TechnologyA complete guide: How to make hemp clothing material

A complete guide: How to make hemp clothing material

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Hemp is one of the best materials you can use to make all sorts of clothing and accessories. It’s durable, comfy, and plus, it’s sustainable – the whole trifecta. You may have wondered where’s the best place to find it, or if you’re extra crafty, how to make hemp clothing. It may seem a daunting question to ask.

Unfortunately, hemp-based clothing can be pricy since it’s not as abundant as cotton and other clothing materials. To make a “green” closet more achievable for you, this guide will walk you through growing and harvesting your own cannabis plants for a wardrobe that’s entirely unique to you. Seriously — you can make your own!

Reasons to make your own hemp clothing

Sure, you could buy your hemp clothing from a specialty boutique and save yourself the headache of learning how to design and craft a wearable outfit. This could work for a short time, but eventually, you’re going to want to have a more solid plan in place if you want to continue using hemp-derived fabric. 

Many people who want to introduce more hemp clothing into their wardrobe turn to DIY methods since the costs can start to build rather quickly. One ballpark estimate concluded that you’d likely pay anywhere from $90 to $600 for jeans and a top when shopping for “eco-friendly” clothes in general. On the other hand, environmentally-conscious “casual dress” might run you $50-350.

Making your hemp clothing yourself can ensure you have access to the cannabis plant’s numerous advantages as a textile without having to pay the hefty price tags. Funnily, many people are surprised when learning about hemp’s plentiful perks, despite the popular use of the fibers in home furnishing, as well as rope and twine. 

It’s the strongest natural fiber, with high tensile strength, UV resistance, and a low chance of rotting or breaking down due to molding or excess moisture. Plus, hemp clothing is a great choice for athletic wear, thanks to its natural 8% absorption rate. 

Even if you sweat up a storm, you can toss it in the washing machine without fear of damaging your clothes. Since hemp-derived fabrics contain about 78% cellulose, they can be machine-washed, no problem. 

For all these reasons and more, hemp clothing is a highly sought-after commodity. Unfortunately, the US’s history with the cannabis plant makes this tricky territory, and industrial hemp cultivation was illegal until the 2018 Farm Bill. Public demand for hemp-based products is ever-increasing, yet the market (and legislation) is slow to keep up. 

Making your hemp clothing yourself will save you the headache of depending on a sluggish market and being trapped by steep prices. Here’s how to do it. 

What part of the hemp plant is used for clothing? 

Textile production represents only a sliver of the industrial hemp industry. This plant is the source for an estimated 25,000 products globally, ranging from insulation to paper to food. Interestingly, many of hemp’s applications come from different parts of the plant. 

For instance, making hemp paper and clothing requires bast fibers. You can find the hemp plant’s bast fibers on the stem, much like flax or burlap. Humans have known about bast fiber’s exceptional quality as a clothing material for millennia. Historians report that some of the world’s oldest human remains have been found wearing hemp textiles. 

With this in mind, you’ll need to go straight to the source and start putting together your hemp clothing from the ground up, starting with turning bast fibers into fabric. 

Cultivate hemp plants

You can’t make hemp clothing if you don’t have any fiber, right? That fiber has to come from somewhere, and if you’re set on experiencing the full extent of the hemp plant’s benefits as a textile, it’s best to go all in and craft your own clothes from start to finish. 

Here are the basics of what you’ll need to get a healthy hemp crop going: 

  • Soil: One of the reasons hemp is many people’s preferred crop is that it can thrive in various soil types, displaying a versatility level unknown in many other plants. Hemp can grow quite well in well-aerated soil with a pH level of 6 or higher. You’ll also want to make sure that the soil can hold moisture and nutrients well. 
    • Note: Hemp is pretty sensitive to poor soil conditions, especially problems related to drainage. Make sure the soil won’t get compacted, even after heavy rains or other such inclement weather. Otherwise, you risk your entire crop, and ultimately, your sustainable clothing. 
  • Planting: Hemp is a fast-growing plant, maturing in only 3-4 months. This means you need to be mindful of when you sew your crop, so you can make the most of your season’s yield potential. In the Northern Hemisphere, farmers usually plant hemp between March-May. In the Southern Hemisphere, plan to sew in September-November instead.
    • Note: You should plant hemp seeds about five feet apart for the best results if you have space. Small-space gardeners and homesteaders should instead get specialized cannabis grow containers or put together a DIY climate- and humidity-controlled greenhouse. 
  • Fertilizing needs: A thriving crop’s nutrient store should have about twice what it’ll need to make it to harvest. Typically, a field of hemp will uptake lots of nitrogen in the first 6-8 weeks of growth, followed by a large amount of potassium, then phosphorus when flowering begins. In general, if you’re growing an acre of hemp*, this is how much fertilizer you’ll need to budget for:
    • Nitrogen: 80-100 lbs/acre 
    • Phosphate: 35-50 lbs/acre
    • Potash: 52-70 lbs/acre

*If you’re growing hemp on a smaller scale, don’t worry – you can still produce the fibers you need to make an item or two of clothing. For homesteaders, backyard farmers, and similar folks, the best hemp fertilizers are fish emulsion and all-purpose fertilizer. Of course, it’s also a good idea to use compost too. 

A healthy hemp crop will yield about 3-4 tons’ (yes, you read that right: tons) worth of hemp stalk bales for every acre. This is surely more than enough to get you started in making your hemp-derived clothing. 

How many people will you need to grow hemp? 

Growing, harvesting, and processing hemp is hard work. You don’t want to set out on this journey without being sure that you and your team have the labor capacity to see it through to the end product. Fortunately, you can draw from other hemp producers’ experiences and set up clear expectations for the optimal team size according to acreage:

  • 1-2 people can handle one acre of hemp or less, from start to finish
  • 4-6 people can manage 2-4 acres (this is a good amount of acreage for crop rotation throughout the year)
  • More advanced teams using mechanical equipment for crop maintenance and harvest are bested suited to crops of 5+ acres

Harvest the hemp stalks

To get the best quality homemade textiles, you’ll need to know the perfect time for harvesting your hemp plants. If you’ve tended to your hemp crop well so far and treated the plants to soft, loamy soil, they’ll be ready for harvest in four months or less. Here’s how to harvest your crop when the time comes:

  • Use a discbine, disc mower, or straight sickle. These are different types of agricultural tools used in the cultivation and harvest of hemp plants. A discbine, also known as a “hay conditioner,” crushes fresh grasses, such as hay, to expedite the drying process. The latter two refer to different types of harvesting equipment you can use with a tractor. 
    • Note: Whether you want to harvest your hemp with a machine or manually is up to you. Some farms manage to harvest 5-6 acres a day with only 15 farmhands. (Keep in mind that this farm grew hemp for the flower. Since you’re focused on the stalks, your manual harvest output may vary.)
  • Get your timing right: The best time to harvest hemp for fiber production is when the crop reaches its peak volume of stalks. This comes just before the seeds set and before the male plants start dying off, which is normally between 90-100 days. Normally, you can expect to harvest your hemp crop around October, which is why it’s known to so many as “Croptober.” 

Harvesting your hemp is a critical part of the process that can ultimately influence the quality of your clothing. As Mike Christensen, head of farm management and development at AgLand Management Consulting, said, “[Harvesting] determines everything within a matter of seven days, so that’s why it’s important to have a game plan.” 

Although hemp is a pretty resilient plant, keep in mind that it can’t stand up to a hard frost. Watch for cold snaps, as they might ruin the harvest if your timing is off. To ensure you catch the best results for your harvest, it’s best to wait for warmer conditions, specifically 65֯-90F֯. You’ll also want to make sure that it’s at most 50% humidity outside, and a slight breeze is good, too. 

Lastly, don’t underestimate the intensity of the manual labor required for harvesting hemp stalks. Many people who do this work by hand typically use machetes, shears, or tobacco knives, all tools that require a great deal of energy to operate. Make sure you’re in the proper physical shape and that your tools are sharp enough to get a high-quality yield! 

(This is why experts suggest that those who are new to the practice of raising hemp crops should start small. One acre is a good starting point. It’s enough to get you comfortable with cultivating and harvesting this plant and prepare you to allocate labor for that crop size correctly.)

Retting your hemp biomass

This step is the main difference between harvesting and processing hemp stalks and other non-flower or -oil plant material (known collectively as the hemp plant’s “biomass”) and the consumable plant parts. If you were growing hemp for the flower or oil, you’d dry the plant material at this point. However, since you’re making clothes, you’ll need to process the harvest using a practice called “retting.” 

Retting capitalizes on the power of microorganisms to break down the hemp stalk, separating the individual fibers from the core. More specifically, the microbes initiate chemical processes that break down the bonds between the stem and each bast fiber, ultimately allowing them to fall away from the stalk.

This is an essential step to turning your hemp biomass into wearable fabric, so it’s important to make sure you choose the method that you’re most comfortable with and can sustain in the long run. Your two options for retting are described below. 

Field retting

This might be the easier option for some farmers since you essentially harvest your hemp, then leave it out in the field and let nature take its course. It’s been the preferred option for many hemp farmers since it doesn’t require any special equipment, doesn’t use water, and of course, it’s cheap. 

Field retting, also known as “dew retting,” and merely entails cutting or pulling up the stems and leaving the biomass out to rot. Now, it’s not as careless a process as it may seem. Hemp farmers do pay close attention to the biomass being retted because you don’t want to produce low-quality bast fibers. 

You want to periodically check on your yield and ensure that the plant material’s not deteriorating and being broken down by unwelcome bacteria and fungi. 

This is an appealing option for many, but don’t be too quick to make this your preferred retting technique. It’s only a realistic alternative for people who live in areas with humid climates. The process requires just enough moisture for the bacteria to break down the biomass and the perfect counterbalance of dryness in the air to prevent the hemp stalks from being too wet for bailing. 

Water retting

Depending on how serious you are about making hemp clothing and the scale of production you’re aiming for, you might find that water retting is the better choice for you. This process is known for turning out uniform, higher-quality fiber. But there’s a catch: water retting requires more intensive labor and is more expensive. 

You’ll have to dedicate a lot more time and attention to water retting than you would if you opted to leave your stalks out in the field, at the whim of Mother Nature. This process requires you to submerge the hemp stems in water for an extended period. 

What’s great about this is that you can choose to use water in a tank at home or go all-natural and dip the biomass in a pond or calm river. Those who are making their hemp clothing in an attempt to reconnect with nature or adopt a more sustainable lifestyle will find these to be appealing alternatives!

Another barrier to entry for water retting is that the farmers checking on the fiber must be knowledgeable about fiber quality and be prepared to regularly treat and get rid of dirty water. Still, it’s worth it when you finally master the craft. You stand to gain a much more intimate knowledge of the cannabis plant and the process of hemp clothing production, making the entire practice so much more rewarding. 

Nowadays, some of the only communities that persist in water retting hemp stems on a large scale are Chinese and Hungarian hemp farmers. Most other nations have reduced the practice to a rare specialty, having left it behind due to higher labor costs and stricter environmental regulations. 

Manual decortication of hemp

Here’s a bonus method that some hemp farmers prefer to use if they’re not inclined to either of the primary retting methods. This group prefers to take the road less traveled and opt for a much more labor-intensive approach called “manual decortication.” This entails separating the hemp fiber from the hurd in small batches. 

For this method, you’ll need access to the hemp stalks immediately after harvest. The best way to prepare the hemp stem is by removing all the branches, leaves, flowers, and other plant material are cleared from the stem entirely. Once you’ve removed all the excess material, look at the bottom of the cut stalk. Right away, you’ll notice the two distinct layers of plant material, the light-colored core inside and the green exterior.

Since you’ve just cut the biomass, it’s still going to have some moisture, which is essential for this method. This moisture will make it easier for you to peel the fibrous layer off the woody center by hand. You can also pull the two layers apart using a knife. 

Start by separating the hurd and fiber around the base of the stem entirely. From there, work your way up the entire stem, pulling the fiber away, bit by bit, until it’s fully removed.

Note that you could combine this process with a practice known as “scutching.” This involves beating the hemp plant material, much like you would beat pulp for hemp papermaking. When used for making clothing, scutching is great for straightening the fibers to make them easier to comb for textile production. 

Combining and spinning the hemp fibers

Now, this is where it all culminates, and the entire process becomes worthwhile. You’ve finally reached the pivotal point at which your hemp biomass turns into clothes. There are two main phases for this: hackling and spinning. 

Hackling is the process of combing the hemp fibers with a large comb to get rid of any woody particles that might still be hanging onto the plant material. This will ensure that your clothing is nice and soft, and smooth, perfect for cozy shirts, sweaters, pants, and other clothing items. 

The best way to go about hackling is to use several combs with a variety of coarseness levels. Start with the combs that have the widest gaps between the teeth and gradually transition to the finer combs as you go. One-half inch or less between each comb tooth is ideal. As a side note: Don’t stress if you happen to lose some hemp fibers to the comb. A few strands are bound to get caught up in the comb here and there. 

Once your hemp fibers are nice and smooth, you’re ready to seal the deal and spin it into fabric. This process is as simple as it sounds – you’re merely adding a twist to each fiber using a special technique with a spindle. 

Many people use varying methods to spin their hemp, either using a spinning wheel or processing their hemp manually by using a handheld weighted spindle.  Either approach will get you one step closer to wearing hemp-derived clothes. 

Traditional processes, such as those practiced by the Hmong people who live in China, Myanmar, and a handful of other countries, follow spinning with these steps to complete the process of making hemp clothing:

  • Cook the hemp fiber with wax (allowing the wax to penetrate deeply into the hemp wax reduces the cure time and provides waterproofing)
  • Wash the treated hemp fibers and let them dry
  • Repeat the cooking and washing process three times, giving the hemp one day to cure and dry in between each cycle

After you’ve completed the entire washing, drying, and curing processes, you’re ready to design your clothes. There’s a broad range of clothes you can make with hemp fabric, including shirts, jeans, dresses, hats, and canvas bags. Now that you know how to raise, harvest, and process hemp for clothing, your creativity and style can flow freely! 

Conclusion

If you’re looking for an eco-friendlier, back-to-basics approach to revamping your wardrobe, hemp clothing might be best for you. With the 2018 legalization of industrial hemp in the US, it’s gotten much easier to raise a crop on your own, giving you a sustainable alternative to green clothing outside the sparse hemp-based apparel market. 

Keep this guide close by as your crop matures, and you’ll be hackling and spinning fiber to redesign your closet collection in no time! 

Jazmin Murphy
Jazmin Murphy is a trained science writer & reporter who has covered a breadth of topics. She is also a strong supporter and advocate of cannabis for recreational, wellness, and medical purposes.

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