Hemp: Why a long-demonized plant is making a big comeback

Hemp. What’s the first thought that pops in your head? Maybe marijuana. Or political controversy. Or perhaps CBD oil, given its growing popularity. How about “clothing fiber?” No?

You might be surprised to learn that hemp is a nearly perfect fiber for use in clothing. In fact, various parts of the hemp plant can be used to produce hundreds of resources, such as paper, biofuel, food and supplements, bird and animal feed, oil, body care products, and more. Scientists even believe it was one of humanity’s first domesticated crops, specifically because of its many industrial and nutritional properties.

Because of these benefits, industrial hemp use was ubiquitous in the early days of our nation: currency was printed on hemp paper, flags were made from hemp fiber, and presidents Washington and Jefferson even grew their own hemp. And its long-time use in the sails of ships provides insight as to why hemp is such an ideal clothing fiber:

“After wood, hemp was the material most used in ship-building. No other natural fibre can withstand the forces of the open ocean and the ravishes of salt water as well as hemp is able to.” -hashmuseum.com

So what happened? Like marijuana, hemp is a species of the cannabisplant – but unlike marijuana, hemp contains very low levels of THC, the compound that gets you high. Unfortunately, laws in the US have not always differentiated between the two. The Marihuana Tax Act passed in 1937 effectively began the prohibition of hemp, and growing it became fully illegal in 1972 with the Controlled Substances Act.

However, a growing understanding of the crucial differences between hemp and marijuana, as well as changing public opinion and realization of its many benefits (all spurred in part by activism), are helping to change the landscape for hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill makes it legal to grow industrial hemp again, as long as the THC level is below 0.3%. It will take some time for the infrastructure for production, and the market, to grow now that the law has changed, and it’s still highly regulated – but the wheels are in motion for the use of hemp to become widespread once again.

So, what makes hemp a wonder plant for use in your clothes?

For starters, hemp is incredibly durable. Thanks to its long, strong fibers, you can wear hemp clothing for years and it won’t wear out. In fact, the more you wash it, the softer and more comfortable it becomes. This makes it a great material for items of clothing you wear daily: think outdoor shirts and workwear like canvas pants and overalls.

If you’re active and enjoy the outdoors, you’ll also appreciate that hemp clothing is naturally antimicrobial, meaning it resists bacterial growth (i.e., it won’t get as smelly as your cotton clothes). It also resists UV light so you don’t have to worry about sunburns.

Kristen Rasmussen, who owns Frieda Farms family hemp farm in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband Zane, says it’s not just comfort and durability that make hemp an ideal choice for clothing. “It takes far fewer chemicals and less water to make a hemp t-shirt compared to a cotton t-shirt. And the plant can be grown regeneratively,” Kristen said. Frieda Farms, like most hemp farms, uses no chemicals at all on its crop.

In addition to growing 10 acres of hemp for CBD oil production (another product of the hemp plant, low in THC, with a multitude of medicinal uses), Kristen consults for hemp farmers throughout the United States who are trying to get in on the ground floor. She says it’s still the “Wild West” of hemp farming, but she believes things are progressing quickly.

“Maybe five, maybe ten years – there will be infrastructure for fiber, animal feed, hemp hearts. We need processing plants, and good genetics that work well for [growing in] each environment,” Kristen said.

Despite the fact that commercial scale hemp farming is just coming back to the States, you can still find plenty of hemp-containing products here – including clothing. Outdoor brands like Patagonia and Tentree use industrial hemp in their clothing even though it has meant importing the raw material. Patagonia is known for its environmental responsibility and stewardship, and their website states the following regarding their use of hemp:

[Hemp] requires no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. Cultivation of hemp improves soil health by replenishing vital nutrients and preventing erosion. It’s one of the most durable natural fibers on the planet and results in fabric with wonderful drape that’s comparable to linen. –patagonia.com

Considering the detrimental impact of the fast fashion industry, hemp’s environmental benefits alone should be sufficient to propel hemp to a comeback. Its superiority as a clothing fiber—(and as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, and as a biofuel and raw material for paper, etc etc)—should seal the deal.

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