What’s the Difference Between Hemp vs. Polyester?

In the textile world, choosing the right fabric often involves weighing various factors, from comfort and durability to cost and environmental impact. Two prominent contenders in this arena are hemp, a natural fiber with a storied history, and polyester, a synthetic fiber that dominates the modern apparel market. Understanding the differences between these two can help consumers make informed decisions. This guide explores the unique qualities of hemp and polyester fabrics, highlighting their strengths and potential drawbacks.

// THE BASICS //

Hemp is one of the oldest known cultivated fibers, used for thousands of years. Derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, hemp fabric is created through mechanical processing that retains the fiber’s natural integrity without the use of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.

Polyester is a synthetic fiber made from petroleum-based chemicals. It was introduced in the mid-20th century and quickly became popular due to its durability, versatility, and cost-effectiveness. The production of polyester involves polymerization, where ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid are combined to create polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is then extruded into fibers.

// PERFORMANCE //

Breathability

Hemp fabric excels in breathability due to its porous structure, which allows air to flow freely through the material. This makes hemp ideal for warm climates and activewear, as it helps to keep the wearer cool and dry by wicking moisture away from the skin.

Polyester is a dense, synthetic fiber that can trap heat and moisture against the skin, leading to discomfort in hot and humid conditions. While some polyester blends are engineered to improve moisture-wicking capabilities, they often do not match the natural breathability of hemp.

Comfort

Hemp, traditionally known to be a coarser fabric, has evolved with modern processing techniques. Innovations have led to higher thread counts and denser weaves, resulting in a fabric that is soft to start and softens with each wash while maintaining its durability.

Polyester is lightweight and can be engineered to feel soft and smooth. It’s often blended with natural fibers to enhance its comfort. Polyester may soften with age, due to a weakening of the fabric’s structure.

Durability

Hemp is highly regarded for its durability. The fibers are among the strongest natural fibers available, (used in the sails and ropes of pirate ships!) making hemp fabric exceptionally resistant to wear and tear. Unlike many other textiles, hemp retains its strength even when wet, further extending its lifespan.

Polyester is also highly durable and resistant to shrinking, stretching, and wrinkling. It can withstand frequent washing and drying, which is why it’s commonly used in activewear and everyday apparel. However, polyester’s durability comes with an environmental cost, as the fiber is not biodegradable and contributes to microplastic pollution both within our skin’s pores, as well as in Nature.

Antimicrobial

Hemp fabric naturally resists the growth of bacteria, mold, and mildew. This characteristic helps reduce odors from building up in the fabric, making hemp an excellent choice for activewear and undergarments.

Polyester does not have inherent antimicrobial properties. Any antimicrobial benefits in polyester garments typically come from chemical treatments applied during manufacturing. These chemical treatments wash out over time, diminishing their effectiveness and polluting waterways.

// Textile Process of Hemp vs. Polyester //

Understanding the processes behind hemp and polyester production highlights the differences in their environmental and practical impacts.

Hemp Processing

Cultivation:

Hemp is a resilient plant that requires no pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers to grow. It grows rapidly and requires 79% less water to grow than cotton while yielding 220% more fiber. It also breaks down toxic materials in the soil and absorbs CO2 to improve air quality. 

Retting:

After harvesting, hemp stalks are retted to break down the pectin that binds the fibers. This can be done through natural methods such as dew retting, which uses dew’s moisture to facilitate the breakdown. These methods also maintain the integrity of the fibers.

Decortication:

This mechanical process separates the long, strong fibers from the woody core of the stalks. The cleaned fibers are then prepared for spinning into yarn, ready to be woven into fabric.

Spinning and Weaving:

Hemp fibers are spun into yarn and woven into fabric using traditional textile techniques. This straightforward process avoids chemical treatments, preserving the natural qualities of the hemp fiber.

Polyester Processing

Polymerization:

Polyester production begins with the chemical reaction of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, creating polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This process involves high energy consumption and relies on petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

Extrusion and Spinning:

The PET is melted and extruded through spinnerets to form fibers. These fibers are then cooled, stretched, and drawn to enhance their strength and durability.

Weaving and Finishing:

The polyester fibers are woven into fabric and often undergo chemical treatments to enhance properties like water resistance or stain repellency. These treatments can add to the overall environmental impact of polyester textiles.

// Conclusion //

When comparing hemp and polyester fabrics, each has its distinct advantages and challenges. Hemp stands out for its breathability, comfort, and natural durability. It softens with age, resists bacteria and odors, and regulates temperature effectively. The straightforward, less intensive processing of hemp highlights its practical qualities.

Polyester, with its robust durability and cost-effectiveness, remains a popular choice in the textile industry. It offers lightweight comfort and resists shrinking and wrinkling. However, its synthetic nature and the extensive chemical processes involved in its production raise concerns about its long-term impact and comfort in warm conditions.

By understanding these differences, consumers can make choices that best meet their needs and align with their preferences. 

Astral Hemp

Performance Hemp harnesses the power of Nature’s highest performing fiber. Hemp is naturally breathable, cooling in warm weather, odor resistant and tough af.

// References //

Journal of Natural Fibers – Research on the performance characteristics of hemp and bamboo fibers

Textile Exchange – Insights into the various textile fibers and their characteristics

Fashion Revolution – Discussions on the environmental impact and practicality of textile processes

Good On You – Sustainable Fabrics Guide – Comparisons of natural fibers including hemp and bamboo

Hemp Foundation – Detailed information about hemp fibers and their processing

These sources provide comprehensive information about the cultivation, processing, and performance characteristics of hemp and polyester.

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