Comparing Natural Fabrics: Hemp vs Cotton

July 15, 2020
Hempco Administrator

These two plants have been cultivated by humans for several centuries. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that is used in industrial and commercial situations like building materials (hempcrete), health foods and clothing. It is similar to fibrous plants like jute and flax. And even though it has negligible quantities of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it was looked at negatively by many for a  70-80 years

Cotton is used as a fibre too, and originated in tropical and subtropical climates. It is used as a fibre, as feed and food. Cotton is highly versatile, so we can see how hemp, a material once stigmatized because of its association with marijuana, is coming in quick as strong competition. 

So how does hemp stack up against to cotton when it comes to performance and sustainability?

Today we explore.


Sustainability factors

Cotton requires a lot of water and pesticides in order to flourish. This gives it a much higher environmental cost. On the other hand, hemp is known to be resistant to pests and disease. This minimises not only the cost for the farmer, but also the cost to the environment. 

Hemp has been observed to grow in areas with minimal nutrients in the soil, and its roots even aerate and enrich the ground. This means that the earth that it grows on is left even more fertile than before the plant was harvested. It also means that growers can curb usage of fertilizers.

How much water does it take to make 1kg of hemp?

1kg of dry hemp can be grown with as little as 300-500 litres of water. This is much less than cotton, which requires 20,000 litres of water to do the same. To put it into perspective, 1kg of cotton would only make one pair of jeans and a t-shirt. 

Unlike cotton farms, hemp crops can be purely rain-fed (in some areas).  Although access to irrigation is often encouraged, hemp is much more water friendly, which could be greatly beneficial to the environment.

How much fabric does 1 acre of hemp produce vs 1 acre of cotton

Hemp grows densely, saving space, whereas cotton takes up a lot of farmland. 1 acre of hemp can produce an average 1500 pounds of fibre, and has been seen to go up to 2400. That’s more than 3 times the quantity of cotton that can be cultivated in the same area, which is 500 pounds. 

Hemp also has the benefit of being fast growing, and has shown the ability to grow in the same land for many years. And last but not least, It’s also a great rotation crop!


Performance factors

We’ve looked at how hemp and cotton treat our earth. And despite the fact that hemp may be better in that aspect, consumers tend to favor what makes more sense in terms of short-term and personal costs. So when it comes to quality, how do these two natural fibres perform against each other?

Tensile strength

More accurately called ultimate tensile strength, this is the maximum stress or strain a material can endure without breaking. It does not depend on the size of the material measured. Cotton has a tensile strength of between 330 – 585 MPa while hemp beats it at 690 – 1000 MPa.

Strength-to-weight ratio

This is measured by using clamp jaws to hold and break the fibres. It is referred to as grams per tex, which is the amount of force necessary to break one bundle of fibres in one tex (tex being a unit of size). A tex is equivalent to the weight in grams of a thousand meters of fibre.

Hemp has a strength-to-weight ratio that is even greater than steel. It takes twice as much force to crack or bend hemp than it does steel. 

Absorbance and dissipation

Due to hemp fibres having a large surface area, it makes them extremely water absorbent. This makes them dye easily, while retaining its color for a longer time than cotton. 

Yet, hemp is also better than cotton when it comes to dissipation. It just does not hold onto moisture. This adds to its breathability and minimizes the growth of mold and mildew, helping to keep clothes free of odor for longer. And although cotton is in no way bad at dissipating moisture, hemp takes the cake.

What fabric is generally the most durable?

Hemp fabric lasts much longer than cotton and doesn’t wear out anywhere near as fast. Hemp also retains shape, stretching less than other natural fibres. However, this comes at an ever so slight trade off with comfort. Cotton is silkier to wear, whilst hemp is known to be a coarser material.  Although, it should also be noted that hemp fabric is that it gets softer with every wash.  

So if you’re looking for a long lasting, reliable clothing that contributes to a healthier planet, consider incorporating more hemp…

Do you have any other questions about hemp fabric vs cotton?  If there’s anything we missed, please do let us know in the comments so we can get back to you 💚

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