By Melissa Hutsell
The World’s Oldest Textile may Prove to be the Fabric of the Future
Hemp isn’t a ground-breaking material, but the ancient plant is revolutionizing one of the world’s most wasteful industries.
This summer, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. For this reason and more, fighting global climate change has become a priority for some fashion brands.
“The fashion industry, including the production of all clothes which people wear, contributes to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production,” reports the United Nations (UN). “The industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined.”
The alarming reality is motivating many to shift to hemp for a low-carbon future.
Hemp is one of the first plants cultivated by humans for use as a textile. Thanks to prohibition, however, cannabis-derived goods all but disappeared from the modern marketplace. Now, as the cannabis movement gains momentum—and average global temperatures continue to rise—hemp is making a comeback as high-end and boutique brands combine the fabric with modern technologies to develop sustainable styles.
Hemp is an innovative fabric, says Kenneth Smith, owner of Hempy’s—a globally distributed sustainable clothing and accessories company based in San Diego.
Hempy’s is one of the longest-running hemp clothing companies in operation in the U.S., says Smith. All styles are designed in house, and inspired by the company’s eco-friendly mission.
Innovative fabrics “do more for us,” explains Smith. More for the environment, more for our bodies. As a textile, hemp’s versatile properties make it a novelty. Not only does it require less water to produce and has a notably lower carbon footprint than cotton; hemp is durable, anti-bacterial, and UV and mold resistant, too.
“Ironically, one of the oldest fibers known to man is still today innovative,” says Smith.
|Did you Know: From seed to stock, the entire hemp plant can be used. What distinguishes hemp from “weed” is its THC content; hemp is defined as having a THC content of 0.3% percent or less. The 2018 Farm Bill effectively legalized hemp on a federal level.
There are tens of thousands of uses for hemp—and counting. Modern research published in the American Chemical Society (ACS), for example, shows hemp fibers can be utilized to conduct—and store—electricity.
Hemp fabric has plenty of uses beyond fashion, explains Smith. “Humans have used hemp for more than 9,000 years. I think this next wave of technology mixing with hemp fibers [will allow for] all sorts of innovations.” Maybe not in the clothing industry per say, he adds, but definitely in an industrial sense.
From cars to electronics, hemp fabric is used everywhere—including in BMWs. The company began using it in its i3 electric car, beginning in 2013. According to The Atlantic, “the car maker [lines] the door panels with hemp, as part of an interior design apparently aimed at making the i3′s drivers feel closer to nature and less likely to drain the battery in a speed-freak fit.”
Smith is excited to see how the hemp industry will develop in the U.S., especially after the passage of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, which legalized hemp federally. “Hemp has a bright future,” he adds, “we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface [of what this plant can do].”
Smith is sure hemp will be adapted as a smart fiber in the future (‘what if its fibers could be used to detect changes in body temperature? Or heal wounds?’ he wonders), but he believes industrial hemp production in the U.S. will likely focus on CBD rather than fibers for clothing. Simply put, other countries—China, for instance—have existing industries and the infrastructure needed to scale.
“Hemp is not an easy plant to work with,” Smith says. “It’s a four-to-five step process to take hemp from plant to finished fabrics.”
Due to federal illegality, there’s little to no existing facilities or systems in place to complete this process. This is why Hempy’s, and many other hemp-clothing companies source or import fabrics from Asia and/or Europe (and also why these products can be pricey). The industry is far more advanced in these regions, Smith explains, as companies use state-of-the-art methods and machinery to create new blends of fabrics—many of which are eco-friendly.
Hemp on it’s own has a rough, canvas-y texture. Mixing it with other material—like organic cotton—can enhance comfort. Outerknown, and Levi’s—who’s factories are mainly overseas—have collaborated to create a collection of clothing released this Spring using cottontized hemp. According to Levis’ Off the Cuff website, “The innovative process softens the fiber—using very little energy or chemical processing—to make it look, and more importantly feel, almost indistinguishable from cotton.”
Smith says the U.S. will build its own industrial hemp industry, and supply chain—but it will take time, and investment.
Leading the charge in the U.S. are enterprises such as Alkhemist by James Jeans. The vertically integrated lifestyle brand produces CBD-infused wellness goods and a sustainable clothing line that incorporates hemp.
The line introduces what the company dubs “hempleisure,” or luxury comfort apparel. One of the collection’s highlights is “jeans made from cannabis,” as Sportswear International reports.
|Benefits of hemp in jeans, according to Alkhemist:
The percentage of hemp in Alkhemist jeans, and other garments varies from 20-60 percent. That’s intentional, says James Chung, co-founder of Alkhemist. “We’re re-introducing ourselves to hemp.”
The varying percent of hemp content also allows the fabrics to better complement designs. “With certain styles, heavier hemp is beneficial,” Chung explains.
Alkhemist uses all parts of the hemp plant in their products. The flowers, grown from proprietary strains, are used for medicinal purposes. The rest—stems, leaves, etc.—will be converted into pulps (and used to eventually make fabric, paper, plastics and more).
“One-hundred percent is going to have an end-use,” says Chung. “That’s really the ellipse of sustainability; To sustain, we can’t waste more than we use.”
Alkhemist is the first entity to be licensed and certified for cannabis cultivation in the City of Los Angeles. The company plans to grow their own cannabis in their state-of-the-art indoor facility in LA. There are also plans to develop Alkhemist Palmdale, a 320-acre outdoor hemp cultivation facility, and one of the state’s firsts. Both will be organic operations.
Alkhemist has partnered with Octo LED to create a lighting system specifically for cannabis cultivation, explains Chung.
Indoor cultivation requires powerful lighting systems—but because cannabis cultivation remained illegal until a few years ago, growers had to use the light sources available—none of which were intended for cannabis.
Chung describes existing lighting systems as “blazing bright stadium lights.” These high pressure sodium lighting fixtures satisfy yield requirements, but they emit excessive heat radiation.
So, they developed a new, more energy-efficient kind of light force, Chung says, “which produces light intensity, yet doesn’t produce heat radiation.”
Alkhemist is also poised to enter the hemp-paper industry. Chung says the company is investing in an old paper pulp company, and retrofitting the facility to process hemp. He hopes the investment will open the door to engage with other businesses in and outside of the cannabis space.
In the meantime, Alkhemist just launched its line of women’s clothing, which includes several styles of pants—skinny, cargo, boyfriend jeans, etc— jackets, shorts, and tops.
Chung brings a devoted denim fanbase with him to Alkhemist. The lawyer-turned-fashion guru launched his first clothing company, James Jeans, in 2003. He transitioned into fashion from the justice system after he took a one-year sabbatical to launch James Jeans. To his surprise, the line of premium denim was “a big hit.”
The company sold more than a half million pairs of jeans during their first year of operation. Oprah rated James Jeans “best jeans” for every body type. The brand has been seen sported by Kim Kardashian West, Paris Hilton, and more. Fans of the brand also include Rashida Jones and Mandy Moore, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Chung then pursued Traditional Chinese Medicine—which he continues to practice—before co-founding James Jeans’ daughter brand, Alkhemist, alongside business partner Conrad Yun in 2018.
There are many parallels between wellness, and fashion, says Chung. The Western world is only beginning to catch up on the use of cannabis in both.
Fashion and wellbeing are the ultimate yin and yang, Chung explains. “[…] One propels the other,” he adds. “Alchemist was initially born to tap into this.”
Chung hopes the company will spotlight “all things hemp can do,” he says. By utilizing all aspects of the plant, even through fashion, the company is going full circle. From seed, to stock, to flower to leave, “there’s not a single part you [should] throw away. This is the one plant that’s gonna prolong humanity.”