Move over, cotton: Hemp is here to challenge your throne. Now that hemp is no longer considered an illicit drug, fabric manufacturers are figuring out how to turn this notoriously scratchy fiber into soft, ultracomfy clothing. It’s showing up in T-shirts, shorts, fleeces, jackets, hats and even shoes. Even better? Hemp’s sustainability scorecard makes it one of the most environmentally friendly options for apparel.
Until recently, U.S. laws complicated the use of hemp—which, like marijuana, is a cannabis plant. But hemp contains no more than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive THC that gets people high (marijuana, meanwhile, contains five to 20 percent THC). So after a long time coming, the Agriculture Improvement Act finally removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act in December 2018, opening up its use in everything from animal feed to textiles.
That’s a good thing for apparel brands because the plant grows fast (requiring as few as 108 days to harvest, compared to 150 to 180 days for cotton). It also needs relatively little water—so while cotton demands abundant irrigation, hemp can get by on rainwater alone. Moreover, hemp requires very few pesticides and fertilizers, yet yields 250 percent more fiber per acre than cotton.
“Its deep root system has even been credited with being restorative, bringing minerals and nutrients up from deep in the ground,” says John Rapp, senior clothing designer for Patagonia. “Hemp is much less taxing on the topsoil and environment as compared to other popular crops that are grown for apparel use. If more manufacturers adopt this fiber, our footprint will continue to decrease.”
Luckily, many manufacturers are. For spring 2019, Toad&Co used hemp in 15 percent of its line. REI Co-op featured it in 20 percent of its sportswear, including the new natural-fibers Westerlands pieces. prAna had hemp in 61 styles. Patagonia debuted an expansive hemp collection that includes breezy sundresses as well as burly coveralls. And after dabbling with hemp in fall 2017, Astral expanded its line of hemp-based water shoes with three new spring 2019 models.
New manufacturing techniques are even allowing brands to turn hemp’s stiff, fibrous stalks into something soft enough for human hides. In March 2019, Levi’s debuted a buttery denim made of hemp and cotton, and the company is aiming for an all-hemp version within five years. prAna’s Cardiff fabric (which blends hemp with recycled polyester and Tencel) is soft enough to sleep on, and the fleece version (used in the Norcross Crew Fleece Sweater) is as fluffy-cozy as any classic sweatshirt.
Hemp is also antimicrobial—resistant to odors—and more durable than other alternatives, so it will be popping up in heavier-duty work wear and trail clothes. (Autumn Clark, a product designer for the Co-op, says REI will look into introducing the fiber into its trail collections in future seasons.) Still, even basic T-shirts benefit from hemp’s longer lifespan, since garments that stay wearable stay out of landfills.
Plus, it has a distinctive slubbed texture that apparel designers love. “It adds an interesting visual texture to the fabric blends we create with it,” says Andrea Cinque-Austin, prAna’s design director. In prAna’s Vaha Short, hemp makes the fabric look more sophisticated than your typical workout wear, while also mitigating body heat and odor.
Hemp’s popularity shows no sign of slowing down. While the fiber’s early adopters state that they intend to ramp up their use of hemp in 2020, additional brands are joining the movement: In spring 2020, Smartwool will introduce men’s pieces that blend Merino wool with polyester and hemp (look for the Everyday Exploration Short Sleeve Henley and Everyday Exploration Pocket Tee in select REI stores and on rei.com next April).
“We’re pursuing innovation through natural performance fibers because our goal is to become more sustainable,” says Andi Burch, Smartwool’s product line manager for apparel. “Using hemp helps us reach that goal.”