Hemp sounds earthy and ancient, and it is. It may be the earliest plant to have been cultivated as a textile fiber, possibly as far back as 10,000 years ago. The plant was a crucial source of fiber, oil, and food for centuries. It contributed to the economies of Asian, European, and North American nations into the 18th century. Beginning in the 1930s, hemp production was prohibited in the United States when all cannabis cultivation was made illegal. In recent decades, some growth and importation laws have been relaxed, so hemp fabric is relatively easy to find now. I encourage you to try sewing with this versatile and distinctive fiber.
Hemp fiber is incredibly strong. It is also comfortable, absorbent, and has inherent antibacterial properties. Because hemp has the absorbency of a natural cellulose fiber, it takes to dye and paint well.
You’ll find a range of hemp and hemp-blend fabrics on the market these days. A lightweight, 100-percent hemp woven textile resembles linen and is well suited to casual warm-weather clothes. The fiber may be mixed with cotton, rayon, silk, or wool, in wovens or knits of various weights and textures. I’ve found that the higher the percentage of hemp, the stiffer the fabric. Heavy hemp canvas is ideal for upholstery or hard-wearing totes and duffels. The silk and rayon blends can become elegant clothing or decorator pieces.
I tested a selection of hemp and hemp-blend fabrics for shrinkage, hand, and dyeability. See “Test results” below.
Always prewash hemp fabric to soften it and to minimize subsequent shrinkage. I machine-washed all the fabrics, and machine-dried all except the silk and rayon blends, which I air-dried. Some of the pieces I tested shrank a lot.
Most hemp textiles come in natural or limited solid colors. I dyed samples with Rit powdered dye in teal, which did an excellent job on the hemp and cotton fibers. The silk and rayon blends dyed unevenly. Specialty dyes would yield better results. DharmaTrading.com offers lots of dyes and dyeing advice.
1. 55 percent hemp/45 percent cotton jersey (DharmaTrading.com): lightweight knit; 11 percent shrinkage lengthwise.
2. 55 percent hemp/45 percent cotton jersey (DharmaTrading.com; same as no. 1), dyed with Rit. Dyed well, yielding rich and even coloring.
3. 55 percent hemp/45 percent cotton jersey (HempTraders.com): teal medium-weight knit; 11 percent shrinkage lengthwise, 3 percent shrinkage width wise.
4. 70 percent cotton/30 percent hemp jersey (HempTraders.com): lightweight printed knit; minimal shrinkage.
5. 60 percent hemp/40 percent silk charmeuse (OrganicCottonPlus.com): bronze woven, shiny on right side, matte on wrong side; stiffer than pure silk charmeuse; no shrinkage.
6. 55 percent hemp/45 percent rayon woven (DharmaTrading.com), dyed with Rit: 8 percent shrinkage lengthwise; washed well but needs specialty dyes for an even result.
7. 60 percent hemp/40 percent silk charmeuse (DharmaTrading.com), dyed with Rit: same as no. 5; minimal shrinkage; dyed unevenly, so try specialty dyes.
8. 60 percent hemp/40 percent silk woven (DharmaTrading.com), dyed with Rit: textured like a fine silk dupioni, but more sheer; 5 percent shrinkage lengthwise; dyed unevenly, so try specialty dyes.
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