Could Canada’s Green Rush Include Hemp Clothing?

Fashion made from cannabis could reduce the industry’s environmental impact.

A field of tall, thin plants with thin, serrated leaves at sunset.
Photo by Matteo Paganelli via Unsplash

Industrial hemp plants grow 3–5 metres tall, allowing long fibres to be extracted from their stalks and made into textiles.

“Does it smell like marijuana?”

“Is it at all soft?”

“Does it scratch your skin?”

These are some of the questions people ask when I mention that my jacket is made from hemp fabric. Perhaps my favourite of all is: “Can you get high by wearing it?”

In brief: no, it doesn’t smell like marijuana. Yes, it’s somewhat soft, and no, not scratchy. You can’t get high from wearing hemp, but wouldn’t that be something!

Purchased two years ago from a boutique in Toronto’s west end, my boxy, earthy-brown hemp jacket had an above-average price tag thanks to its organic materials and “Made in the USA” label. I asked myself: Is it worth it? Can I afford it? Will I wear it? The salesperson, noticing my hesitation, gave me a persuasive pitch on hemp clothing: its durability, breathability, and tendency to get softer with age. They told me to see the jacket as an “investment piece,” both for my closet and the future of fashion. I was convinced.

The fashion industry has a sustainability problem. Its heavy use of land, water, and fossil fuels — combined with complex global supply chains and the pervasive use of chemicals in textile dyeing and processing — makes it one of the world’s major polluters. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the industry is the second biggest consumer of water and generates 20% of the world’s wastewater. Increased use of synthetic fibres derived from petroleum, like polyester, is making things worse, because their production emits more greenhouse gasses than cotton’s.

One way for fashion to lessen its impacts is to invest in alternative processes and materials, like hemp.

One way for fashion to lessen its impacts is to invest in alternative processes and materials, like hemp. Many news organizations and blogs have written about its potential — the Toronto Star called it an “up-and-coming sustainable superstar.” Major brands like Stella McCartney, Patagonia, and Levi’s have included hemp textiles in recent collections.

While hemp could indeed contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry, increasing its presence in our closets is easier said than done. In theory, Canada could lead the way to this greener fashion era — hemp is one of the few fibre crops that can grow in our climate, and we grow a lot of it. But we’re a long way from having the necessary infrastructure to grow, process, and manufacture hemp textiles on a global scale.

Fashion may market hemp as a new material, but the earliest hemp cloth found by archaeologists dates back to 8000 BCE. And it’s not like making fabric from hemp was a lost art. Dr. Jan Slaski, a long-time hemp researcher, told me about growing up in Poland, where cannabis was grown for centuries to make into clothing and cordage. “My dream was to own a nylon T-shirt,” he says. “That was the coolest thing a young kid could have. Nobody dreamt of having a hemp shirt because everyone was already wearing them.”

But while Slaski and his peers were wearing hemp, kids in North America were not. It was illegal to grow any kind of cannabis in Canada between 1938 and 1998. Similarly, the US effectively banned the cultivation of cannabis from 1937 until 2018. Cultivation of industrial hemp was banned in some European countries during the 20th century, but never all of them.

Industrial hemp is the same species — Cannabis sativa — as recreational marijuana. The primary difference is that marijuana contains up to 30% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the principal compound that gets people high), whereas hemp contains no more than 0.3% THC.

Nobody dreamt of having a hemp shirt because everyone was already wearing them.

They also look and grow differently. Hemp plants cultivated for fibre are slender and grow 3–5 metres tall, so that long fibres can be extracted from their stalks. Marijuana plants are short and bushy, as are hemp varieties cultivated for cannabidiol (CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid garnering attention for its therapeutic uses), which is derived from the plants’ flowering heads and leaves. The most common hemp cultivars in Canada are grown as a grain (to use in food or to press for oil).They are narrow and grow up to two metres. Dual-purpose varieties also exist that allow both grain and fibre to be extracted from the same plant.

Since decriminalizing its cultivation in 1998, Canada has become a major hemp producer. In 2019 a total of 37,435 hectares of hemp were planted in Canada, an increase of about 6,000 hectares from 2018. But little of that is for textiles. “I would guesstimate that this year about 80–85% of the acres will be devoted to grain,” Slaski tells me, “while fibre and CBD account for the rest.”

Given all that Canadian hemp cultivation, I wonder: why wasn’t my jacket labeled “Made in Canada”?

Hemp as a crop has numerous environmental benefits. It revives unhealthy soil by “vacuuming” out heavy metals, pesticides, or radioactive materials. It yields more fibre per area cultivated than either cotton or flax. Hemp’s deep and robust root system allows for growth with minimal rain. And it requires no pesticides and minimal fertilizer (if any at all). “I never sprayed my crop,” says Danyka Dunseith, a first-generation hemp farmer located in Stratford, ON. “That’s the amazing thing about hemp — it wants to grow and it will grow regardless of the terrain.”

While hemp is indeed forgiving, it requires proper management to yield a commercially viable crop. “If you put hemp seeds in the ground in your garden, and leave it without watering or anything, it will grow,” says Slaski, who works at InnoTech Alberta, a provincially funded research institute. “But it will be one fifth or one tenth of what it will be capable of delivering.” Along with his team in Vegreville, AB, Slaski steers a processing facility developing hemp fibre applications. He also holds field days to educate potential hemp farmers on how to successfully manage the crop.

To understand why a Canadian hemp textile industry didn’t immediately blossom in 1998, it helps to understand how the plant is made into fabric. Hemp stalks (also called straw) contain two types of fibre: bast and hurd, which can be extracted from the same stalk. Sturdier bast is derived from the outer layer, and hurd consists of the shorter, finer fibres of the central woody core. Absorbent hurd accounts for about half the stalk and can be used as animal bedding, building materials, and garden mulch. Bast — with its strength and mildew-resistance — is suitable for textiles, paper, and rope, and can make up between 10 and 40% of the stalk.

Original illustration by Annika Flores

“It would be a shame, or economically unfeasible, or plainly stupid, if [Canada] wouldn’t develop applications for both types of fibres,” says Slaski.

The first step in converting hemp stalks to textile fibres is “retting,” letting stalks rot to loosen the bonds between fibres. The second step, decortication, is a mechanical process that breaks the stalks to separate bast from hurd. Next comes scutching: broken stems are beaten to extract remaining bits of hurd. Degumming removes sticky pectin and lignin from the fibre. Hackling, one of the final steps, is the process of combing the bast in preparation for spinning. Only after all this is it ready to be spun into a yarn, and eventually woven or knit into fabric.

Some of this process is currently happening in Canada. Québec-based Eko-Terre — a sister company of major uniform-maker, Logistik Unicorp — specializes in the sustainable development of natural textile fibres. In 2011, Sustainable Development Technology Canada — a federal funding body — committed over C$1 million to Logistik, some of which has funded Eko-Terre’s research into the best conditions for cultivating hemp for textiles in Canada, how to decorticate it, and other processes for converting straw to textile fibre.

It would be a shame, or plainly stupid, if Canada wouldn’t develop applications for both types of hemp fibres.

“Processing hemp is very expensive,” comments Dr. Carlos Agudelo, Eko-Terre’s chief operating officer, “and it is very difficult for us because we have to create a reliable supply chain in order to start investing in more processes here in Canada.”

Agudelo and his team have developed pilot plants for decortication and refinement. Degumming, he tells me, is currently outsourced internationally. In the last two years, Eko-Terre has processed more than 2,000 metric tonnes of hemp, and plans to grow to “at least 14,000 tonnes of straw in the coming years.” Meanwhile, Agudelo tells me, China produces more than ten times that in a year, though official numbers are hard to come by.

“The textile market is the most demanding in terms of fibre quality,” says InnoTech’s Slaski. Within a hemp stalk, the bast and hurd are connected by sticky carbohydrates like pectin. For high-quality textiles, these fibres need to be thoroughly washed and separated.

“Once you remove these sticky parts, you have a cotton-like fibre,” says Agudelo. Additional treatment processes can make the fibre even softer, though it’s not always necessary.

Hemp for fibre is cultivated in several provinces, but plants in northern Alberta grow taller and yield more fibre due to the area’s extended summer daylight hours. Day length is particularly important because, as daylight decreases, the plant begins to flower, after which fibres become more coarse. Agudelo tells me that Eko-Terre plans to contract 10,000 hectares of hemp for textile fibre in Alberta in the coming years, and install their first industrial-scale processing lines for decortication and refinement.

Consumer interest will be a crucial factor in any potential hemp fashion boom. And shoppers do seem ready. In a 2020 survey of close to 19,000 consumers around the world, nearly six in 10 respondents said environmental impact is an important factor in their purchasing decisions.

One brand hoping to reach those shoppers is Ontario-based Immortelle. Founded in 2020 by Aneta Sofronova, Immortelle currently makes small batches of loungewear, naturally dyed bucket hats, and soon-to-launch jumpsuits, mostly from hemp fabrics.

After earning her Bachelor of Design in fashion from Ryerson University in Toronto, Sofronova landed a job she loved at the Hudson’s Bay Company. But for years after, she worked with brands that didn’t align with her values, which led her to “completely lose interest in the industry.” She stepped away from fashion to focus on improving her health.

“I started becoming health conscious” she says, crediting this period for her return to fashion. “I decided it had to be healthy through and through,” she says, and resolved to work only with natural materials and dyes.

Sofronova is originally from Moldova, and before founding Immortelle had no idea her project had a family connection. “When I told my mom I wanted to work with hemp,” she says, “I was told how she and my grandma would grow it and do the retting process in the river.”

Your natural garment has a chance of biodegrading, whereas a polyester garment becomes a contaminant.

Sourcing hemp fabrics is not as easy or sustainable as Sofronova would like it to be. “I have a supplier in BC that imports from China,” she says, lamenting the carbon footprint of that process, and wishing she could find Canadian-processed hemp. “Right now I have to work with what I find.”

Immortelle’s garments — like hemp clothes from brands including Patagonia and T-shirt maker Jungmaven — are mostly made from hemp-cotton blends, which are softer than 100% hemp fabric. “You can have hemp on its own, there’s nothing wrong with it,” says Dr. Anika Kozlowski, a professor of fashion design, ethics, and sustainability at Ryerson. “It just depends what properties you want your end product to have.”

Pure hemp’s stiffness makes it a “harder sell,” adds Sofronova, so it’s blended to make it more “palatable” to shoppers.

Kozlowski would like this to change. “Maybe if we used it in different ways,” she says, “It would expand our understanding and use of [hemp] outside of how it’s been branded.” Unblended hemp could be used to make structured jackets and pants, she tells me, rather than loungewear or T-shirts.

Whether consumers are ready for unblended hemp or not, Kozlowski welcomes the fact that hemp is making its way into garments. “The industry needs to diversify its material pool,” she says. “Your natural garment has a chance of biodegrading… Whereas a polyester garment does not live well in our current ecology — it becomes a contaminant.”

In addition to reducing harmful waste, investing in hemp textiles would allow for shorter fashion supply chains. In 2010, Rebecca Burgess — a weaver and natural dyer from San Geronimo in northern California — set herself a one-year challenge of developing a personal wardrobe using only fibres, labour, and dyes sourced within a 240 kilometre radius from her home. Her success in creating a regional natural-fibre supply chain inspired her to found the nonprofit Fibershed.

Since its creation, Fibershed has grown into an international grassroots network, including four locations across Canada. Chapters operate mostly with wool, but the problems they’re trying to address affect other natural fibres. Jane Underhill is the president of Toronto’s Upper Canada Fibreshed (note Canadian spelling), and hopes to see a natural-fibre manufacturing sector develop in Canada. “There’s the myth that natural fibres are too expensive,” says Underhill. “That it costs too much to manufacture them in Canada. That Canada can’t bring back a manufacturing sector. All those old-school beliefs. We know that those aren’t true.”

“If we want to support local clothing and local fibre, we have to be willing to purchase clothing at a higher price,” says Kozlowski. But she cautions against blaming shoppers who purchase fast fashion, instead questioning the lack of “sustainable affordable versions.”

If we want to support local clothing and local fibre, we have to be willing to purchase clothing at a higher price.

Canada’s increase in hemp cultivation signals that a market for hemp-derived products is growing. But there are still several hurdles to overcome in the fashion realm. Limited production, high material cost, and competition with dominant materials like cotton and polyester create significant barriers to hemp going mainstream.

“I don’t think hemp will ever be as widespread as cotton,” says Agudelo. He does believe hemp could take a sizable share of the textile market, but it will take “many many years.”

Likening hemp clothing to pricier sustainable choices like organic food, he says “it’s not for everybody.” Still, Agudelo argues, “When you believe you have to reduce your footprint and have a sustainable garment, you should use hemp.”

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