Hemp Fiber - Eco Friendly Fabric
by Fredric Schwartz
ages. Hemp has a more recent history as well in a variety of applications (including
an important role in early America) and has been a very valuable crop leading up to
the modern era.

While the fiber is one of the most valuable parts of the hemp plant (commonly
referred to as Bast) used in the creation of textiles, industrial hemp has a wide range
of uses including but not limited to paper, cordage, bio-fuel, health food and
biodegradable plastics. While truly a remarkable plant, the purpose of this article is to
examine the use of hemp fiber in the manufacturing of textiles and ultimately
clothing. We will also look at the sustainability of hemp as a crop but highly
encourage you to research and explore some of the other roles this important plant
plays. You will undoubtedly be led into an eye-opening and wondrous path regarding
hemp's many uses and colorful history.

Crop Sustainability:

Unlike cotton, which accounts for approximately 50% of all chemicals (pesticides,
herbicides, etc.) used in American agriculture today, hemp requires virtually none.
Hemp is naturally resistant to most pests and grows very densely. As a result, it
does not need chemicals having practically no weed or insect enemies. It has been
noted that when grown in rotation, pests in future crops are actually reduced. In
addition, the plant is an excellent source of oxygen production. With each growth
cycle the soil is renewed returning from 60-70% of the nutrients it takes. Its long
roots aerate soil for the benefit of future crops, remove toxins and prevent soil
erosion as well. As a crop, hemp requires little to no fertilizer and grows quickly and
effortlessly in moderate climates. From a cost perspective, hemp is less expensive to
farm because of its minimal growth requirements. Canadian hemp farmers are
earning 10X the revenue per acre than American grain farmers making hemp a viable
alternative to crops experiencing reduced demand. Perhaps tobacco farmers should
take notice!

Compared to cotton or flax, hemp is considered a high-yield crop producing
significantly more fiber per square foot and with less water requirements. When
grown on the same land, hemp will produce twice the amount of fiber as cotton and
six times that of flax. It would take four acres of trees to yield the same amount of
fiber as a mere one acre of hemp. In other words, hemp can yield 4X the amount of
fiber of an average size forest. What an extremely productive natural fiber! Trees on
the other hand require 50 to 500 years to grow were as hemp can yield three to
four times annually (approx. 100 day life cycle). Hemp cultivation could significantly
decrease if not completely stop the destruction of our forests!

Hemp Fiber:

Up until the 1920's, approx. 80% of all garments were made from hemp textiles.
Even the now famous Levi Strauss used a light weight hemp canvas for its original
pair of jeans. Since that time, hemp has been used to make many types of garments
and accessories. Big names such as Patagonia, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani
and Ralph Lauren have recently marketed products made from hemp.

The valuable bast fibers, which give the plant its strength, are contained within the
hollow wood-like core of the plants stalk under the outer most bark. Grown densely
packed (up to 150 plants per square meter), tall plants suitable for the production of
the long primary bast fibers are the result. The hemp fibers run the length of the plant
anywhere from 3 to 15 ft long.The primary fibers average 8" in length and can be
spun or woven into a fine linen-like type fabric. These fibers are now commonly
blended with other fibers such as flax, cotton, wool, linen or silk.A variety of tactile
experiences can be created by weaving hemp as intricately as lace, smooth as silk or
as coarse as burlap. Modern hemp blends created today for the garment industry are
cool to touch and comfortable to wear. While hemp garments are often
comparatively more expensive than those made from cotton due to higher
processing costs and limited quantities, its superiority is clear.

One of the most commonly known attributes about hemp fiber is its exceptional
tensile strength which is 3X that of cotton. In addition, the fiber is naturally
antimicrobial and resistant to ultraviolet light as well as mold, mildew, heat and
insects which makes it excellent for outdoor wear. The fiber is not only many times
more durable than cotton but warmer, softer and more water absorbent. This also
makes hemp more absorbent to dyes and thus less prone to fading. Because of
hemp's superior insulating properties, it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the
summer. Hemp fibers actually soften with each washing without fiber degradation.
Hemp production uses significantly less chemicals than cotton which makes it more
sustainable and naturally more suitable for people with chemical sensitivities. The fiber
is completely biodegradable, holds its shape as good as polyester but also has
breathability. The fibers, which are naturally light in color, require little or no bleach.

Fiber to fabric:

While it is legal in the US to own hemp products such as clothing and foods derived
from the plant, it is illegal to cultivate it here. This makes the US the only
industrialized nation on earth that does not allow its production based on a law that
does not make the distinction between industrial hemp from marijuana. All hemp
fabric is therefore imported. The primary countries supplying hemp to the US include
China, Hungary, Thailand, Romania and Chile with production coming from other
nations including Australia, England, Canada and New Zealand as well.

The basic process of creating hemp fabric for garments is four fold:

-Separation of the fiber
-Spinning/Weaving the fiber into Yarn
-Cleaning/Softening
-Dyeing/Finishing

Centuries old traditional eco-friendly methods of mechanical hemp processing are still
used in countries such as Romania and Hungary. Modern methods include chemical
rather than mechanical processes which are faster, less labor intensive and ultimately
less expensive. Unfortunately, there are manufacturers out there who are more
interested in profits and as a result opt for the chemical methods as opposed to
protecting the health of the consumer and our environment.

The process of separating the bast fibers from the stalk is called "retting". The
organic methods of separation are both natural and mechanical. The retting process
breaks down pectin and lignin, the substances that glue the fibers to the stem core.
Two natural retting techniques are dew and water retting. Both methods use a
bacterial action to break down the glue, the former aided by dew or rain where as
the later takes the bundled hemp and floats it in water to loosen the fiber from the
stem.In dew retting, stalks are first cut in to 12-18" lengths and are then left in the
moist fields. In order for the stalks to dry, they are then racked together every few
days followed by bailing when drying and retting is complete. The dew retting process
takes approx. 2-3 weeks to finish based on weather conditions. In water retting, the
stalks are soaked for approx. 20 days to loosen the fiber. This method produces a
higher quality fiber but is costly and if the water is not disposed of properly can
pollute the body of water used in the process. In both methods, the stems must also
be monitored to avoid excessive degradation.

A seemingly primitive labor intensive mechanical process is called scutching Once the
stems are removed and washed, they are beaten to remove the soft tissue. This is
followed by drying so that only the fibers remain. More modern mechanical methods
use steam and specially designed machinery on site to separate the fiber from the
hurd (the pulp by-product after fiber is removed). In eastern Europe the primary
means of processing rely on traditional organic methods including new cleaner
biologically-based enzyme technology. In contrast, China, the worlds leading
producer of hemp fabric uses chemical methods of processing.

Spinning hemp fiber in to yarn which is then weaved or knitted into garments is
essentially the same for hemp processed by chemical or organic means. The only
real difference between the two is the fiber length. Organic fibers are generally longer
whereas chemically processed hemp becomes "cottonized" and tends to have short
fiber. The spinning equipment may vary as a result but the process remains same.

Organic cleaning and softening methods and machinery are currently being
researched and developed by ecologically-minded hemp textile manufacturers. This
enables the fabric to remain organic and chemical free as well as retain its softness
and durability, a characteristic that is often diminished using chemical means. The
natural light color of hemp fiber prevents the need to use toxic chlorine bleach. If
lightening is absolutely necessary, an eco-friendly non-toxic alternative is hydrogen
peroxide.

The environmental friendliness involving the dyeing and finishing of hemp textile varies
greatly around the world. In the US, there are laws in place which regulate the types
of dyes and dyeing methods being used, especially in CA where many dye houses
exist. The dye itself is another consideration. The toxic content of the dye as well as
the disposal of excess dye and chemicals determine the measure of harm done to
the environment. The proper disposal of the waste is of the utmost importance in
order to minimize any potentially detrimental environmental effects.

Hemp garments can be dyed or left in a "natural" state, which means no dye at all.
When left un-dyed, garments come in varying shades of beige which is the natural
color of the hemp fibers after processing. An obvious consideration for a sustainable
garment business would be to choose dyes which are the last harmful to the
environment (such as low impact and fiber-reactive dyes made from natural
components that are water soluble containing no heavy metals). In addition, it is
essential to work with dye houses that use such dyes and employ strict ecological
safety measures as well. Equally important is to eliminate or at least moderate the
amount of synthesized chemicals used in the finishing process in an effort to increase
the fabrics overall sustainability. Finishing can involve anything from applying
compounds to improve smoothness, stiffness and strength to processes that change
surface appearance and texture. Eco-friendly methods of both dyeing and finishing
have been developed.

There are chemical processes that can be used at each stage of turning fiber into
fabric and fabric into garments. We encourage transparency at every level from the
field to the factory so merchants and consumers alike can make the most educated
choices possible regarding the products they wish to either sell or wear. The process
of growing is only half the equation when creating healthy organic and/or sustainable
garments. The various stages of processing must be done using methods that take
into consideration the health of both the environment and the consumer.

Conclusion:

Hemp can be considered in many ways nothing short of miraculous. This sustainable
and easily renewable resource is used for food, clothing, energy and shelter (yes
shelter, hemp is also used in making building materials). It's no wonder why so many
people and organizations have become passionate about spreading the message of
hemp as a world saving plant! Supporting the growing hemp industry by purchasing
apparel made from hemp can be considered by some a revolutionary act. I'm sure
our founding fathers would agree, after all George Washington and Thomas Jefferson
sowed hemp on their plantations! Make a statement and set an example by choosing
hemp garments as part of your business and/or wardrobe today!


About The Author

Fredric Schwartz

Fredric Schwartz is the founder of Vayu, a grassroots
company dedicated to creating eco clothes inspired by yoga and made from hemp
fibers and organic cotton. Hemp cotton blends make up incredibly sustainable eco
clothing made for the conscious consumer. The company follows a strict model of
sustainability integrated into the core of its business model. The result is green
clothing born from Fredric's long time commitment to living in harmony with the
Earth. Shop sustainably today!
Hemp fiber has been used by
mankind to make eco clothes since
before recorded history. It is currently
thought that hemp is the oldest
cultivated plant in the world with uses
dating back to the stone age. Bits of
hemp fabric have been found dating
back to about 8,000 B.C. revealing
the oldest example of human
industry. Fiber imprints have been
found in pottery shards in both China
and Taiwan dating back an estimated
10,000 years. Archeologists believe
that, in addition to flax, hemp has
been weaved since the Neolithic
period right through to the middle
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