Natural fabrics: Hemp leads the pack

hemp fabric

It is heart breaking that the super-crop hemp isn’t being grown on a large scale in South Africa yet. Perhaps the fashion business can lead the way in conquering official ignorance regarding the difference between hemp and dagga.

Many people do not like to wear synthetic fabrics, either because of the feel against their skin, or the fact that they are harmful to the environment, being manufactured from petrochemicals. Similarly, protein based materials such as wool, silk, fur, leather and milk can raise objections in those conscious of animal rights. Intensive animal husbandry also generates greenhouse gasses, contributing significantly to global warming.

Cellulose based textiles

Cotton, the most widely used fashion fabric, consumes vast amounts of water and requires a lot of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, which then leach into the groundwater. The large tracts of land necessary to grow it could be better utilized for food production. Clearly alternatives should be sought.

Linen. The flax plant requires less fertilizer and water than cotton, but separating the fibres from the core through the natural process of retting takes time. Chemical methods are faster, but damaging to the environment.

Cotton and linen are not the only cellulose (plant fibre) based textiles available to the clothing industry. The list includes bamboo, hemp, jute, ramie, rayon, soy and Tencel® as well; all with varying ecological impact.

Rayon and Tencel® are both manmade, from wood pulp, potentially contributing to deforestation. Processing requires harsh chemicals.

Ramie. The resulting fibre is brittle, lacks elasticity, and its hairy surface complicates the weaving process.

Jute produces a coarse fabric suitable for sacking, upholstery, curtains and carpeting.

Bamboo. The textile is lustrous and has beautiful drape. Bamboo grass sprouts spontaneously from the root system and grows quickly. However, refining the pulp requires non-eco-friendly chemical processes.

Soy silk is manufactured from okara, a by-product of tofu making. It is soft, lustrous, and takes dye well. Properties rendering it ideal for apparel include superior moisture wicking, resistance to bacteria and UV rays, and biodegradability. Its fibres are also stronger than that of cotton, wool or silk. Unfortunately soy needs large amounts of acid-neutralizing lime, as well as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Environmentalists are concerned that swathes of Amazon rain forest are being cut down to clear the way for the cultivation of soy.

Hemp is arguably the most environmentally beneficial crop from which fabric can be produced, requiring neither irrigation nor pesticides. As for herbicides and fertilizers, hemp in fact inhibits the growth of weed, and binds and enriches the soil it grows in! Apart from cloth, the plant is also a source of paper, oil, food (seeds), fuel, biodegradable plastics and even building material. The only negative is that the length of hemp fibres necessitates the use of special machinery.

Properties of Hemp fabric

The fabric itself is strong and durable, and holds its shape as it has a low percentage of elongation. Of all fibres hemp has the best ratio of heat capacity, giving it superior insulation properties. It is absorbent, moisture wicking, resistant to mildew and UV rays, takes dye well, fades less easily than cotton, and is fully biodegradable. Hemp lauders exceptionally well, retaining and even increasing its resilience, softness and lustre with washing. It also comes in various weights and finishes, from canvas to silk and gauze. The only disadvantage is that, like cotton and linen, it wrinkles easily.

Canadian designers are working with hemp.

hemp fabric

Hemp wedding gown and men’s suit by Canadian Tara Lynn

hemp fabric

Casual dress by Nomads Hemp Wear

Having this beautiful, versatile fabric available is sure to ignite the creativity of local designers, and boost the South African fashion industry. The manufacturing sector will benefit, and thousands of jobs be created as a result.

hemp fabric

Hemp trainers by Adidas