Material Matters: Hemp

Nike Air Max 1 Hemp 2022
via Asphalt Gold

It’s time to clear the haze surrounding hemp. ‘Marijuana’s Cousin’ is certainly no ‘Devil’s Lettuce’, and has been demonised for most of the last century – despite its continued use for over 50,000 years. Thankfully, attitudes towards hemp have shifted in the past decades, and it is again gaining momentum and legitimacy. Despite its versatility as a foodstuff – and indeed footstuff – among other uses, hemp remains shrouded in controversy and misunderstanding. Let’s toke a closer look at some green power.

Industrial Hemp Crop
Industrial Hemp Crop | Image: Aleks (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s All Cannabis

Let’s get something out of the way. Yes, hemp and marijuana are both derived from the Cannabis plant, but it’s the specific species they’re derived from that determine their effectiveness.

Hemp specifically refers to a genetic variant, better known as strain, of the Cannabis sativa species, which is grown specifically for industrial uses such as textiles and fuel. It contains under 0.3 per cent of THC (the psychoactive compound that marijuana is known for), so look elsewhere for a high! But otherwise, hemp makes some killer cloth.

Hemp Stalk Fibres
Hemp Stalk Fibres
,Hemp Stalk Cross-Section
Inside of a hemp stalk. The fibrous layer is known as the bast, and the inner core is the hurd. | Image: Fenrisulfir (Wikimedia Commons)

From Plant to Textile

The entire hemp plant can be used to produce everything from textiles, bioplastics, insulation, and even milk! Naturally, the sneaker world has experimented with hemp fabric uppers over the years.

Methods used to get hemp from plant to textile aren’t too different from cotton and wool. After harvest, the fibrous outer layer of the stalk, known as the bast, is separated, processed, and spun into a textile.

Hemp versus Other Textiles

On a practical level, pure hemp isn’t that exciting – resembling something of a burlap sack or linen bedsheets. It may be durable and breathable, but in its raw form, it’s prone to wrinkles and doesn’t mesh with colour as well as other fabrics. So, manufacturers will sometimes weave other materials such as cotton and bamboo into hemp fabric for additional benefits, such as softness and colourfastness.

Other than that, hemp has proven to be particularly sustainable because of its low environmental impact. It grows quickly and uses about half the amount of water to grow compared to cotton. Because of a deep root system, hemp crops stabilise the soil they’re grown in, promoting active nutrient exchange.

Nike Air Max 1 Hemp
Nike Air Max 1 'Hemp' | Image: Asphalt Gold
CLOT x ACU x Nike Air Footscape Woven
CLOT x ACU x Nike Air Footscape Woven | Image: VINYLLA
Converse Chuck Taylor All Star High Hemp
Converse Chuck Taylor All Star High Hemp | Image: mailguy074 (eBay)
adidas Grun Gazelle OP Tongue
adidas Grün Gazelle OP Hemp (2008)

Hemp Sneakers

It’s not just weed-themed sneakers that are made from hemp. However, Nike SB have perhaps used it best, creating the Dunk Low Pro SB ‘Hemp Pack’ from 2003. In their own words, it was ‘a tribunal released to coincide with a numerologically celebrated and significant day’ – a date and Dunk they observed again in 2016. The obscure CLOT x ACU x Nike Air Footscape Woven and Dunkesto also made use of the THC-free textile. More recently, the Stussy x Air Zoom Spiridon Caged 2 featured hemp uppers for the ‘Fossil’ colourway. And in 2022, the Swoosh surprised sneakerheads with a remake of the Air Max 1 ‘Hemp’ from 2004.

Back in the late-2000s, adidas made a serious (if not short-lived) attempt at making sneakers from recycled and alternative materials. Known as the Grün series, it was their version of Nike’s Considered line. The usual suspects like reground rubber, cotton, and jute were present in Grün sneakers, but there was a Gazelle OP (One Piece) with uppers made entirely from hemp. The tongues notoriously displayed the ‘sweet leaf’ instead of the Trefoil! On that note, adi also gave Snoop Dogg a hemp-uppered Seeley collaboration – though it’s not clear why … cough cough.

Converse and PUMA have redone their classics like the Chuck Taylor and Basket in hemp. That said, the challenge moving forward lies in making hemp a legitimate material for sneakers and not just a novelty fabric.

The Future of Hemp

The legality of hemp remains a controversial topic, despite the fact it’s been used for over 50,000 years. Objectively, there are a lot of pros to using hemp as a textile. However, a lot of political red tape from conservative governments, the textile industry (let’s call them Big Cotton and Big Synthetics), and misinformed consumers mean it may not see mainstream prominence for a while. Check out the above video from Patagonia that provides a concise explanation on hemp in the US.

The entire world is progressing towards wider legal acceptance of cannabis, no doubt bolstered by decriminalising recreational use, as well as increasing ventures into Cannabidiol (CBD) products. Alas, some nations are waking up quicker than others.

In 2018, the US finally redefined hemp as an agricultural product rather than a controlled substance. This means it’s legal to grow hemp, for the most part. It only took a century, give or take a few years.

Elsewhere, China is responsible for around 70 per cent of the world’s hemp production, followed by France shouldering approximately 25 per cent. With the shift in attitudes and understanding of hemp products globally, perhaps these figures will increase across other countries, too.

More hemp sneakers in the future? We're not going to argue against that.

This feature was originally published on April 20, 2020.

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