Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s a super fibre and its soaring to a clothes rack near you.
Industrial hemp, that tough stuff traditionally associated with rope and sack cloth, is now charming the fashion world.
Expert Brenda Gordon explains: “I really believe hemp is a super fibre. It’s clean, it has no limitations and is very versatile. It’s on the cusp of a wave and is ready to take off.”
Brenda is an eco-fashion and textiles sourcing specialist and founder of international clothing sourcing agent Monoshe, headquartered in Birmingham.
Having witnessed the disastrous environmental fallout of fast fashion, she sees hemp as a potential saviour.
She says: “We over produce products and garments that people over buy and so we are living in a throwaway fashion world.
“In all the years I’ve been in fashion, I really hadn’t expected it to come to this point.
“We’re throwing away garments, many of which are made from polyester and other fibres that just do not biodegrade. So we are making garments that we don’t really care about the quality of them and they end up in landfill. This is a massive problem.
“But hemp is biodegradable and can be grown very easily, using low level fertilisers. It is also kind to the soil and uses less water than cotton, for example.
“Because it’s kinder to the environment it’s kinder to the air you breathe. Also none of the plant is wasted, the leaves, the stem, everything can be utilised [for various purposes].”
According to the Stockholm Environmental Institute, 10,000 litres of water is used to produce 1kg of cotton compared to just 300-500 for the same amount of dry hemp matter.
Hemp can be rain-fed rather than irrigated, it aerates the soil, leaving it rich for future crops, but also grows more densely than cotton. Hemp will produce 1500 pounds of fibre per acre, around three times that of cotton.
The impact of fast fashion presents an opportunity for hemp meanwhile.
In the UK alone, around 300,000 tonnes of clothes per year are sent to incineration or landfill, according to figures cited by the Environmental Audit Committee.
Data from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation also suggests that the equivalent of one bin lorry load of textiles is landfilled or burned every second globally.
Clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
Against the ugly face of fast fashion, biodegradable hemp has obvious appeal.
But it’s not just the crop’s environmental credentials that have the world’s catwalk overlords eyeing it up.
It is also its versatility which is attracting increased attention and doing away with the misconception that it is just a tough industrial textile
Brenda says: “The plant grows very tall, producing long fibres that can be woven into material.
“The hemp fibre stems are cut and are laid out to undergo a rotting process out in the fields for six weeks or so. That makes it easier to remove the fibres, which can then be woven or knitted into whatever product or raw material you want to make.”
But misconceptions continue to hold hemp back.
Partly, there’s its reputation as the so-called cousin of marijuana and the confusion that causes about legality.
In an article on Hypebeast, Sarah Hayes, director of material development at outdoor clothing firm Patagonia, says: “A high percentage of citizens do not know the difference between industrial hemp and cannabis, and get the two mixed up frequently.”
Hemp also has a long association with tough, hard-wearing industrial textiles, which doesn’t help its charming of the world’s fashion buyers and designers.
But Brenda explains: “The benefits of the hemp fibre are amazing. Its antibacterial and a very strong fibre – stronger in fact than cotton. It’s very breathable and it can be very soft.
“When you use hemp material people imagine it being very hard, but the way it can be processed now allows for very soft finishes, similar to silk, for example.
“You can use it for a myriad of things – denim, satin, gym wear, suits for the office and bridal wear.
“There is nothing actually stopping it from taking over any existing [clothing] fibre. In terms of versatility, there are no limits.”
One potential stumbling block to hemp textile’s meteoric rise is cost.
“Sometimes when you want to buy something different that is very natural, the price automatically goes higher. Unfortunately with hemp, this is the case.
“It’s not as popular as other textiles, so you could pay double what you would pay for the same garment in cotton, for example.
“People aren’t understanding the full benefits of it but I think once they do, it will be a bit like what we saw when the mobile phone first came out.
“The first phones were so big and expensive, but now everyone has one. I feel hemp will get to the stage where it will become cheaper once more people start buying it.”
Where a hemp fibre shirt at an unnamed High Street shop could be £50, Brenda says, the same garment in cotton could cost around £20/£25.
In closing this general price gap, she believes consumers can play a role not just by changing their buying habits to increase demand; but also by pressurising retailers into changing their ways and providing more hemp fibre lines.
“Just ask for the items you want in hemp,” she says. “You can ask shops why they are not doing it in hemp. Implement retailers to produce more and use hemp in that way. It’s never going to change unless we start asking and pushing retailers and brands for it.”
Perhaps the most globally-recognised brand to dabble in hemp is Levi’s. The company last year released a new line of 70/30 cotton-to-cottonised hemp blend jeans and shirts.
The hemp was sourced from a rain-fed hemp crop and thereby reduced the water used in fibre cultivation by roughly 30 per cent.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to offer consumers a cottonised hemp product that feels just as good, if not better, than cotton,” said Paul Dillinger, VP of product innovation.
For the sake of the environment and hemp growers everywhere, let’s hope many more follow Levi’s lead soon.
Brenda Gordon was presenting at the Hemp and CBD Expo in Birmingham.
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