The global market size of hemp fiber is expected to grow to $280 million by 2025 at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 5.1% throughout the forecast period.
As a significant jump from a market size of $190 million in 2018, the growth symbolizes a major improvement from the humble beginnings of the hemp textile industry. The hemp plant shares a deep history with mankind with uses cutting across all aspects of life.
To know more about the hemp clothing, let’s trace its rich history and explore its viability in the textile industry.
Where Did Hemp Fiber Come From?
Hemp is possibly the earliest plant grown by mankind for textile fiber. Archaeologists discovered remains of hemp clothing in Mesopotamia (currently Iraq and Iran) that dates back to 8000 BC.
It’s also believed that hemp was among the earliest incarnations of human industry. In the Sung Dynasty’s Chinese work dated 500AD (the Lu Shi), there are references to the Shen Nung Emperor, who in the 28th century BC, enlightened his people on the benefits of cultivating hemp for cloth.
Historians believe that hemp made its way to Europe in about 1,200 BC and later spread to the rest of the ancient world. China boasts of the longest history of hemp cultivation with over 6,000 years of use. France, Spain, and Chile have been growing the plant for at least 700 years to the present day.
When the Middle Ages came, hemp became an essential crop with immense social and economic value, providing the world with not just fiber, but also food and medicine. The manufacture of sailing ships largely depended on canvas (which is named after cannabis), oakum, and hemp rope because of its strength and incredible resistance to salty seawater.
In 1535, Henry VIII endorsed an act in the UK ordering all landowners to cultivate hemp on at least a quarter of an acre, or else face fines. At this time, hemp was the major crop, and retained this status up to the 1920s, when 80% of the clothing in the U.K. was made of hemp fiber.
As evidenced by Jacque Cartier’s 16th-century writings, hemp was grown in North America before the arrival of the Europeans. By the time the first Puritans set foot on Plymouth Rock, hemp had made its way to the continent and was growing in states such as Kentucky, New York, California, Utah, Texas, Virginia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Oregon.
The Fall of the Hemp Fiber Industry
Even though hemp largely contributed to early development in North America, cotton soon took over as the main fiber crop. While hemp was easier to grow than cotton, its harvesting and processing were very labor-intensive. The invention of the 18th-century mechanical cotton gin made cotton processing easier, and hemp could no longer compete as the main source of textile fiber.
Several years down the line, an American named George W. Shlichten invented and patented the new machine that could separate the internal wood core of hemp from the fiber to drastically reduce the labor costs of hemp processing and increase fiber yield.
While Shlichten’s invention helped hemp reclaim its status as the chief source of plant fiber, the U.S. government later imposed prohibitive taxes on the hemp industry in 1937. A year later, hemp production was banned completely, until World War II came along.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1942, America’s supply of imported hemp was cut off, and the government responded by lifting restrictions on hemp production. However, the initial ban remained intact post World War II.
Several amendments later, commercial cultivation of hemp was legalized at the federal level when the 2018 Farm Bill was approved.
Industrial Hemp Clothing Today: A New Niche to Explore
The legalization of commercial hemp cultivation has paved the way for textile industries to take advantage of its strong fiber.
However, is it any better than cotton and synthetic fiber?
Hemp Fiber vs. Cotton vs. Synthetic Fibers
To know which is the most reliable raw material in the textile industry, let’s compare the three materials:
Hemp is more sustainable to grow compared to cotton.
For starters, it requires less water than cotton. To produce two pounds of cotton fiber, growers use an excess of 20,000 liters of water. This amount of cotton can only make one t-shirt and a single pair of trousers.
On the other hand, you only need 300-500 liters of water to grow a similar amount of hemp matter. That’s not to mention the fact that hemp growers typically rely on rain, which reduces the need for irrigation systems.
Additionally, hemp requires less space because the plants are typically tall and thin. This means production per acre is higher since farmers can grow the crop densely without compromising on the yield. The same can’t be said for cotton.
Lastly, hemp requires fewer pesticides, herbicides, and chemical soil additives (on the contrary, it extracts dangerous harmful elements such as lead from the soil). It’s naturally a hardy plant that can grow well without a lot of maintenance and this minimizes the number of chemicals it needs to grow.
In stark contrast, cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases, which is more any other crop.
Synthetic fabrics rely heavily on fossil fuels during production. Polyester, for instance, can burn through millions of oil barrels in a year. Such energy-intensive production processes emit harmful greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide, which is way more harmful to the environment than the dreaded carbon (IV) oxide.
Industrial hemp clothing has a higher tensile strength than cotton. It’s also UV, anti-bacterial, and mold resistant, making it a better material for outdoors.
The only downside to industrial hemp clothing is comfort – the material can be a little rough on the skin. However, the fiber’s versatility allows manufacturers to solve this problem by blending it with other softer garments.
Should You Invest in Industrial Hemp Clothing?
With hemp now legal in the U.S., its use in the industrial hemp clothing is growing rapidly. Moreover, consumers are growing increasingly aware of the plant’s benefits, especially with the recent emphasis on sustainable alternatives.
So, if you’re looking to invest in the hemp textile industry, there’s never been a more opportune time than now.
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