One of the clearest points to be made about hemp fabric in studying physical and mechanical properties is its ability to provide the performance of synthetics without sacrificing the gentle feel of cotton, not to mention the smiles from environmentalists tired of pesticides, polluted water and a deepening petroleum dependency.
Another thing to know about hemp fibers – they last for what seems like forever. Just last year it was discovered that hemp fabrics were used almost 10,000 years ago in Çatalhöyük, the oldest to date. It’s there an archaeological team unearthed a baby skeleton wrapped in hemp-weaved linen, telling us a little more about the cannabis plant and its long cultural history in Middle East and Mediterranean regions.
It wouldn’t be until the Renaissance that the hemp fiber caught fire in the West. Until the latest discovery, the most dated evidence came from imprints found on ancient Chinese pottery from the 5th millennium BC. Like the flax that’s grown to make linen, hemp fibers come from the outside of the plant stalk, so they’re often referred to as bast fibers.
As it happens, this class of plant fibers produces some the strongest and most durable items from the natural world. The hemp fiber has a relative tensile strength beyond that of principal vegetal fibers—about twice that of cotton. This fact offers a range of industrial applications: twine and rope, home insulation, paper, molding, carpet, textiles, hempcrete, super-polymers and on the list goes.
Car companies like BMW use them to reinforce door panels for better safety standards and lighter weight. Form is function for hemp fabrics, they are far more practical than cotton alternatives. The fibers are naturally strong because of their length and the necessary protection they provide for the living plant. Hemp fibers measure between approx. 3-15 ft., running the length of the plant. Each has a large, porous surface area, giving hemp fiber it’s unique performance qualities.
Under a microscope, strands appear to have alcoves running end-to-end, making hemp highly absorbent and evolved to breathe. Because of this, hemp also has the best heat capacity ratio among these (compared to flax and cotton), due to air getting trapped in the fibers’ pores, then absorbing one’s body heat to provide superior insulation. Each fiber’s naturally catacombed airflow system helps the wearer stay warm in cold weather and cool in tropical environments.
When confronting moisture, this quick-drying air current hinders the growth of anaerobic bacteria and mildew, adding to anti-microbial and hypoallergenic properties of the textiles. Modern processing technologies have managed to make hemp textiles far softer than ever before.
Although its feel is unique, hemp wears most similar to linen, but without sacrificing performance qualities sometimes associated with synthetics. In terms of comfort and fashion, the fabric has completely evolved beyond the “burlap-ish” clothing of the 90’s, as validated by hemp-curious fashion magnates like Armani and Calvin Klein.