Hemp, a fiber widely believed to be used to make the first Levi’s jean, is experiencing a renaissance across the denim industry. However, at Bluezone in Munch, Germany, leaders with firsthand hemp experience also examined how the imperfect, yet sustainable fiber is challenging them to innovate.
The environmental benefits of hemp alone are worth a closer look by the denim industry and they are among the reasons why Karachi, Pakistan-based denim mill Naveena introduced the fiber in its production.
Hemp, the mill notes, does not use pesticides, requires roughly 70 percent less water to cultivate than cotton and is fast growing. Additionally, hemp production per acre can be twice as large as cotton production.
Naveena is in its first season of making hemp denim and is experimenting with hemp blends, mixing the fiber with Tencel and Repreve recycled polyester. The idea, according to Naveena executive director Rashid Iqbal, is to offer brands a variety of ways to use the fiber in their collections. For instance, a weft made with hemp gives denim an authentic and imperfect character, while a Tencel warp gives it the hand consumers expect from contemporary denim, he said.
The scratchy and coarse feeling of hemp poses a challenge for denim, especially when comfort and softness are key selling points. However, the industry is overcoming this challenge with cottonized hemp.
Levi’s threw its support behind cottonized hemp last year when it debuted the fiber in its collaboration with Outerknown. Using very little energy, the process softens the fiber to make it look and feel nearly indistinguishable from cotton. Levi’s uses Candiani’s blend of 70 percent hemp and 30 percent cotton.
This blend, coupled with Levi’s WaterLess practices and laser finishing, serves as an example of how the mainstreaming of hemp denim relies on all pieces of the supply chain coming together, said Simon Giuliani, Candiani Denim global marketing director.
If hemp is going to be a part of a brand’s sustainable story, it cannot come with a caveat that consumers will have to sacrifice comfort. Cottonized hemp, Giuliani added, is the denim industry’s attempt to “bring a better alternative that does not compromise the hand feel and aesthetic too much.”
It is the “evolved” way of using the fiber in denim because it also allows brands to add stretch, he added.
However, hemp is a natural fit for selvedge denim brands. “It interests the guys who look for authentic denim and who are ready to accept a compromise in comfort in favor of authenticity and roughness,” Giuliani said. “A regular consumer does not do that.”
Hemp denim is also a better product for consumers that value unique items.
Orta Anadolu’s journey with cottonized hemp is just beginning. The Turkish denim mill introduced the product about a year and a half ago and soon realized that maintaining a standard of quality is a challenge.
Though Orta uses the same hemp supplier for all of its fabrics, Zennure Danisman, Orta’s marketing and washing manager, said the fibers’ physical properties are varied and have different humidity and moisture ratios.
These parameters can change bale to bale, she said, meaning one large order may have uncontrollable inconsistencies.
Supply and demand
In an effort to source locally, Candiani uses hemp from Belgium and France. But as the fiber becomes a more relevant part of the mill’s production, Giuliani said it is working with Italian farmers to create regenerative farming with hemp.
Growing hemp is not without its own set of challenges. Hemp requires specific machinery to harvest it. “It’s a whole industry that you have to set up,” he said.
While the passage of 2018 Farm Bill in the U.S. is expected to lift the industrial hemp market to $10.6 billion by 2025, according to data from Grand View Research, it is not possible to blend all cotton with hemp. There’s simply not enough supply, Danisman said.
“All it takes is one or two really large brands to jump on [the hemp trend], and then we really have a problem,” said Mohsin Sajid, Endrime creative director.
But that would be a good problem to deal with, Iqbal noted.
“The moment that demand goes high, there will be more harvesting and the price would improve,” he said.
As with most sustainable alternatives, hemp is pricey. Iqbal said cottonized hemp costs $6 per yard.
At a time when clients are asking mills to skim two and three cents off per yard, introducing a pricier fabric is always a risk. But in order to make hemp denim a win-win for everybody, Giuliani said it will require brands to have a strong commitment to sustainability and effective communication to consumers.
“If it’s communicated well then I’m sure people will be willing to spend more,” he said.
Case in point, Candiani’s new biodegradable Coreva Stretch Technology, is expensive, but Giuliani said brands have no issue with paying for it because it is easy to understand and communicate. Hemp is not there yet but it’s on a good path. And if more brands see the opportunities that come with hemp, he said the price will come down.
And price isn’t stopping Candiani from further developments in its hemp program. Giuliani hinted that Candiani is testing a hemp blend with the biodegradable stretch technology.
Orta is creating hemp fabrics infused with CBD. “It’s expensive, but it’s also good to show how you can create valuable fabrics with new ingredients,” Danisman said.
However, Jeanologia’s project lead Jean Pierre Inchauspe said price should not be the biggest factor right now, as the fiber in denim is still in its early stages.
“We’re talking about something that we’re just starting to rework,” Inchauspe said. “No matter the price, we should still work to improve production, quality, the necessary machinery to work with hemp.”
“After all, many times the cheapest fabric is the most expensive for our planet,” he added.