics and other materials. Archaeologists have traced hemp back to the Stone Age. The Chinese have a long history of growing hemp for textiles and possess superior traditional expertise in this field. Chinese hemp fabrics come in a wide variety from soft and fine to dense and course. Many Eastern European Countries also have a tradition of hemp growing and weaving.
Up until the mid 1800s, hemp was widely used to make ship rigging due to its rot and mildew resisting qualities. It was also used to make canvas, clothing as well as paper. In the United States, laws were passed in the 1600s to encourage hemp farming as it was regarded as an important cash crop. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned hemp plantations.
Although hemp fabric is not unknown to most people, it there is still an image problem primarily linked with the (wider known) narcotics production from the plant. The variety of hemp that produces marijuana is ‘Canabis sativa’, yet many countries have placed a blanket prohibition on hemp growing which excludes the myriad of other good uses for hemp fibres. That said more than 50% of the hemp produced worldwide today is used to make textiles. It is a very eco-friendly crop as it uses very little pesticides or fertilizers. Considering its versatility use more opportunities exist for commercial hemp cultivation.