Hemp versus Cotton:
Cotton is obviously the clear winner, right? Cotton has been an industrial giant for thousands of years and has been a major source of material for cloth and fabric materials throughout recorded human history, and possibly beyond. With the introduction of the cotton gin in the textile industry in 1793, the ability to refine large amounts of cotton fiber ensured that the value of U.S. crops rose to nearly $8 million in just 10 years.
The invention of the cotton gin caused massive growth in the production of cotton in the United States, concentrated mostly in the South. Cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850.
Cotton fiber has found its way into many facets of our daily lives and is used for an incredibly long list of items and products that we often times forget have cotton in them at all.
So if cotton is so widely used, what’s all the hubbub surrounding the introduction of hemp-based materials? We are going to explore just a bit of the how and why and hopefully give you some insight into what could, and perhaps should, be the redefining evolution of an industry.
Simply basing the material yield by crop, hemp is the clear and undisputed champ. Cotton requires a LOT of land compared to hemp, with hemp crops yielding nearly twice as much finished textile per ton as opposed to cotton on the same amount of land. Non-organic cotton, which is the most prevalently grown and used, also requires a vast amount of herbicides and pesticides, which negatively impacts not only the crop yields, but the surrounding environment and soil as well.
Pesticides have been linked to a wide range of human health hazards, ranging from short-term impacts such as headaches and nausea to chronic impacts like cancer, reproductive harm, and endocrine disruption.
In terms of water, cotton crops require about 50% more water than hemp crops of the same acreage, and after factoring in processing, cotton reaches about 4 times as much water requirements as hemp. While some might argue in favor of the efficiency of polyester and other synthetic, non-renewable based fabrics, the amount of energy required to extract oil, the major component of poly-based synthetic fabrics, offsets the efficiency of the product as a whole. This makes hemp and even more valuable textile.
Hemp appears to be the clear winner here, having far less of an impact on the environment, having almost twice as much textile yield, and requiring much less water and energy to harvest than cotton.
Old winder machine with hank of hemp fiber – antique tool for making hemp fabric
There is something to be said for a fabric that people claim is impossible to “wear out”. Hemp fabric, like cotton, tends to soften over time. Unlike cotton, however, hemp holds its strength when wet, and will not break down after repeated washing like cotton tends to do. Hemp fiber is so versatile, that it can even be used to produce incredibly strong ropes and cables that can support a surprisingly immense amount of weight due to the hemp fiber’s amazing tensile strength.
Hemp was actually used for thousands of years to produce some of the more durable fabrics throughout history, such as canvas for ship sails, tough wagon covers, durable baskets and containers, and clothing. Believe it or not, the term “canvas” was derived from the word “cannabis”. Hemp has been a part of history for as long as cotton has.
Benefits of Hemp Fabrics
We’ve established that hemp is a more durable fabric than cotton, but there are a few other perks that hemp provides over cotton and polyester.
Hemp performs very well when it comes to odor resistance, moisture displacement, and breathability. While cotton infamously retains smells and odors, hemp has natural anti-bacterial properties which make fabrics extremely resilient to odor retention, as well as providing benefits to your skin. Hemp does extremely well wicking moisture out and prevents mildew and mold from growing very easily, unlike cotton.
Cotton is naturally white without dyes, allowing for it to be easily changed to whichever color is desired for processing, however with the use of synthetic and chemical dyes, as well as the pesticide/herbicide residue from harvesting and production, the chemicals present in cotton fabrics can lead to harmful skin side effects and allergic reactions.
Hemp, on the other hand, can be harvested in different ways, allowing for it to be creamy white, brown, green, grey, or even black, naturally, without the use of any dyes whatsoever. Hemp can still be dyed to achieve the desired color, both naturally and artificially.
Being much more environmentally friendly than cotton, incredibly durable, and lasting a very long time without major wear-and-tear, it’s no wonder that hemp is becoming a very popular choice in clothing design and development.
Where Are the Hemp farms?
You may have noticed a lack of hemp farms here in the U.S. The reason for that, as many people know, is because hemp, or cannabis sativa, the close cousin of “marijuana”, a controlled psychoactive plant that has been banned and classified as illegal by most states and the federal government. Because the two plants are so similar visually, and because of the threat to the cotton industry (as well as many other industries that hemp could subvert) a campaign was launched back in the 1930s to demonize cannabis by causing a fear-induced panic among the population with propaganda and falsehoods. This was the beginning of the hemp versus cotton debate that still carries on today.
While there is much information on the “Hemp conspiracy” and many interpretations and opinions, the bottom line is simple enough; due to the overwhelming misinformation provided by the government and private industries, hemp was associated with marijuana and thus banned as well, even though hemp contains almost no THC, the psychoactive chemical present in marijuana.
Where do you stand on the hemp versus cotton debate? Let us know in the comments below!