Levi’s jeans were originally made from hemp.
Or at least that’s the urban legend that Jack Herer helped popularize. The historical record suggests a different history, namely that Levi Strauss & Co. made the original riveted denim with cotton from the once-dominant, now-defunct Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in New Hampshire.
While the hemp origin story is likely a myth, Levi’s did start working with the crop in 2019. As part of a collaboration with California surf brand Outerknown, the company introduced its Wellthread collection (image below) with items made from cottonized hemp.
“The introduction of cottonized hemp is huge,” the brand says. “Not just for this collection but for the entire industry. While hemp crops use significantly less water than conventionally grown cotton – and the rain-fed crops we use in Wellthread use even less – until now it’s delivered a rough texture. To solve this, we partnered with fiber technology specialists to create a ‘cottonization’ process that softens the fiber — using very little energy or chemical processing — to make it look, and more importantly feel, almost indistinguishable from cotton. The innovative development of this rain-fed hemp allows it to be woven like cotton into your jeans – same great feel, a lot less water.”
This production breakthrough is part of an innovation trend that transformed hemp fabrics over the past 40 years. The bast fibers on the outer hemp stalk are strong and durable and highly prized for their length. Though archaeologists uncovered hemp fabrics dating back more than 10,000 years, they tended to be more coarse in texture and less comfortable to wear. This started to change in the 1980s.
Researchers developed an enzymatic process to remove lignin (“the stuff that makes plants ‘woody'”) from various fibers while leaving the cellulose fibers intact. By degumming hemp, manufacturers could spin it (by itself or with other fibers) to make softer textiles and fabrics.
Today, the texture of quality hemp fabric is similar to cotton but significantly more absorbent, better insulating, less susceptible to shrinkage and highly resistant to pilling. The superior durability means a hemp shirt can last twice or even three times as long as a shirt made from cotton. Hemp fabrics also have antibacterial properties, provide sun protection by helping block UV-A and UV-B rays, and even appear to “have a positive influence on the physiological parameters of the human body.”
While this degumming process has been available for decades, the reemergence of a robust hemp industry has led fashion brands to start working with hemp fabrics. Several emerging brands make hemp a central part of their identity. For example, this Los Angeles-based company makes jeans from wild hemp grown in the Himalayas, while brand fave Seeker (image above and main) produces a full fashion line that even includes kimonos, thermals and hemp face masks.
On the other side of the spectrum, legacy brands are trying their hand at hemp and cotton blends: Gucci released this striped beret, Helmut Lang an off-white women’s blazer and tapered pants (below), and Ralph Lauren a denim sports coat. Giorgio Armani even designed a men’s sweater made entirely from hemp fabric.
Other examples of hemp fashion include this Elie Tahari sweater, Deus Ex Machina caps, Rip Curl tees and tanks, and Nike’s ongoing hemp sneaker drops. Patagonia says it added hemp fabric into 68 of its product styles in 2020 alone.
What other brands are using hemp fabrics? The list includes United by Blue, Vans, Eileen Fisher, BCBG, North Face, Loro Piana, Hari Mari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Seeker, Jungmaven, Thought, prAna, Eugenia Kim, Vince, Calvin Klein, Amour Vert, J Brand, Ralph Lauren, G-Star Raw, Fisher +Baker, See by Chloe, Komodo, Mara Hoffman, and Enza Costa, among many others. Hemp- and cannabis-themed fashion shows are even taking place now.
(On a surreal sidenote, conserative-minded Hobby Lobby sells a Hemp Gucci fabric made in China from 100-percent polyester.)
Hemp is a more durable, longer-lasting fabric than cotton, but one of the primary reasons for its meteoric rise is a renewed commitment to sustainability. Growing hemp requires significantly less water than other crops (especially cotton) and decreases land usage and deforestation by producing higher yields. Hemp grows exponentially faster than trees, which means more material for production, and it actually returns healthy nutrients to the soil that other crops might degrade. Likewise, hemp boasts a natural resistance to pests, diseases and fungi so farmers can use significantly fewer chemicals, pesticides and fungicides.
At present, the U.S. spends billions each year to subsidize cotton, which in turn reduces its cost to manufacturers. As hemp production grows, prices will drop, and hemp will become a more competitive crop for making fabric. Plus, emerging technologies like the HempTrain should help improve the production process, and other countries like Italy are subsidizing the effort to further “cottonize” hemp.
All of this suggests that hemp fabric is a trend that’s just starting, and the fashion world appears ready to help hemp go viral.