Hemp clothing has gained popularity in recent years due to its sustainability and versatility. However, its history dates back centuries. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating history of hemp clothing in Australia and its journey from ancient times to the present day.
The Ancient History of Hemp
Hemp is an ancient textile and was one of the first cultivated fibre plants with archaeological records of its use tracing back to ancient civilisations in Northern China as early as 10,000 BC. Hemp has been used as an industrial fibre for thousands of years. Sailors used hemp rope for its strength in holding ships and sails. The coarseness of the fibre and its UV resistance, made hemp fibre useful for canvas, sailcloth, sacks, rope, and paper.
Hemp in Australia
In 1788, the first hemp seeds were brought to Australia during the early stages of British settlement. These seeds marked the beginning of hemp cultivation in the country. Hemp is a versatile plant that has been used for centuries for various purposes, including fibre production, food, and medicinal uses. The arrival of hemp seeds in Australia provided settlers with a valuable resource that could be utilised for a wide range of applications.
In the early 20th century, the perception of hemp clothing took a negative turn. The rise of synthetic fibres and cotton along with a smear campaign associating hemp with marijuana led to its decline. Hemp cultivation was heavily regulated and the production of hemp clothing became almost nonexistent. The stigma surrounding hemp hindered its growth in the textile industry for several decades.
In recent years, there has been a hemp revival as regulations on industrial hemp has lifted. To combat fast fashion and the irresponsible waste it produces, there has been a renewed interest in sustainable and eco-friendly clothing options. Hemp has emerged as a frontrunner in this movement and a sustainable alternative to cotton. The world is witnessing a revival of hemp clothing, with many brands [including us] incorporating it into their collections. However, hemp yarn is yet to be spun in Australia which means hemp fabric is still being imported into Australia.
The Environmental Benefits of Growing Hemp
Hemp grows best in warm tropical zones or in moderately cool, temperate climates. Hemp is an extremely fast growing crop, producing more fibre yield per acre than any other source. Hemp can produce 250% more fibre than cotton and 600% more fibre than flax using the same amount of land. The amount of land needed for obtaining equal yields of fibre place hemp at an economical advantage over other fibres and a sustainable fabric choice.
Hemp leaves the soil in excellent condition for any succeeding crop, especially when weeds may otherwise be troublesome making it a very effective rotational crop. Where the ground permits, hemp's strong roots descend up to two metres or more. The roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff, building and preserving topsoil and subsoil structures similar to those of forests. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Hemp plants shed their leaves all through the growing season, adding rich organic matter to the topsoil and helping it retain moisture. Farmers have reported excellent hemp growth on land that had been cultivated steadily for nearly 100 years.
Hemp Uses Less Water And Chemicals
The deep root system of industrial hemp helps the plant access water and nutrients from lower soil layers, making it relatively drought tolerant and capable of thriving in various environments. Additionally, hemp cultivation requires minimal chemical inputs compared to other crops, such as fertilisers and pesticides. This reduces the release of harmful chemicals into the environment, further contributing to the overall environmental benefits of hemp cultivation.
The production of hemp is carbon negative, which means it has the ability to absorb and store more carbon from the atmosphere during its growth than is emitted by the equipment used to harvest, process and transport it.
Hemp plants are known for their rapid growth and high biomass production, meaning they can capture large amounts of CO2 through photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, plants absorb CO2 and release oxygen, effectively reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Furthermore, its deep root system allows it to store carbon in the soil. When hemp plants die and decompose, the carbon they have absorbed remains in the soil, contributing to long-term carbon sequestration. This process helps mitigate climate change by reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is a major contributor to global warming.
A Variety Of Hemp Products
Once harvested, hemp can be used in a vast range of products over several industries. The hemp seed produces hemp seed oil which is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, making it a nutritious addition to diets and can be used to make products like hemp milk, protein powder, and cooking oil. Hemp oil is rich in antioxidants and is also gaining popularity within the skincare industry. In addition to the textile industry, hemp fibres are used to make various products, including rope, paper, plastic and building materials such as Hempcrete. Overall, the versatility of industrial hemp makes it a valuable resource for creating a variety of products.
How Hemp Textiles Are Made
Traditionally, the coarseness of hemp fibre restricted it from apparel. Hemp needed to be softened. Traditional methods to soften vegetable fibres used acids to remove lignin, a type of natural glue found in many plant fibres. While this method to remove lignin worked well with cotton or flax, it weakened the fibres of hemp and left them too unstable for use. Hemp therefore remained as an industrial fabric.
Hemp Is Grown to Maturity
Growing hemp for textiles is a highly efficient crop that farmers can cultivate in a relatively short period of time.
Hemp is typically grown for a short period of 70-90 days before it is ready to be harvested. The varieties chosen for fibre production usually reach a height of about two meters by the time harvest comes around. Tall varieties of industrial hemp are preferred for fibre is because the stalks are the valuable part of the plant that is harvested. The more bast, or inner bark, present in the crop, the greater the amount of fibre that can be obtained.
Hemp Is Harvested
Once fully grown, a combine is used to cut the hemp stalks, much like with any other crop. All hemp should be harvested approximately 10 cm above the ground to prevent cutting through hard woody portions and ensure that your cutting has as much of the fibrous stems as possible. Once the stalk is cut, the processing phase can begin.
Hemp Fibre is Processed
The process of retting hemp involves breaking down the plant's outer fibres to extract the long, strong fibres within. Traditionally, there are two main methods of retting: dew retting and water retting. Dew retting involves leaving the hemp stalks in the field for several weeks, allowing the moisture in the air to break down the fibres. This process relies on the natural bacteria and fungi present in the environment to decompose the plant material. Water retting, on the other hand, requires immersing the stalks in water, either in a pond or a tank, for a period of time. The water retting process also relies on the action of bacteria and fungi, but it is faster compared to dew retting. After retting, the hemp stalks are then dried and the fibres are separated from the woody core through a process called decortication. The fibres can then be further processed for various applications such as textiles, paper, or construction materials.
The hemp fibres are separated from the bark through a process called “retting”, which is decaying pectin that binds the hemp fibres to the core of the stem. You’ll also want to facilitate drying to reduce the potential for mould. It’s said that the retting process produces the highest quality fibre for textiles. Once the fibres are separated, they can be put through a decortication machine and turned into long, continuous strands with minimal amounts of harsh fibre.
During the mid 1980's, researchers made a significant advancement by developing an enzymatic process that effectively eliminated lignin from hemp fibre, while still maintaining its strength. This groundbreaking development allowed for the production of textiles for clothing using de-gummed hemp fiber alone or in combination with other fibers. As a result, hemp has become a prominent material in modern textile design and fashion. The benefits of this breakthrough are immense, considering the superiority of hemp compared to other fibres.
Hemp Fibre Spun Into Yarn
Once the harsher fibres have been removed, producers can use any traditional spinning equipment to turn the fibre into yarn. The spinning of hemp yarn takes place by twisting fibrous strands together to make a cohesive thread. Manufacturers can then use this thread in the same way that flax, cotton or other fibres can.
Why Wear Hemp Clothing?
Hemp fabric offers a multitude of benefits that make it stand out among other synthetic fabrics. Here are a few reasons for why hemp is a superior and sustainable choice for both the wearer and the environment.
Hemp Is Natural
Hemp is a natural plant fibre, derived from the stem of the Cannabis Sativa plant. It is not like synthetic fibres made from chemicals derived from petrochemicals. Instead, hemp is 100% biodegradable and compostable, making it an environmentally friendly choice.
Hemp Is Antibacterial & Anti-stink
Hemp fibres contain a substance called lignin, which has antimicrobial properties and helps to prevent the growth of bacteria on the fabric. This makes hemp clothes naturally resistant to odour causing bacteria and reduces the risk of bacterial infections. Additionally, hemp fibres are breathable and moisture-wicking, which helps to keep the skin dry and prevent the buildup of sweat and bacteria. Overall, the antibacterial properties of hemp clothes make them a popular choice for individuals with sensitive skin or those seeking clothes that are not only sustainable and eco-friendly but also promote good hygiene and comfort.
Hemp And Temperature Regulation
Did you know that hemp fabric keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer? Hemp fibres have excellent insulation properties, which means that they can trap air between the fibres, creating a layer of insulation that helps to retain body heat in colder temperatures. This insulation also works in reverse during the summer months, allowing air to circulate through the fabric and keeping the body cool by allowing heat to escape. Additionally, hemp fibres are highly breathable and have moisture-wicking properties, which helps to regulate body temperature by absorbing and releasing moisture. These unique qualities of hemp clothing make it a versatile and comfortable option for year-round wear.
Hemp Is Superior In Strength
Hemp is known for being one of the strongest natural fibres, in fact four times the strength of cotton, making it resistant to wear and tear. Hemp can resist stretching and breaking under pressure which helps maintain the shape and structure of the clothing over time.
The strength of hemp comes from the alignment and arrangement of its cellulose molecules, which are tightly packed together. This strong molecular structure allows hemp fibres to withstand more tension and pressure compared to other fibres like cotton or polyester.
Hemp fabrics are also resistant to mould, mildew, and UV rays, further contributing to their extended lifespan making hemp a great option for clothing and activewear.
Hemp Is UV Resistant
Hemp fibres naturally have a high level of UV resistance due to their dense and tightly woven structure. This means that hemp clothing can effectively block out harmful UV rays from the sun.
This UV resistance helps to protect the fabric from fading and deteriorating over time. As a result, hemp clothes tend to last longer compared to other fabrics that may be more susceptible to sun damage. So, if you are looking for hemp clothing in Australia that will stand the test of time and provide protection from the harsh sun, hemp clothes are a great option.
The Future Of Hemp Clothing Australia
The history of hemp clothing in Australia and the rest of the world is a testament to its resilience and versatility. From its ancient origins to its decline and subsequent revival, hemp culture is on a rapid rise and here to stay.
Today, Australian hemp clothing is gaining popularity among the fashion industry and environmentally conscious consumers. The demand for sustainable and ethical clothing has led to an increase in the cultivation of this super-fibre, providing economic benefits to farmers and promoting sustainable practices in the textile industry.
At ZONE by Lydia, we create activewear that is functional and planet-friendly. Most of our designs are gender neutral and are made for you to move, sweat, and relax in. We prioritise longevity and sustainability, using the perfect blend of luxe hemp and organic cotton that ages beautifully. We prioritise quality of quantity. The more you wear our clothing, the more you'll fall in love with it, reducing the need to constantly buy something new. It's incredibly comfortable, so much so that you won't want to wear anything else. Trust us, you'll be hooked.
We recently featured in Urban Biome's top 15 Sustainable Activewear Brands. Explore our range of sustainable Hemp clothing in Australia and experience the difference for yourself! Our range includes: Oversized Hemp Hoodies, Hemp Crew Sweaters, Hemp T-shirts and Tanks, Hemp Leggings, Hemp Bike Shorts, Hemp Sports Bras, & Hemp Joggers.