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Is Hemp Fabric Better Than Cotton?

Posted by Dave Ches on

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Hemp is a naturally growing sustainable plant that can grow almost anywhere. Hemp grows as a sustainable crop which means it only needs rainfall and the nutrients in the soil to sustain it. No pesticides, no chemicals of any kind are needed.
(i)(ii)Cotton, conventionally grown, uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year which accounts for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticides use worldwide. The soil and water pollution from toxic pesticides has been directly linked to an explosion of infant birth defects in India and Pakistan. There is not an accurate accounting of birth defects from China but it is believed to be just as serious.
Bottom line? 
There is a definite consequence to what we buy.
Since hemp can grow naturally and is a greener option than cotton then why do we continue to buy cotton and hemp from overseas? Because it's cheaper, so cheap in fact that U.S growers find it hard to compete. Also, until recently hemp has been illegal to grow in the United States.                                                                                                                                                                              
Gradually this is starting to change. Josh Hendrix of the Kentucky Hemp Industries Association says while his state has passed a new law allowing the growing of industrial hemp and has been granted the right by the Federal Government to grow industrial hemp in the state, there is still a long way to go before they start making hemp fabric. 
Though hemp as a fabric for clothing has been around worldwide for centuries, laws passed in 1937 called the Marijuana Tax Act(iv) that lumped hemp into the same category as marijuana, strangled the production of hemp fabric in the United States.

Hemp has been around a long, long time. Chinese burial sites from over 8000 years ago have had hemp fabric found in them. Later, through trade and wars, hemp gradually spread west through the Middle East and to Europe. 

In the U.S. people would make homespun fabric from flax,hemp, wool and other materials close at hand. Cotton was not nearly as strong as homespun fabric and eventually fell out of favor when cotton became more available.
A few years later during the Civil War, Confederate troops relied on uniforms made from homespun materials like flax, wool and hemp. Hemp unlike cotton would resist rot when subject to the constant wet conditions the troops sometimes endured. In the 1850's and 1860's homespun fabric was produced in an undyed form that had a creamy colored cast to it. That was where the term "Butternut" came from when referring to the color of confederate uniforms. Common materials like hemp were cheap and easy to grow while cotton was much more valuable as a trade commodity and was being sold to Europe to help fund the South's war effort.
As recent as the 1990's, hemp fabric still had a rough coarse feel to it not unlike what those Confederate soldiers must have experienced. Today with advances in manufacturing techniques and the blending of hemp with organic cotton, hemp fabric is now a soft and comfortable experience.  Hemp clothing today can come in many forms, from casual t-shirts to designer fashion. 
The advantages
  • Hemp uses no additional water resources unlike cotton that uses massive amounts of water.
  • Hemp grows easily and suffers few attacks from pests or disease. Cotton uses tremendous amounts of insecticides, pesticides and herbicides that pollute land and water resources.
  • Hemp fabric lasts up to four times longer than cotton.    
  • Hemp replenishes nutrients back into the soil  (iii)
  • Hemp helps to keep our lakes and streams clean by neutralizing toxins in the soil which ultimately end up in our water supply.  (iii)                                                                              
At present the prospect of production of hemp fabric in the United States is more of a "wait and see" proposition. In order for someone to put up a hemp fabric mill they would need to see demand for that fabric. They want to know they can make money before they will invest money. The other side of that is the fact that we have been conditioned to not want to buy anything made in China or overseas in general. And therein lies the dilemma. Low demand means it would be tough to make money. Hopefully that will change soon.                                                                                                            
With hemp as one of the greener, more sustainable clothing options available, why not give it a try? You'll be taking a step toward a healthier, greener planet.
    Dave Ches is a principal contributor to Green Twine and an avid supporter and promoter of sustainable fabrics like hemp for everyday life.                                                                                                                                                      
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