Hemp: For Sewing, Not Smoking

When I mention hemp fabrics in classes, my students often giggle and go shifty-eyed or else mutter about “sackcloth.”   Hemp is in fact a versatile and sustainable crop, and I enjoy working with the fabric.

To the gigglers- THC is the compound in cannabis which some smoke to experience a high, and may also have medicinal qualities.  Industrial hemp contains negligible levels of THC.  I can not roll up my scraps of hemp fabric and smoke them.   (If only, right?)

Those who think of hemp fabric as a rough sort of cloth, read on.

In the course of my research on fiber ethics and production practices, I kept returning to hemp for superior performance and sustainability.  In fact, it sounds like a miracle fiber. Hemp:

  • Uses no fungicides, pesticides, or herbicides.  Though it does require fertilizers, this is often provided organically
  • Crops help replenish nutrients lost to cotton and wheat farming
  • Quick and prolific growth
  • Resists mildew, sun damage, and insects.  Clipper ships used hemp sails and ropes for these reasons.
 (A bast fiber, meaning the usable fibers run along the stem.)
  • Has greater heat conductivity than other vegetable fibers which means it feels cool in the summer and keeps the wearer warm in the winter.  When you lay your hand on good linen, it feels cool to touch.  That’s heat conductivity at work.  Hemp is more efficient than linen.
  • Stronger and tougher than other fibers
  • 100% biodegradable

The anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties interest me the most; I live in a tropical environment.  Even when I wash it immediately, one good sweat will kill a t-shirt because bacteria dwell in the sweaty places and create a lasting stink.  Don’t get me started about mildew.

How would the miracle fiber stand up to reality?  First I tried hemp-cotton from fabrics.com, a sturdy bottom or suit weight with a soft drape.  I made a skirt suit and a pair of shorts from this fabric.  Hemp softens with repeated washing and reveals a soft luster akin to silk.

I learned not to make welts or bound buttonholes with hemp fabric because it ravels at the corners.

Next, I thought to try Hemp Traders or NearSeaNaturals, but the postage- oh the postage!  Then I found Margaret River Hemp Co. based out of Perth!  Their fabrics come in every shade of beige, no problem since I’m addicted to iDye.
Model T, a drafting experiment with hemp/cotton jersey:
Heavier than usual jersey with the same drape I notice in other hemp fabrics.  It’s cool against my skin, though it has a slightly nubbly texture.  I had problems dyeing this black, but no more so than I might with any other fabric.
Check out the same jersey dyed blue:
After continuous wear for nine days in the rain forest conducting surveys, Mr. Steph reports no stink, no rot.
Hat of 100% hemp bottom weight, stiff at first.  I have 3 more meters of that hemp.  The Sun Jacket is a hemp-silk blend, the same I’m using for Advance Lady Adventurer.  
The hemp-silk stands up to daily wear as sun protection and tends to resist dirt and sweat-stink, I toss her in the wash once a week or so.
Hemp is machine washable and it is advisable to pre-wash the fabric several times before cutting because it softens the fabric and shrinks as much as it will.   I find it very easy to sew, less wiggly than linen, though it can pull at the seams when placed under stress so is best suited for semi-fitted or unfitted garments.  It does wrinkle, but I consider that the least of my worries.  When I putt a hemp garment from the washer, I hang it up and smooth it with my hands.  I might spot press when dry.
While I’m still learning how best to handle this fiber, I have to say I’m impressed with both its sustainability and performance. As more people use and wear hemp, the price will come down and perhaps put a dent in destructive cotton production.
A word against modern methods of hemp fabric production at Aurora Silk.
Any experience sewing or wearing hemp to share?  Links?  Anecdotes?  I decided to make a longer than usual post about my experiences with hemp because practical information on the fabric can be difficult to find.

28 comments

  1. Thanks for all the information! I am always keen to find more sustainable fibres to sew with. I found a supplier of organic Australian-grown cotton but haven't figured out yet if it's okay to support cotton growing in Australia (climatically unsustainable) if it's organic. Do you have any opinion on that?I will have to check out that WA hemp supplier. The jersey looks great. I've used a few bamboo products too. Although the production process to turn bamboo into fabric seems a bit un-eco. It's not easy being green!

  2. I know. So often it's six of one or half a dozen of another. Personally, I favor supporting local farmers and local industries where possible, I'm not well informed about why cotton would be climatically unsustainable. Is it because the climate is kind of skitzo anyway? Well, most bamboo is basically rayon that's been made from bamboo rather than wood pulp. Husband points out that at least bamboo grows faster than timber… Of course, the most sustainable way to live is to have one really well-made thing that you keep for years and years. Consume less. I think any other arguments are secondary to restriction of consumption.

  3. Nice review of hemp fiber, I'd thought it was a rough type of fabric too, now I'm curious to try it!I like the big sign about how it's not full of THC, must be to prevent shinkage. Also, I think of Australia as dry, and I think cotton needs a lot of water. My guess is that's why it's climatically unsuitable. I could be wrong though, on either point.

  4. Great post! I have been thinking about trying hemp for a while now and it's great to see it made up (and dyed!) so beautifully. :) I just ordered some iDye of my own and now I'm going to suss out some Canadian hemp links.

  5. Steph, you're so right about consuming less. I constantly battle with my desire to buy more fabric and sew more, thinking it's just more consumption. But at least they will be well-loved things, not throwaway.Australia is mostly too dry for cotton production, I believe. I live in South Australia, near the end of the River Murray, and people here are always bemoaning how much water is used from the river upstream for growing super-thirsty things like cotton and rice, leaving less and less water at our end.However, like you I do like to support local producers and those who are at least making some sort of difference.If you are interested, the place I have bought bamboo fabric from is http://www.bamboofabricstore.com.au .

  6. Nice! I have a handmade (not by me) skirt that's vintage lace and hemp silk. It's gorgeous and feels lovely, but really not good for everyday wear, sadly.

  7. Very interesting. I haven't tried any hemp yet.And thanks for answering my earlier question. Gender politics is a pet interest, although I use a pseudonym in the blog world (: It's not surprising it's hard to mix such an inflammatory topic with the niceties of the sewing blog land.

  8. How does hemp go with 'bagging' during wear? I find all my linen skirts bag out in the back (from sitting, even if I try and lift them up a bit as I sit)so I wondered if hemp behaves in a similiar way?My husband has quite a few hemp shirts and they're fabulous for drape and comfort in our humid summers (I'm in Qld)

  9. Great post! I'm going to use this as background reading for my textile students next semester, since I know your research is excellent.I really must try sewing with hemp, though it is so disheartening to hear that they aren't growing proper hemp anymore :-( I want my fabrics to last!I haven't sewn with hemp yet because I tend to wear tailored garments, and the pulling at the seams isn't ideal.

  10. Duh, I do have a skirt made of hemp, no it doesn't bag and I barely need to wash it, the hemp stays nice and fresh. It hangs well and moves beautifully, it's lined with a lightweight cotton. (The red skirt above).Leimomi, my fabrics are really tough and hard-wearing, the fact they won't last for centuries doesn't bother me as much as it bothers aurora. I still consider my "cottonized" hemp a superior fabric for durability and ease of sewing. As for pulling at the seams- I wouldn't necessarily make a corset out of it, but so far the garments I have made work well, though I have a taste for fitted garments, too.

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