When the 2018 Farm Bill was passed last October, many observers expected it would lead to a boom in all things hemp-related, including the demand for hemp clothing. However, few predicted the challenges that suppliers would face in meeting this demand — and so far, those challenges have prevented hemp clothes from living up to the hype.
Hemp has always been a remarkably versatile plant, and clothes made from the plant have been around for as long as humans have chosen to cover up. In fact, one of the oldest relics of human civilization is a piece of hemp fabric that historians have dated back to 8,000 BC. The breathability, durability, and versatility of the fibers from the plant made it a natural clothing material that even our oldest ancestors knew to use. In the years since, though, hemp clothes largely went out of fashion.
Today, demand is on the rise again — but now it’s the lack of supply that’s keeping hemp clothes from going mainstream. As reported in UPI, there’s only one company that processes hemp fiber in the 48 contiguous states, and even they can’t find enough hemp to keep the machines whirring. “Right now, we can’t get enough of the raw material to process,” said the company’s supply chain director.
That’s put a major damper on the burgeoning hemp textiles trend, which has attracted waves of interested customers lately. A number of brands — such as WAMA, Seeker, and Jungmaven — have sprouted up recently in an attempt to take advantage of America’s newfound interest in hemp. But until there’s a way to guarantee a bigger, steadier supply of the fabric, they’re facing an uphill battle to reach a mass audience.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that American farmers have more than quadrupled the amount of hemp that they’re growing, from 27,424 acres in 2018 to 128,320 acres today. Unfortunately for hemp clothing enthusiasts, the vast majority of farmers have chosen to grow the variety of hemp used to produce CBD, not the variety that’s useful for making clothing, according to Quartz.
One of the issues holding potential hemp farmers back is the fact that the crop requires large-scale planting in order to be profitable. Experts say that at least 50 acres is needed in order to turn a decent profit, which makes it risky to those considering it.
Those that do decide to take the risk are faced with many difficulties, from raising the necessary funds to securing the necessary equipment. “The special machinery needed to process hemp stalks for fiber is not readily available throughout the U.S.,” as farming expert Brian Barth wrote for Modern Farmer.
Even for farmers who do manage to set aside 50 acres for hemp farming and get their hands on the machinery they need, there’s another hurdle to face: How to sell their crop to an industry that doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to process it.
As Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at clothing brand Patagonia, told The Guardian, ““The U.S. has not had a modern textile industry in hemp or even linen. To do the work in the U.S. is a long road because we have to develop the entire industry: from growing it to processing it to weaving it into a finished fabric.”
Since most American fabric mills were eventually shut down in the early 20th century, many businesses have had to import their hemp fabrics from China, where most of the world’s hemp is grown. The added costs associated with importing fabric drive up the cost of production, making hemp clothes more expensive and adding yet another barrier to their widespread adoption.
Developing this infrastructure on American soil — especially at scale, and in centralized locations — will likely prove to be a long-term challenge, since the process of turning hemp stalks into weavable fabric is a daunting one. The stalks must be partially decomposed, then crushed, de-gummed, and combed before it can finally be spun. Right now, each step in the process tends to be carried out by a different company in a different location, making it excessively complicated, time-consuming, and costly.
There’s quite a lot of money to be made in solving this particular problem, and it’s likely only a matter of time before some bold entrepreneur with a vision — and lots of venture capital — makes a bid to do so. In the meantime, though, you’re unlikely to find hemp jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies taking over your local mall. As with hemp wood, hemp plastic, and many other hemp-derived products, there’s a long way to go before clothes made from the plant are economically feasible.