What to Know About Hemp Fabric

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 25, 2022
4 min read

Hemp, a natural plant fiber, comes from the stem of the hemp plant. Recently, its popularity has increased because it’s more eco-friendly and biodegradable than other fibers. This article looks into the properties, pros and cons, and uses of hemp fabric.

Hemp fabric comes from the stem of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.), a cannabis species. Hemp fabric is similar to fabrics like linen, jute, flax, and bamboo, all of which are obtained from plant stems — or basts. So, these fabrics are collectively called bast fibers.

Though hemp is a cannabis species, it has low concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the chemical that causes the psychoactive effects — or the “high” — associated with cannabis.

Humans have been using hemp for over thousands of years. Since roughly 5000 years ago, it has been used for its medical properties. Also, the first use of hemp oil dates back at least 3000 years. But the use of hemp fabric predates them both, with the oldest discovered pieces of hemp fabric dating back at least 6000 years.

In the past, hemp was a popular fabric source, so it was traded worldwide. Hemp reached North America in the 1600s, even before cotton did, and it was grown all over the continent.

Americans used hemp to make ropes, grain bags, wagon covers, and clothing. Leftover hemp made its way to oil mills for the extraction of hemp oil, which was used in paints, inks, varnishes, and lamp oil.

When Americans started using cotton to make fabric, in the mid-1800s, the use of hemp as a fabric source dropped.

Hemp production and its use as a fabric started gaining importance after the 2014 Farm Bill passed — which is when the United States changed the plant’s legal status and allowed hemp cultivation.

Traditional hemp fabric production involves five steps:

  1. Growing — Hemp seeds are planted close together to grow tall stems (3 to 15 feet long), which consist of several fine fibers. The slender stems are harvested after they flower.
  2. Retting — Either water retting or dew retting is used in the industrial hemp production process. In water retting, the stems are soaked in warm water tanks for around 10 days to remove pectins (noncellulosic substances), while in dew retting, the stems are dried on the ground and occasionally turned to even the drying process.
  3. Extracting — After the stems become free of pectins, they are broken and beaten to separate the fibers from the stem’s wooden core.
  4. Combing — The fibers are separated from the wooden parts and combed to form a thread of the fabric.
  5. Spinning — Spinning bobbins are used to weave the fabric into thick threads. Wet spinning typically gives fine yarns, and dry spinning threads are coarser to the touch.

Hemp fabric has several applications — manufacturers use hemp to create:

  • Personal wear like shirts and skirts
  • Home linen like towels, upholstery, beddings, and curtains
  • Gardening accessories such as mulch mats, weed barriers, and soil and tool bags
  • Painting canvases for artists
  • Cloth baby diapers (due to their high water absorption)

Hemp is a great sustainable alternative to nonbiodegradable synthetic fibers because hemp is completely natural and biodegradable. When your discarded hemp shirt reaches a landfill, it starts breaking down in next to no time.

Hemp is widely regarded as the more sustainable option for mass production compared with cotton. Hemp needs very little water to grow, and it’s a high-yield crop — you get more fiber from the same area than other crops.

Hemp doesn’t need rich, fertile soil to grow, so it can be grown in less fertile soil, leaving more fertile ground for other crops. According to a 2020 study, 1 hectare of hemp can produce the same amount of fabric as 2 to 3 hectares of cotton, while needing much less water to grow.

But growing hemp requires more labor than other fabrics do as hemp seeds are sensitive to environmental changes — 70% to 80% of hemp seeds sprout in greenhouses, but this number falls to roughly 40% when the seeds are planted in open fields. Hemp seedlings can also be very costly.

Some fabric preparation methods use chemicals in the retting process, which can be harmful. Though hemp producers use water retting, it requires gallons of water as well as a lot of energy to heat the water.

Some great characteristics of hemp and hemp fabric include:

  • Hemp is eight times stronger than other fabrics used for daily wear. Growing hemp is considered easy on the soil because it doesn’t exhaust soil nutrients.
  • Hemp fabric protects you from the sun’s ultraviolet rays and has natural antimicrobial properties. Many traders proudly flaunt test results that prove hemp fabrics help keep pathogens away.
  • Unlike other fabrics, hemp fabric becomes better with age. The more you use it, the softer it feels on your skin.
  • Hemp has amazing thermoregulating properties, keeping you warm in cold weather and cool when it gets hot.
  • Hemp doesn’t wrinkle as easily as linen. You can machine-wash or hand-wash the fabric.
  • Hemp looks a lot like flax fabric but doesn’t have its elastic properties, which means you can’t stretch it as much as other fabrics.
  • Hemp fabric is more water-absorbent than other fabrics, so it can keep you dry for longer. This also makes it ideal for dyeing with natural dyes — so you’ll find hemp fabrics that are creamy white, brown, gray, black, or green in color.

There’s an increasing interest in sustainable fabrics, leading to many new companies offering fabrics made of hemp.

If you’re looking for hemp clothes, an internet search will show many online stores specializing in the fabric. You may also see more stores in your town or city offering hemp clothes, sheets, bags, and even shoes.

Some popular brands, especially outdoor goods companies, sell hemp fabric products as well as other fabrics.