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In this mini-series, we will be looking at sustainable alternatives to well-known fabrics, starting with cotton.

Hemp

Hemp Fibre; Image from BBC

This fast-growing hypoallergenic fabric not only requires very little water to harvest in comparison to cotton; it grows without the use of herbicides, pesticides or any chemicals whatsoever. The hemp plant competes with and over-powers weeds, allowing it to grow quickly and freely while improving the health of soil at the same time. The hemp fibre is strong and durable and gets softer over time. Using more hemp in clothing would result in producing much less, in comparison to any clothing made from cotton. Its breathability and wicking properties make it naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and rot, which makes it a great candidate for activewear and sleepwear.

Unfortunately, due to its leaf shape, hemp is often confused with marijuana. Both plans are considered cannabis, but hemp does not contain THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. This has made it somewhat difficult for companies to use hemp in their clothing, as it is frowned upon in the public eye. The United States still bans the growth of industrial hemp, but it was made legal in Canada in 1998. Hemp is slowly but surely being recognized on its own, apart from cannabis. Brands like Adidas and Patagonia having introduced the fabric into some of their products has helped destigmatize the fibre.

Hemp; Image from Leafly.com

Lotus

Image from LotusParadis.com

Lotus Flower; Image from Visit Angkor

In countries like Thailand and Myanmar, villagers have been using the lotus plant as a source of fabric for centuries. Harvested from lakes, this fibre is said to have incredible healing abilities like getting rid of headaches, heart ailments, asthma and lung related issues. Its lightweight and silky properties have a calm and peaceful meditative effect on the wearer. In addition it is stain resistant, easy on the environment and will last many years as it does not need to be washed very often.

A disadvantage of the lotus fibre is the intense, time-consuming process; the threads are extracted by breaking down individual stems of the lotus plant, resulting in a very rare and expensive fibre. However, its high price makes sense as it ensures people, and paid fairly in the process.

In this video, you can see how Cambodian villagers spin Lotus fibre into fabric.

Nettle

Nettle fibre; Image from Startup Fashion

People have worn clothing made from nettle for the past 2000 years, but it was replaced with cotton in the 16th century since it was easier to harvest and spin. It made a brief comeback in Germany to create army uniforms during the First World War due to a shortage of cotton. And now, there are new technologies that can be used to produce fibre from this plant, meaning nettles could be making a comeback.

Similar to hemp, nettle fibres have natural cooling and warming abilities, which make it a perfect fabric for both the summer and winter seasons. They are a hollow fibre filled with air that creates natural insulation. The yarn lengths are twisted closing the hollow core to create a cool fibre for the summer, and are twisted low so the hollow fibre remains open to create a warm fibre for the winter. This extremely versatile fibre uses very little water and does not require chemicals to grow; it prefers rich soil so it does well around well-populated areas, benefiting from the waste we produce. This plant can be found growing naturally in early spring across North America; you may have even seen them before.

Nettle Plant; Image from The Herbal Academy

In this video you can see how nettles are made into a fabric.

So, are these the fabrics of the future? Do they have what it takes to replace cotton? Let us know what you think.

Featured image by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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