We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.
Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.
But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is a far inferior choice to any Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a certified fabric versus one that is not certified, because certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or other dred diseases which can affect you in ways ranging from subtle to profound. The choice of GOTS also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!
Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:
First, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.
Retting (or, really, rotting) is the microbial decomposition of the pectins which bind the fibers to the woody inner core of the plant stem. The old system of water or snow retting has given way to chemical retting, which in turn often shortens – which means weakens – the fibers. These short fibers are said to have been “cottonized” since cotton fibers are only about 1.5 inches long.
It’s important to note that there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers – they both have similar properties. Hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.
In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax. So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Long fibers translate into inherently more resilient and therefore durable yarns. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is generally 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:
- The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
- Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water. Linen on the other hand is non-allergenic and insect-repellent.
- Hemp is the most highly resistant natural fiber to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight. Linen too has excellent resistance to UV rays.
- Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.
The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena.
Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated. Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp! But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land. This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.
Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition. Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.
The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields. We have no idea why this is so. And finding organic hemp is becoming almost impossible, because hemp is usually grown by subsistence farmers who are loath to pay certification fees.
Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’. The number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn. In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with a double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together into cloth. Or not.
But in general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:
- Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
- Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times stronger) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk!), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric. The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
- Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
- Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
- Both hemp and linen breathe – they release moisture back into the atmosphere and do not retain water.
- Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
- Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
- Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
- Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
- Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
- Both hemp and linen biodegrade.
The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants. The certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.