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New Farm Bill Could Represent New High for Hemp Textiles

Hemp has a reputation as a bohemian, earthy alternative to cotton or linen. For many, mentioning hemp clothing brings to mind loose-fitting pants and scratchy tunic tops, all in a dull, unappealing color palette.

However, hemp has made some entrées into contemporary apparel that don’t bring to mind ’60s counterculture; like bamboo fiber, hemp is known for a porosity and strength that make it great for breathable outdoor wear. Beyond that, though, hemp hasn’t been a huge factor in the U.S. textile market, primarily because of regulations preventing the growth of cannabis.

The farm bill signed into law at the end of 2018 could drastically change that.

The bill legalized the growth of hemp in the United States, and analysts predict that the hemp market, currently valued at around $800 million, will be worth $20 billion by 2022.

Sue Welch, CEO at retail tech company Bamboo Rose, says the potential size of the hemp market is especially exciting for leaders in the apparel industry.

“Everyone in apparel is talking about how you can innovate with fabrics and differentiate yourself from the market,” said Welch. “Hemp is going to play an increasingly important role there.” The public perception around hemp is outdated, said Welch, and as retailers begin to realize the benefits, they’ll understand what makes hemp stand out.

“In the beginning, it was a joke,” Welch said. “Retailers thought of hemp as uncomfortable or unattractive, but they’re getting educated.”

Thanks to innovations in production, hemp can be used to create a variety of fabrications, and Welch predicts that companies will develop soft-touch textiles that defy hemp’s reputation as ugly and uncomfortable. Ryan Doherty, hemp category manager at Sunstrand, an eco-friendly materials manufacturer, pointed out that the technology to make hemp appealing is ready and waiting for an influx of hemp fibers.

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“Hemp fiber is hypoallergenic and thermo-regulating, on top of being stronger and longer lasting then most other natural fibers,” Doherty said. “It also has the ability to filter harmful UV rays up to SPF 15 and can be manipulated during manufacturing to increase that range.”

Beyond benefits to the wearer, Doherty said the planet could benefit from the hemp market as well, pointing out it needs little rainfall, is drought-resistant and restores nitrogen levels and neutralizes pH levels in soil.

Rebecca Burgess, executive director of textile systems nonprofit Fibershed, also pointed out that hemp’s performance features are innate to the fiber and brought to the surface during production, rather than added as a treatment or finish. “Hemp provides [these benefits] without contributing to microplastic pollution that results from washing and abrasion of synthetic fabrics,” Burgess said.

Hemp is already a favorite of designers who use sustainability as a selling point for their collections. Designer Mara Hoffman is quoted as saying “more and more people are [becoming] interested in hemp, especially in the idea of using it as a fiber.” Meanwhile, Patagonia extols the plant’s low impact on the planet and durability as reasons why the company currently imports the fiber from China.

Of course, a hemp boom won’t automatically result in reduced pollution and resource scarcity. “There are very non-ecological methods for processing hemp, and there are methods that are completely sustainable,” Burgess said. “We’ll need to keep a close eye on ‘how’ hemp is being grown and processed to determine its efficacy in the sustainable textile conversation.”

If hemp is abundant by 2022, it will be a crucial factor in its popularity in the apparel market, said Welch. “Our customers are looking at this to drive down cost,” Welch said, adding that Bamboo Rose customers are using the company’s PLM system to evaluate and bring new sourcing partners onboard. She said that apparel companies will jump at the chance to take advantage of the influx of hemp, and envisions a “rush” as people try to maximize production of a textile that was previously only available as an import.

“The companies outside of the U.S., and hemp advocacy organizations, are doing the early hefting,” Welch said. “They’re already exploring how to use it and developing textiles, so people will want to use their resources to deliver this product quickly.”

Doherty confirmed that groups like Sunstrand take the same approach. “Our goal is always to make hemp a “drop in” replacement for whatever materials are currently used,” said Doherty.

Ultimately, hemp’s success, Welch said, is dependent on how fashion brands market and position it.

“People are looking at hemp to see if it’s a viable alternative,” she said. “Technology can help brands understand the return on investment on those new materials.