To understand the hemp vs cotton debate, you need to understand the contested history between these two textile crops. Both have a longstanding place in human history.
Hemp has been around for millennia. It grows all over the planet, and it didn’t take long for ancient civilizations to realize its bountiful uses. Hemp is a sturdy, hardy plant. Its stalks are fibrous and thick, allowing it to be used in construction. The seeds are also highly nutritious, which is why many modern people use hemp seeds as part of the paleo diet and other nutrition plans.
Experts estimate that hemp has been in usage since around 8,000 B.C. This is long before humans were cultivating plants themselves, and long before the invention of the technologies required to make clothes. Nevertheless, hemp stuck around with humanity, and we began to use it in different ways.
A truly age-old fabric…
In fact, the earliest plant used for textiles was probably hemp. Remnants of hemp fabric have been discovered at numerous archaeological sites. Archaeologists assume that hemp could have had several uses for ancient groups, and hemp clothing was likely one of them. Hemp is also useful for paper production, and was used in cultures like ancient Egypt to produce everything from hemp paper to rope material.
Hemp spread throughout Europe, and eventually followed the Europeans to North America. In the New World, hemp use quickly declined. Unfortunately, hemp is a species of cannabis, and became outlawed in the 20th century with the criminalization of the marijuana plant. Despite not being psychoactive, hemp too suffered prohibition.
The criminalization of marijuana had several causes. It was supported by the cotton and logging industries, for quite obvious reasons. As hemp’s usage died out, cotton companies swooped in to “save the day” with cotton clothing.
But if both hemp and cotton can make clothing, is there any reason to opt for one over the other?
Pros & Cons of Hemp Clothing
As with everything in the world, there are pros and cons to hemp textiles. To make hemp clothing, manufacturers use the durable hemp fibers from the stalks and leaves of the plant. The qualities of these fibers dictate the characteristics of the final material, which can feel quite different from the cotton we are used to.
One of the significant differences between hemp cloth and cotton is that hemp clothes tend to be made from, well… just hemp. These days, cotton tends to be mixed with various synthetic fibers and plastics, which may contribute to microplastic pollution in the air we breathe. On the other hand, 100% hemp clothing is not hard to come by, meaning you know exactly what is in your outfit.
Let’s take a look at some of the other pros and cons of hemp clothing.
Hemp Clothing Pros
1. Highly durable: Hemp fabric is durable – more so than cotton. It is less likely to succumb to wear and tear over time, meaning less consumerism over the long term.
2. Becomes softer (and more comfortable) over time: With more use and washes, hemp actually grows softer and comfier without losing much of its integrity as a fabric. The same is true for cotton, but rather than maintaining its integrity, it tends to thin out and start falling apart.
3. Highly breathable: Hemp is said to be up to four times more absorbent than cotton. It wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping you from feeling sweaty and clammy. Also, the antibacterial properties might prevent body odor – a major benefit for obvious reasons!
4. Holds color: The absorbent qualities of hemp means that it holds color better than cotton. While cotton clothes fade over time, hemp will retain its original color for more or less the life of the fabric.
5. Environmentally friendly: Hemp grows densely, saving space in cultivation. One acre of hemp can produce 1500 pounds of fiber – three times the amount that cotton produces in the same area. Hemp can also reduce soil pollution as a bio-accumulator, and it uses drastically less water than cotton.
Hemp Clothing Cons
1. Expense: At the moment, the niche place hemp has in the market means it is more expensive than cotton clothing. It is often ‘organic,’ and sadly, this label bears a higher price tag.
2. Creasing: The organic nature of hemp clothing means that these clothes usually aren’t supplemented with polyester fabric reinforcement. As a result, they can crease a lot. Over time, creases can alter the shape of the garment.
Growing Hemp vs. Growing Cotton
Earlier, we mentioned that growing industrial hemp could be sustainable. Hemp has an absurd number of uses, including textiles, nutrition, and construction. As a result, a field of hemp can be harvested for a variety of purposes. Different parts of the hemp plant can be utilized in different industries, meaning virtually 100% of the plant is put to use. Very little is wasted.
Hemp also saves space. Hemp plants are tall and thin, and don’t take up much room. In many instances, they also don’t need pesticides or chemicals. After all, hemp is a hardy, natural plant. It grows well on its own without interference. Cotton, on the other hand, is believed to be responsible for 25% of the world’s pesticide use!
And as for water usage, hemp definitely wins out. To produce 1 kg (a little over 2 lbs) of cotton, growers may require more than 20,000 liters of water. For reference, this much cotton is the equivalent of a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
According to data from the Stockholm Environment Institute, 1 kg of dry hemp matter can be made using just 300-500 liters of water. Furthermore, 30% of this can be used for fiber production.
And of course, hemp crops can be mostly rain-fed. Without the need for irrigation systems (or at least a reduced need), the environment benefits tremendously.
Why Hemp is Better Than Cotton
Not sold on hemp fabric yet? Why on earth not?!
Hemp clearly has a number of advantages over cotton, especially when it comes to the environment. The list of pros also outweighs the cons, suggesting that hemp is by and large a more beneficial plant.
Before you jump the gun and decide that your entire closet needs to be hemp, however, pump your brakes just a bit. A lot of brands now sell cotton/hemp blends, which are far more economical in terms of price than 100% hemp clothing. Also, combining the benefits of both fabrics can amplify the advantages of each.
Final Thoughts on Hemp vs. Cotton
Hemp and cotton have a lot in common. Both have been used by humanity for thousands of years,and both can be used in textile production.
However, there are clear reasons why hemp is better than cotton. It is (or at least can be) more environmentally friendly to cultivate, and the fabric is generally more durable and gets softer over time. It can also retain color better.
For now, of course, cotton remains king of the textile industry. Hopefully, we will see more hemp garments in the future. As hemp use increases globally, however, you at least have the option to shop more sustainably. Will we all be decked out in hemp clothing 20 years from now? One can only hope!