This guide to sewing with hemp fabrics was written by The Hemp Shop.
Have you ever tried sewing with hemp fabrics? If the answer is no, then you’re not alone. Hemp fabrics remain a fairly niche material, although their popularity is on the rise thanks to their eco-friendly credentials and the growing availability of different hemp blends. Hemp fabrics are often blended with other natural fibres such as organic cotton or bamboo, with a wide range of fabric types on offer. Whatever your needs, there’s a hemp blend out there for you! These days you’ll find everything from canvas to jersey, towelling, cloth, linen, silks, corduroy, denim and more just waiting to be discovered.
Some people may associate hemp with rough and scratchy clothing worn by hippies, but things have come a long way since the hemp fabrics of yesteryear. Modern hemp fabrics provide the best of sustainability balanced with comfort and practicality.
Eco credentials of hemp fabric
When it comes to making sustainable fabric choices, many of us will head straight for organic cotton but hold up there and wait a moment, because there is another fabric that we should be considering; hemp.
Every choice we make has an impact on the environment, and each day as climate change affects all of our lives, it’s becoming more apparent that the small decisions we make have a large impact when the actions of millions (or billions!) are added together. The importance of choosing the most environmentally friendly sustainable fabrics has never been greater, and hemp comes with arguably the greatest range of environmental benefits.
The plants grow like a weed, not needing any assistance from artificial fertilisers or chemical pesticides. This makes them the perfect choice for making organic fabrics, as not a single chemical is required from growth to processing and spinning into yarns. Unlike bamboo, which generally goes through a chemical “viscose” process, most hemp fabrics are processed mechanically, making the finished product as natural as can be.
Hemp is often lauded as being nature’s greatest carbon sink, meaning that it absorbs and stores more CO2 than any other crop or forest. Some estimates say that one hectare of hemp can absorb and store 8-15 tonnes of CO2 in a year, that could equate to up to 2-3x the amount that a hectare of forest absorbs (estimates of carbon sequestration by forests differ by region, but can range anywhere from 0.7 to 10 tonnes per year).
Hemp plants improve soil quality, drilling down deep into the earth with their tap root systems drawing up nutrients from deep underground where other crops do not reach, while also preventing soil compaction. They also bind the topsoil together with their wider shallow roots to prevent erosion, preserving the precious topsoil needed to grow 95% of the world’s food. Modern farming practices have led to the loss of nearly half of the world’s most productive soil in the last 150 years, so it is of vital importance that the remaining topsoil is preserved and nurtured back to full health.
The hemp plants return nutrients to the soil through dropped leaves, and by leaving around 1 foot of the stalk and the roots in the soil after harvesting farmers can increase nitrogen levels so that any crops that come after it are healthier and stronger as a result
Hemp manages all of this while requiring 4x less water than cotton, and half the land to grow the same amount of fibre for fabric.
Hemp Fabric Characteristics
Besides the environmental benefits, hemp comes with a long list of practical benefits that make it great for clothing, upholstery and interior design uses. Hemp plants grow up to 4.5m tall and the fibres are stripped in one long piece, making them the longest natural fibres for making yarns. As well as being very long, the fibres have incredible tensile strength, up to 5x that of cotton while also being around 3x more durable.
The increased durability and strength of hemp fabrics means that they don’t wear out as quickly, and therefore will not need to be replaced as often. In fact, hemp actually gets softer over time with general use and washing, the saying goes “cotton wears out, hemp wears in”.
Hemp fibres are antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal as well as being hypoallergenic. Studies have shown that hemp fibres keep their antibacterial properties even after they are harvested and spun into yarn for fabrics. This makes the fabrics great for clothing, as they help to keep us fresh and hygienic, while promoting good skin health.
The fabrics are breathable and thermodynamic, meaning that they’re great at keeping you cool when the weather is warm, and hot when the weather is cold. They also have moisture-wicking capabilities, drawing sweat away from the body so that it can evaporate more quickly, keeping you fresh and dry.
Tips for sewing with hemp fabric
Q: Do hemp fabrics need prewashing – if so what’s the shrinkage like compared to more mainstream fabrics?
A: When it comes to shrinkage, hemp can be compared quite closely to cotton. Since both are natural fibres, you can expect the same shrinkage rules to apply. It is always best to pre wash hemp fabrics on a gentle 30 degrees celsius wash cycle, as although many of them are “pre-shrunk” it is common to see a little further shrinkage after washing. To be on the safe side, always pre-wash hemp fabrics. Avoid washing them in hot water, as this is more likely to cause shrinkage.
Q: Do you need any particular thread or stitches needed for sewing with hemp fabrics?
Most stitch types work well with hemp fabrics, and most types of thread would also work well.
A: Can they be pressed normally, or do they need a low heat?
Hemp fabrics can be pressed normally, there is no need to use a low heat when working with them. Again, hemp fibres are comparable to cotton when it comes to deciding on temperatures for heat pressing.
Q: Once people have made things from the fabrics, are there any special washing/care instructions they need to be aware of?
A: Hemp fabrics should be washed at 30 degrees, on a gentle wash cycle and with just a little soap or detergent. Avoid heavy duty detergents as these could compromise the strength of the fibres over time.
Quotes from the experts
“The colour of this fabric is lovely, it’s blend of natural hues make it ideal for anyone interested in historical costuming. The weave is very fine with few slubs that make it reminiscent of a finer, more expensive linen. It is a light to medium weight which would gather well and be perfect for tops, shirts and slips.” – Vicky, Sewstainability.blog
“Fine hemp linen is a quality medium weight linen with good drape and a soft hand. It’s a really versatile fabric for garment making and would be beautiful sewn up into shirts, dresses, trousers, shorts or summer weight blazers. The natural colour is a neutral that will pair with everything in your wardrobe but, being a natural fabric, could also be dyed to your preference.” – Manju, sewmanju.com
“This canna cloth feels exactly like a medium weight linen, it has good drape and some weight to it. This is the softest of the samples I have been sent and would be suitable for a range of garments including tops, dresses, skirts, trousers and lightweight jackets. Small slubs give some interesting texture to this lovely fabric.” – Vicky, Sewstainability.blog
“This denim twill is a really versatile fabric, it’s a good weight denim perfect for jeans, jackets, coats and bags – or any pattern that requires denim or canvas! The colour is a light ivory which is perfect for dyeing and the twill weave is pronounced giving it a beautiful look.” – Vicky, Sewstainability.blog
Shop for hemp fabrics and trims at The Hemp Shop