Hemp has a bad reputation. Even though it has been an undeniably useful crop for making clothing, paper, ropes, food, and other helpful items for more than 12,000 years, it’s currently illegal to grow in the U.S. (though legal to import). Even so, all those benefits are why Royal Robbins decided more than 10 years ago to start using hemp to make its Hempline products: combining a blend of organic hemp, organic cotton, and recycled polyester to create lightweight, breathable, and sustainably produced apparel.
“Hemp is actually pretty magical,” Royal Robbins’ Vice President of Product, Liz Braund, says. “It doesn’t require pesticides to grow, and it hardly needs any water. It also doesn’t leech nutrients from the soil, so you don’t have to rotate it with other crops.”
When made into a fabric, hemp is also antimicrobial, meaning it inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria. “Hemp actually stops bacteria from growing on any of the fibers it’s blended with, too,” Braund says. “Including polyester, which otherwise has a real affinity for smelling.” Considering that hemp fabric is also more breathable than cotton and has a UV rating of 35 UPF, even when wet, it’s arguably one of the best natural materials for making clothing — right up there with wool and cotton.
Using hemp isn’t exactly a novel concept, of course. The Chinese were using hemp to make some of the first paper as early as the 5th Century BC, and Christopher Columbus’s sails and ship rigging were made from hemp, too. The Declaration of Independence was literally drafted on the stuff. Still, since the Marijuana Tax Act passed in 1937 — which required additional registration for hemp farmers and heavy taxes that, if not paid, could result inequally lofty fines or up to five years in prison — it quickly became increasingly difficult for farmers in this country to effectively grow and sell industrial hemp.
There a lot of theories out there why the Marijuana Tax Act passed, including an enduring suspicion that the oil industry lobbied hard to undercut hemp production in the U.S., since hemp was a potential biofuel competitor. No one knows for sure. Regardless of whatever actually caused the legislation to go through, however, when the Controlled Substances Act eventually passed in 1970, it became officially illegal to grow industrial hemp anywhere in the U.S. — simply because it looks a lot like its estranged cousin, the marijuana plant.
Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) is currently classified by the United States Government as a Schedule I narcotic, along with heroin, LSD, and mescaline. As Braund points out, though: “You can’t get high off hemp. Not even a little.”
“What hemp is good for is making warm-weather clothes,” Braund says. “When blended with the right combination of organic cotton and recycled polyester, hemp is actually incredibly comfortable, cool, and dries out quickly — much faster than 100 percent cotton or even wool.” She should know, too. Braund recently took one of Royal Robbins’ Hempline hoodies on a trip to Mexico where it was above 90 degrees the entire time. “It seemed like there was never any shade, and I can tell you: I lived in that thing,” she says. “It was nice to be able to have something that could cover my head and arms for sun protection, without it being clammy or hot.”
Not bad for a shirt made out of an illegal plant.