Dear Umbra,

You didn’t mention hemp as a fabric alternative.

Marquette, Mich.

Dearest Jordan,

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No, I didn’t. Thank you for writing such a concise letter; it stood out among the 4 million other hemp letters and cut straight to the point. I apologize for the omission.

Hemp is currently a narrowly available fabric with a prohibitively high cost and a limited fashion palette. That said, it holds a lot of promise as a high-yield crop with a boggling array of uses — rope, carpets, shoes, cars, food, fuel, oil — that suggest it could one day save the world.

Daydreaming about hemp clothes?

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China, Eastern Europe, and Canada are the big hemp-producing regions. In the United States, the world-changing capacity of hemp is currently and absurdly curtailed because of knee-jerk drug laws: Hemp is outlawed along with the similar but not identical marijuana plant, which is shorter and has more buds (and more of the intoxicant THC). Hemp research plots are under cultivation in several states where agricultural organizations are lobbying hard to get access to the potential market bonanza of hemp crops, but the federal government still prohibits commercial plantings of the crop.

Part of the high cost of hemp textiles can be blamed on low market saturation; another part stems from the unsuitability of hemp fibers for machines designed to process cotton, polyester, and wood fibers. Hemp fibers are too long and too tough for the poor contraptions. In most other ways, this is a good thing — hemp can be grown with very few pesticides and herbicides, partly because the height and density of the plant creates too much shade for weeds to thrive. In that way, it is a clear choice over conventional cotton, which could win awards for the volume of pesticides and herbicides typically doused on it. (Not that hemp is perfect: The conversion of hemp fiber to hemp fabric, like many textile processes, generally involves the use of water and bleach.)

Should you have the money and inclination to buy and wear hemp textiles, go ahead. They’ll last forever. But buying hemp still ranks behind buying used, organic, or fewer clothes altogether.


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