What Is Hemp Fiber?

Published January 06, 2021
What Is Hemp Fiber? - Secret Nature

Hemp has gotten a bad rap. Unlike some plants, however, hemp doesn’t deserve its negative reputation.

In the United States, we’ve recently started exploring the potential of the hemp plant once again. The CBD industry, for instance, wouldn’t exist without hemp.

There’s a lot more that hemp has to offer, however. Hemp fiber is one of the best examples of an underestimated hemp product with the potential to change the world.

What is industrial hemp fiber?

Hemp fiber is fiber derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. While both male and female cannabis plants produce fiber, the male plant produces fibers that are more desirable.

The fibers in hemp plants are located in their stalks. Hemp stalks are surrounded by thick skins, and bundles of fibers are present directly under this outermost layer.

Underneath the fibrous portion of the hemp stalk is a woody area called a shive. Inside the shive is a hollow area through which water and nutrients pass through the hemp plant.

How do you get hemp fiber?

The fibers in hemp stalks are isolated using a process called retting. The resulting raw fiber is then cleaned and carded, resulting in a straight bunch of loose fibers.

Hemp fibers can be used for a wide variety of different purposes. The next steps in the production process vary considerably depending on the purpose for which hemp fiber will be used.

Is hemp a drug?

The intoxicating cannabinoid THC is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Since hemp fiber comes from the same plant, it’s natural to wonder if this substance has any psychoactive properties.

However, hemp fiber does not contain any cannabinoids. Whether the dominant cannabinoid in a hemp plant is CBD, THC, or any other cannabis-specific compound, it’s fibers will not contain cannabinoids.

Instead, cannabinoids are concentrated in the flowers of Cannabis sativa plants. Male hemp plants, which yield the best fibers, do not produce flowers. Even female hemp plants with impressively cannabinoid-rich flowers do not contain any cannabinoids in their stalks.

Why was hemp banned in the US?

There’s considerable debate regarding why hemp agriculture was banned in the United States. The mainstream view is that hemp was deemed too similar to marijuana, which was progressively made illegal throughout the 20th century.

Individuals who are more conspiratorially minded would contend that hemp fiber threatened the timber industry and drew too much capital away from the emerging synthetic textile market. Even MIT’s newspaper echoed the breathless claims of cannabis advocates who were certain they’d exposed a nefarious DuPont corporation plot to eliminate hemp.

When was hemp legalized?

Whatever the true reasoning for this ban may have been, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA) essentially eliminated all legal cultivation of Cannabis sativa in the United States. It didn’t matter whether the cannabis in question was THC-rich marijuana or non-psychoactive hemp.

The situation didn’t change until 2014 when Congress passed a law allowing pilot hemp cultivation programs to resume. Then, in 2018, cultivation of hemp containing less than 0.3% THC was federally legalized, effectively ending nearly a century of hemp prohibition.

What is hemp fiber used for?

Hemp fiber is used for a wide variety of industrial and commercial purposes including:

  • Rope
  • Clothing
  • Bags
  • Canvas
  • Paper
  • Concrete
  • Insulation
  • Particleboard
  • Cardboard
  • Horse bedding

Hemp was most likely the first fiber used by prehistoric peoples. During various points in history, hemp was commonly used as a default material for sailcloth and maritime ropes.

Use of hemp fiber temporarily went out of vogue due to the CSA and similar pieces of legislation that were ratified around the world. Certain nations, however, never stopped producing hemp.

In the wake of the 2014 Farm Bill, production of hemp fiber in the United States has gradually regained its former place within the agricultural economy. Hemp advocates view the Cannabis sativa plant as a more sustainable and faster-growing source of paper than timber.

Advocates and investors are also impressed by hemp’s potential usefulness as a building material. In the next few decades, it wouldn’t be surprising to see buildings made almost entirely from hemp.

What can hemp replace?

Experts believe that hemp fiber can replace a variety of less-sustainable substances currently used around the world. These substances include:

  • Timber cellulose
  • Petrochemical plastic
  • Fiberglass insulation
  • Conventional concrete
  • Steel
  • Cotton textiles

The majority of the world’s paper comes from trees, leading to deforestation. Hemp paper, however, is just as useful, and it's considerably more sustainable to produce.

Manufacturers can use the cellulose in hemp fiber to make eco-friendly bioplastics. These non-petrochemical plastics can be designed for high biodegradability, and fewer harmful chemicals are used in the production of bioplastics.

Hemp fiber can be constructed into a hard, durable substance that is stronger than steel. Entire cars have been made using nothing more than “hemp steel.” 

Is hemp better than cotton?

Hemp is slightly rougher than cotton. Compared to cotton, however, hemp is considerably stronger, more absorbent, and more insulative.

Some estimates suggest that hemp can produce more than three times the amount of fiber per acre than cotton. At the same time, hemp cultivation requires less water and fewer pesticides.

Critics point out that more than 100 million people are dependent on the cotton industry worldwide. These cotton workers could, however, easily transition to hemp production. Switching to a more sustainable crop would benefit communities as well as corporations.

How strong is hemp fiber?

According to the Hemp Foundation, hemp fibers that are 4 micrometers wide have a tensile strength of 4200 megapascals (MPa). While there are no direct comparisons with cotton fibers of similar width, most cotton samples offer significantly less tensile strength.

When made into bioplastics, hemp is just as strong as conventional petroplastics. It’s also possible to produce hemp “metals” that rival the strength of aluminum, steel, and other commonly used alloys.

From a consumer perspective, textiles made with hemp last longer than cotton. They retain their shape better, and they’re more absorbent.

Is hemp eco-friendly?

Hemp is inherently eco-friendly. It naturally resists pests, requires minimal amounts of water, and is less damaging to soil than cotton.

Even the most environmentally friendly plant can, however, be cultivated unsustainably. Hemp is commonly grown as a monoculture, which harms soil over time.

Even as a monoculture crop, however, hemp does less damage to ecosystems than other textile plants. By interspersing other crops and avoiding the use of unnecessary pesticides, hemp cultivators can make this plant truly sustainable.

Is hemp a phytoremediator?

Hemp acts as a bioaccumulator and phytoremediator, which means that it removes harmful substances from soil. In fact, hemp is so useful for this purpose that it was planted at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown to eliminate radioactive isotopes.

When grown for fiber, hemp can be planted in polluted soil. After a few years, the soil will be clean and ready for other crops.

Hemp’s bioaccumulative properties are something of a hindrance in the consumable hemp industry. Cultivators have to be very careful that the chemicals hemp sucks up don’t end up in consumable products.

Why don’t we use more hemp?

Hemp cultivation is starting to become more mainstream again. Shellshocked by nearly a century of prohibition, farmers are somewhat reticent to embrace the benefits of hemp.

Cultivation of CBD-rich hemp, however, has skyrocketed since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, inspiring a massive change in how we view this controversial crop. As cultivation of hemp for CBD and other cannabinoids becomes more mainstream, it’s likely that this impressive plant will also take a more prominent place within the industrial economy.

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