Well, no. But, also kind of yeah.
Let's get into it.
Hemp is one of the most valuable and versatile plants at our disposal. A natural wonder that can fill many needs and solve many problems, hemp has been cultivated and used for multiple purposes for millennia. Throughout the centuries, hemp's uses included making rope, clothing, paper and even fuel without the environmental impact other means of manufacture have.
Many people know that hemp is a derivative of the cannabis plant and that hemp clothing is made from the leaves and stems of the cannabis plant. And if clothes are made from hemp, those eco-friendly clothes are made from weed.
Dope hoodie indeed.
The differences between hemp and cannabis are subtle, but noteworthy. We’ll explore some of those differences in this article, but for now, we’ll talk about how hemp is made. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have a better understanding of why there are still some controversies surrounding hemp as a fabric and how it differs from regular, smokable cannabis.
How hemp is made
As a natural fibre, hemp must be grown. Like cotton, hemp crops are planted, grown and harvested before undergoing processes that make them usable as a textile for making clothes, bags, and many more.
Hemp cultivators sow seeds closely together to ensure a greater yield per acre. This means hemp farming takes up less land than other popular crops. Plants grow taller, making shoehorning more crops into a growing space easier. In contrast, cannabis plants grown for flower are planted further apart to allow room for necessary lateral growth during their flowering stage, as the flowers are valuable.
After hemp plants flower, the fibres are at their softest, determining harvest time.
After harvesting the plants, the raw material undergoes a process called retting. The plants are placed in large water tanks to allow natural bacteria and chemicals to break down the hemp fibres. Retting is necessary if the hemp is to be used in textiles and gently separates the usable bast fibres from the woody stems.
The stems are then crushed in a machine via a process called breaking. Those crushed stems are then beaten - separating the fibres from any remaining woody core. The fibres are then combed to remove any leftover woody parts, resulting in a finer fabric suitable for use in making clothing.
Fibre then undergoes a twisting and stretching process called roving. This improves the strength of hemp fabric before it goes on bobbins for weaving. The finer threads are removed from the bobbins and processed into a finer fabric during weaving.
You’re left with the sustainable fabric that will then be used to produce hemp clothing. By the time it reaches this stage, hemp fabric is softer, finer, and ready to undergo any other processes needed to make clothing. Dyeing and cutting to produce stylish, sustainable garments comes next.
Easy. You can make your own at home. No more trade secrets.
Hemp v cannabis
Hemp and cannabis are often thought to be two different yet similar materials. The truth is that while they may differ in their cannabinoid profile, they are essentially the same. Hemp comes from the cannabis plant, and its main difference is THC content.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol to give it its Sunday name, is the naturally-occurring compound in cannabis that gives it the psychoactive properties that smokers rely on to get high. Of course, THC offers more than just a pleasant hit, but in cannabis circles, this is often its main function. Despite an increase in legality throughout the world, THC is still considered an illicit substance in many regions, making it hard to produce cannabis plants without falling foul of the authorities.
If you want to grow hemp for its many practical uses, the plants must contain low, near-negligible levels of THC. In other words, legally growing hemp would call for THC levels to fall short of what you’d need to get high if you ingest the plant. That level is required to be below 0.5% THC in most countries, varying on the region's local laws.
The main difference is that, while both hemp and ‘weed’ come from cannabis sativa plants, careful breeding techniques have ensured that, over time, farmers can produce sativa for hemp while keeping the THC levels on the right side of legal. Therefore, the industrial hemp used to manufacture textiles doesn’t produce a high when ingested.
It’s a common misconception in some circles that hemp comes from the male cannabis plant and psychoactive flower comes from the female; in reality, most hemp harvests are from female cannabis sativa plants. The selective breeding across generations of the plant keeps the plants grown for textiles low in THC. These plants won’t have the same dense, sticky buds found on cannabis grown for recreational/medical use.
On the other hand, CBD, or cannabidiol, is present in larger quantities in hemp. CBD is another of the main compounds found in cannabis, but unlike THC, it is naturally non-psychoactive.
Traditionally, there was no difficulty in hemp cultivation. It was a plant that grew abundantly and could fulfil its purpose cheaply and reasonably easily. As the modern era rolled around, hemp began to face new challenges. As new fabrics were discovered and put to use, hemp began to see its dominance diminish. But the most significant blow for hemp came in 1937, when the US Marihuana Tax Act banned marijuana, deeming it an illegal drug. As an essential by-product of the cannabis plant, hemp suffered, too. With one fell swoop, the hemp industry was effectively crushed.
There remains great debate about the true motives behind the decision to ban marijuana, with some people firmly believing that the main factor was not so much the plant's psychoactive properties but, in fact, hemp’s ability to compete with oil in manufacturing. They argue that hemp being cheaper than oil, posed a threat to the oil industry, and as such, it had to be eliminated for the oil companies to maximise profits.
In the last 30 years, the legalisation of cannabis has taken many leaps forward – for recreational and medical use. This has opened the door that was once firmly closed on hemp, and thankfully we are witnessing a significant resurgence in the use of hemp not only as a textile but for its many other benefits as well. The 2018 Farm Bill legalised the regulated production of hemp, finally differentiating it from other cannabis plants.
With its bonus of sustainability and being environmentally friendly, hemp looks ideally positioned to take back the crown unfairly wrenched away in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Despite this forward step, many hemp farmers still struggle to escape the stigma attached to growing hemp. After all, cannabis and hemp are the same species, and it’s hard to tell them apart by the naked eye alone. The difference between legal and illegal is the THC content, and that takes the use of equipment to verify.
How the hemp you’re wearing is different from cannabis
Common questions about the difference between ingestible cannabis – the kind you’d smoke, in other words – and hemp derived from cannabis plants for textiles are natural. Cannabis has a distinctive smell, for one, and you may wonder if hemp clothing has that characteristic. Thankfully, the answer is no.
If you don your latest THTC hoodie, you’ll not draw suspicious glances from passers-by. Maybe some jealousy.
While cannabis plants purposely grown for hemp fibre will have a similar bouquet of smells, this gets washed in the manufacturing process. The famous aroma comes from terpenes, essential oils found in the cannabis plant, especially in the flowers. But the drying, curing, and manufacturing process puts paid to the smell, and the outcome is that hemp fabric smells a lot more neutral.
It’s important to realise that hemp grown for fibre has no value as a recreational drug.
Benefits of hemp
In terms of making sustainable clothing, hemp has few peers. When processed into fabric, it has a similar texture to cotton, but some compare it more to linen or even canvas, depending on how it is used. Hemp is a highly breathable fabric for clothing, and it doesn’t shrink or pill the way synthetic materials can. It’s also much more durable, and hemp garments will last much longer than a cotton t-shirt. It possesses antimicrobial properties, too.
Better still, hemp fabric softens over time, meaning your hemp clothing becomes softer and more comfortable with every wash. Hemp clothing gets better the more you wear it, won’t wrinkle and won’t degrade after numerous washes. It’s 99.9% effective in blocking UV rays and won’t fade or degrade from exposure to sunlight as other natural fibres do.
Hemp farming takes place without the need for herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, or fungicides often used to produce other crops. Growing hemp utilises significantly less water than other fabrics like cotton. The production of hemp is carbon negative and, therefore, extremely eco-friendly.
That makes hemp the undisputed king of friendly fabrics and makes hemp clothing a sensible, ethical – and comfortable - sustainable fashion choice.