Hemp fabric is not a newcomer to the fashion industry. In fact, hemp itself isn’t even a newcomer to our civilization. The earliest discovered woven fabric, dating back to 8000-7000 BC, is hemp. While hemp is a historical fabric, it is also the strongest and most durable natural fiber in existence. In fact, until the 1880’s, 80% of all textiles and fabrics in the US were primarily made with hemp fibers. Until recently, hemp was the most widely used textile fiber on Earth. So, what happened? Why isn’t hemp clothing in every closet in America today?
Government restrictions and sanctions on hemp made the crop illegal to grow in the US in 1937 with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act. Policed by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the US is the only industrialized country in the world to not grow industrial hemp. Overseas jute (a vegetable fiber) and hemp shipments were curtailed in 1942 due to World War II, so the US government removed the sanctions on domestic hemp growth and strongly encouraged farmers to grow hemp for use in the war effort. Farming boomed in Kentucky and Wisconsin, and the military was supplied with hemp rigging, rope, sails, shoe thread, and parachute webbing. Upon the conclusion of the war, the government swiftly and quietly shut down all hemp farming and production, once again making it illegal to grow the crop.
EnviroTextiles, an American industry- leading pioneer in hemp fabrics, has been in the business of natural fibers for five generations. Barbara Filippone, Sustainable Product Developer, and Summer Star Haeske, Director of Sales and Marketing, have invaluable first-hand experience of hemp’s struggles for acceptance and consistency in the fashion industry. As Summer noted, “The mid 1990’s was the first real boom; a fad for hemp. It was a reintroduction for hemp to apparel. It fizzled out and didn’t really stick until the 2000’s. This was when a health-understanding happened. People started becoming more health-aware and eco-conscious and this helped to reinvigorate the hemp market. People started realizing that what we put on our bodies is just as important as what we put into our bodies.” Aside from clothes, EnviroTextiles also supplies hemp fabric for the cloth baby diaper market, home furnishings, technology products including prosthetic limbs, surfboards, drum sets, bridal gowns, and even 100% hemp filters for air systems. “All of these products are biodegradable with no toxic off- gassing in landfills,” Haeske pointed out.
Being an American hemp fabric manufacturer means EnviroTextiles must import their hemp. Thirty countries grow hemp for various uses, including for textile, food, personal care, supplements, and industrial applications. China is the world’s largest hemp exporter and, ironically, the US is the world’s largest importer, missing out on millions in annual profits. According to a report by Hemp Business, US sales topped $820 million in 2017, with $105 million coming from the textile industry. This may change, however, as imminent challenges await the US. “International tariffs are set to cause the price of imported hemp products to increase,” remarked Colleen Keahey Lanier, Executive Director of Hemp Industries Association (HIA).
Misinformation and confusion are additional hurdles that still exist for hemp fabric creators and fashion designers. Industrial hemp has virtually no trace of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannot be used as a mind-altering drug. Cannabis, on the other hand, has around 10% THC with some varieties containing as much as 27%. Many people in the American general public, including farmers, are also not aware that hemp and marijuana are two completely different plants. According to EnviroTextiles’ experience, many US farmers aren’t aware of industrial hemp as a plant or potential revenue stream. “Perhaps a renaming would clarify this,” suggests Filippone, “CBD (cannabidiol) shrub is cannabis hemp and the tall stalk that we use is industrial hemp.”
We began using Hemp in 2001 as our founders saw the sustainable value of this fast- growing plant that requires little to no pesticides, insecticides, and water. More recently however, our long-time customers requested more products made with hemp, so we ramped up our design and production as the availability and quality of the fiber also increased.”
– Andrea Cinque-Austin, Director of Design at prAna
Another impediment for hemp is the fact that the US already has a massive cotton industry, creating reluctance to facilitate the growth of a competitor fiber crop. However, when compared to cotton, hemp saves farmers in water, pesticides, land, and energy. Hemp also yields 250% more fiber per hectare of land than cotton and is likewise 4 times more protectant against UV and UVB rays. Hemp also has superior wicking ability as well as antibacterial and antifungal properties. In addition, hemp has 3 times the tensile strength of cotton, and can rival its softness when combined with other materials such as Tencel and Modal. Since 50% of all chemicals used in US agriculture are for growing cotton, swapping hemp for cotton would be a drastic improvement for the environment and consumers.
The benefits don’t stop there, however, as hemp plants can be harvested for both their seeds and stalk fibers, giving farmers two profit channels. This is an added financial bonus to hemp farmers, making this dual-crop especially pro table. Outside of the financial opportunities offered by hemp, it is simply a remarkable crop for the land. It can grow up to 20 feet in any climate in a single, short growing season, while also restoring nutrients to depleted soil. Other fiber crops need a “cover crop” or fertilizer to replenish the soil after they are farmed. Hemp acts as a cover crop, putting nutrients back into the soil while absorbing CO2, extracting toxins and pollutants from the soil at the same time. Besting any other crop, hemp leaves the soil healthier than it was before it was planted. The plant is also not a food-source for animals and insects, which makes it a very low-maintenance crop. In fact, some farmers in China will actually grow hemp around their corn crops to prevent pest and predator infiltration.
Occasionally you land on that article of clothing that goes from being an instant favorite to a seasonal obsession. The Cozy Up Jacket just may become your next obsession- once you’ve experienced it you won’t be able to imagine autumn without it!”
Hemp truly is an incomparable plant, offering numerous benefits to people and the planet.
But you don’t need to tell any of this to prAna; they already know.
And they’ve known for more than 15 years. As Andrea Cinque-Austin, Director of Design at prAna explained, “We began using Hemp in 2001 as our founders saw the sustainable value of this fast-growing plant that requires little to no pesticides, insecticides, and water. More recently however, our long-time customers requested more products made with hemp, so we ramped up our design and production as the availability and quality of the fiber also increased.”
The prAna Fall 2018 Collection has 39 styles made with hemp blends in 141 colors and prints. If you’re looking for the ultimate in relaxed fall style, check out the Cozy Up Sweatshirt. Deliciously soft inside, it’s your favorite everyday crew sweatshirt elevated with details that will guarantee you’ll be noticed. For men, the Trawler Hooded Henley is a three-quarter double-buttoned sweatshirt with a generous hood and pouch pocket that amps up the sophistication from an ordinary sweatshirt without losing any of the comfort. The Leda lounge pants for women are a medium-weight pant with double back pockets that can be worn as active-wear, lounge-wear, and even tights for the cooler weather; you’ll be addicted to their feel and wear-ability.
The hemp Cardiff Collection items in the fall line, including the sweatshirts, showcase a vintage style with soft sustainability. Born from prAna’s Californian coastal roots, Cardiff Collection is a hybrid show-stopper of blended fabrics. Recycled polyester and Lenzing Tencel partner with hemp to create a performance fabric you would expect from prAna with the flexible comfort of wear-anywhere clothing.
The journey to this first full line of hemp clothing hasn’t been easy, though. As Cinque-Austin pointed out, “There have definitely been some barriers and hurdles when it comes to using hemp in products. Specifically, the amount of fiber actually being grown, as well as the lack of manufacturing facilities that have the knowledge and technology to process and grow it. With hemp being illegal to grow in so many areas of the world for so long, the knowledge and industry has been significantly depleted. Hopefully now, with the energy around legalization in the US and the growing demand for hemp products, the hemp industry will begin to grow and thrive again.”
prAna’s commitment to hemp fabrics increases in Spring 2019 with more than 50 styles and nearly 200 colors and prints. “Hemp has the potential to be the king of the crops in the apparel industry,” noted Andre Walker, prAna Brand Engagement and Partnerships, “and we couldn’t be more excited.”
Cozy-up for fall and head over to www.prana.com/hemp to see how prAna has taken a look back in history to see the way forward with hemp.
♦ This article was originally published in Issue 21 of Face the Current Magazine, featured on pages 86-91. Order a print copy of this issue HERE.