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Sustainable Fashion: Hemp Hemp Hooray!

As society becomes more eco-conscious, looking for sustainable fashion is still a daunting experience. Hemp clothing and products can be a sustainable pathway for your wardrobe, but why is it so hard to find and oftentimes prohibitively expensive? To understand, we must look at the history of the US fabric industries and hemp plant misconceptions.

“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, Old times there are not forgotten, Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land …”

So much irony there...

First, the song was written by Daniel Decatur Emmett, a Northerner who by all accounts had never been to the South when it was first performed in New York City in 1859. Second, even though cotton production began in the 1780s, it didn’t take off right away as an international boon – not until a more efficient method of processing the raw form of cotton was invented, making Southern human traffickers millionaires. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patent applied 1794) helped production by “separating the sticky seeds from the fibers” and is commonly credited with providing the tool to disrupt the slow cotton industry.

Scholars have suggested that although Whitney made a significant contribution to the Industrial Revolution, he was not the only inventor to attempt improvements to cotton processing. Scholars have also debated whether Whitney single-handedly saved, if not sustained, the institution of slavery by making it profitable for more than just the largest plantations that had the luxury of extensive stolen labor to convert cotton into a textile. What scholars seem not to explore is a question that this author has been asking for some time now: why didn’t he choose to disrupt the hemp industry? By all accounts, growing, harvesting, and processing was back-breaking manual labor that was also performed by enslaved Africans. And hemp has always been a superior product.

As a bit of history…Rowan Robinson opines in “The Great Book of Hemp” that the Vikings brought hemp to the east coast of North America. We know from the same text that Vikings relied upon hemp for rope, sailcloth, caulking, fishing lines, and nets. And we know from middle school World History that Leif Erikson arrived in North America around 1000CE. It is not unreasonable to give the Vikings the credit … even if British colonies, which is what Colonial America was, were required by law to grow hemp.

Either way, it’s been here a long time.

Hemp was never mass-produced as a form of cloth because it was so labor-intensive. (Well, to be accurate, nearly nothing was mass-produced in the US before the 20th century.) Although a hemp decorticator, for separating the fiber from the plant stalks, was invented in Italy in 1861, there wasn’t one patented in the US until 1917. Up until then, processing hemp had been a labor-intensive undertaking where every aspect was by hand. The decorticator reduced labor costs by a factor of 100. Stripping allowed the outer fiber to be more efficient in making clothes, fabrics, and ropes; the inner stalk could be used in construction like wood and more modern means of hemp(con)crete, insulation, and carpet.

The decline of hemp as a marine cloth and fiber is loosely attributed to the change in travel – by the Civil War, ships were being powered less by sail and more by steam. But until the mid-1800s (read: emancipation of enslaved people) in states like Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky, farmers led the country in hemp production.

As a product, hemp is objectively a superior product to cotton. Here are some fast facts:

  • Cotton goes from seed to harvest in 160 days; whereas hemp takes as little as 90.

  • Only the boll of the cotton plant is used in the creation of fabric.

  • Although cotton produces varieties of cottonseed and cottonseed oil, most often farmers destroy the stalks to stave off pests like the boll weevil.

  • Conversely, every part of the hemp plant is used. Hemp seeds make food and fuel, stalks make fiber for textiles, the leaves make medicine, and the roots cure the soil.

  • Cotton needs 50% more water to grow than hemp.

  • Cotton as a fiber is more sustainable than synthetic fibers, it is still “one of the most chemically intensive crops in the world”.

  • And nearly all hemp varieties are naturally resistant to pests meaning it does not need pesticides.

Recently corporations like Levi’s are re-incorporating hemp into their products. Environmentalists are cautiously optimistic. It would be wonderful to use a textile that didn’t contribute to 21st-century environmental decline. Meanwhile, changes in laws now allow the growing of industrial hemp in every state in the Union nearly a century after it was conflated with anti-cannabis temperance, anti-Black racism, and anti-Mexican xenophobia.

All in all, industrial hemp just sounds like a really good idea!

Even towns pay homage to the plant: Hempfield, Pennsylvania; Hemphill, Kentucky; Hemp Island, Florida; Hemphill Bend, Alabama; Hempstead, New York; Hemp, Georgia; Hempton Lake, Wisconsin; Hempfield Lake, Mississippi; and Hempfork, Virginia. Perhaps we all should.

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