By Betsy Dudash, Sustainable Wenatchee board member
I’ve been obsessed with hemp for several months. No, not the kind you smoke (not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that)—the kind you wear. Industrial hemp is the same species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but has a much lower percentage of THC, the psychoactive compound. According to the Ecological Agriculture Projects at McGill University, hemp has many environmental benefits, including: requiring basically no pesticides, a deep, extensive root system that makes it relatively drought-tolerant, taking up soil nutrients that then become available to subsequent crops if it’s dried in the field, and producing more biomass per acre than other crops, even with a short growing season.
Hemp was a legal crop in the U.S. in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Until the late 1800s, 75-90% of all paper was made using hemp fiber, and until the 1820s hemp was used in up to 80% of textiles and fabrics. The production of industrial hemp in this country had been banned from 1937 until recently. The federal farm bill of 2014 allowed the agricultural production of hemp on an experimental basis. The 2018 farm bill finally made commodity production of hemp legal again, and by February 2019 the U.S. had become the third largest producer of hemp in the world. Hemp produced on a large scale has many uses. It could replace 40-70% of the tree pulp used in paper production; hemp paper can also be recycled more times than tree-pulp paper. Hemp seeds can produce heating oil and a nutrition-packed seed cake for farm animals or people. “Hempcrete,” a lime-hemp fiber mixture, is now being used as a carbon-neutral substitute for concrete. Hemp is also starting to be used in composites that could become viable alternatives to plastic.
Now, at last, we get to the core of my obsession: hemp clothing. Hemp produces a fiber that is both strong--even when wet--and soft. In fact, hemp gets softer the more you wash it. Hemp fabrics are also lightweight, breathable, and water- and mold-resistant. Hemp clothing, once a specialty item, has become more widely available. You can find it at Performance Footwear here in Wenatchee. Hemp is ideal for someone like me, who tends to be uncomfortable during hot weather. My obsession started with a couple of secondhand hemp t-shirts. I then found some used hemp-organic cotton pants. During last summer’s heat, I splurged on some past-season hemp-organic cotton shorts and only wore other shorts when they were in the laundry.
The more hemp I wear, and the more I learn about it, the more I’m determined to replace worn-out clothes with hemp versions. I even bought hemp-organic cotton jersey fabric to make some items I can’t find or can’t afford. I love that hemp clothing is guilt-free, because what we buy and wear matters. If you’re not convinced, please join Sustainable Wenatchee at the Wenatchee Valley Museum on Tuesday, February 4, at 7 p.m. to watch “The True Cost,” a story about the human and environmental costs of our clothing.