Hemp and linen are two natural fibers, both with long histories and a wide variety of uses. Both come from plants that have been used for centuries to manufacture fabrics for clothing, bedding, and more. Each has significant benefits compared with synthetic fibers such as polyester.
Although there are many similarities between hemp and linen, there are some pretty significant differences, too. In our head-to-head comparison, we will look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of hemp and linen. We will analyze both in terms of cultivation, processing, and the end products of these two versatile plants.
So, if you are wondering whether to choose hemp or linen for your next fabric purchase, here’s what you need to know first.
Hemp vs. Linen: The Basics
Hemp fibers come from a specific variety of the Cannabis sativa plant, sometimes referred to as industrial hemp. Although it is closely related to marijuana, hemp has very low levels of the intoxicating cannabinoid THC. Therefore, unlike other varieties of the plant, hemp does not produce any psychoactive high.
The historical evidence suggests that hemp has been used for as long as 10,000 years. People cultivated hemp for its strong fibers, which are ideal for making cloth, rope, fishing nets, and even paper. However, hemp cultivation in the United States ceased for the last few decades. This was partly due to the rise of synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon. However, it was largely down to marijuana illegalization which effectively outlawed the plant in many parts of the world.
People have cultivated hemp for thousands of years – using it for anything from construction and textiles to food and medicine.
This situation has recently reversed, and attitudes toward marijuana and hemp have begun to change. Over the past few years, the benefits of cannabis-derived products such as cannabidiol (CBD) have been well-publicized. The future of hemp has been further secured by the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. This piece of legislation should ensure that farmers cultivate low-THC industrial hemp across America for many years to come.
On the other hand, linen has never faced such adversity. This fiber comes from the innocent flax plant (Linum usitatissimum), which is perhaps best known for its nutritious seeds.
Like hemp, flax has been grown and used for thousands of years, and it has many similar uses. It was the primary fiber used during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and was even used to wrap mummies in ancient Egypt.
Finer grades of linen can be woven into a smooth and comfortable fabric, while coarser grades are suitable for making canvas and twine. Like hemp, this is an adaptable plant with many different uses.
Similarities Between Hemp and Linen
Apart from having many of the same uses, fabrics made from hemp and linen share many of the same properties.
- Both are tough fabrics that soften with repeated use and washing
- Both materials are natural and breathable
- Both fabrics are highly absorbent
- Both fabrics have antibacterial properties
- Both have hollow fibers, making them effective insulators
- Both fabrics are biodegradable
In addition to this, both hemp and linen are extremely strong and durable. However, hemp is reported to be up to eight times stronger and has the longest shelf-life of any natural textile. It is resistant to mildew, mold, pests such as moths, and even ultraviolet light. So when you buy a product made from hemp, it will last a long time!
Differences Between Hemp and Linen
As well as these similarities, there are some critical differences between hemp and linen. However, to see them, you need to put these two fibers under the microscope.
When looking at hemp and linen up close, you can see minute differences in the shape of the fibers and the way they behave. While hemp fibers have a polygon-shaped cross-section with rounded edges, linen fibers have five to seven peaks with sharp edges.
Inside both fibers are bundles of tiny fibrils, and these are oriented differently in hemp and linen. This means that when subjected to a ‘twist test,’ hemp fibers twist counter-clockwise, whereas linen fibers twist clockwise.
Examined under a microscope, one can clearly see the structural differences between hemp and linen fibers.
The fibers of the two plants are also different colors. Hemp ranges from yellow or gray to dark brown, while linen is much paler. However, due to the absorbency of both fibers, they can easily be dyed to any color a manufacturer should choose.
Another significant difference between hemp and linen is the length of the fibers. Hemp fibers range between four and seven feet in length, whereas linen fibers are usually less than half as long. It is one reason why hemp is so strong and durable when compared to other natural fabrics.
We have discussed the main similarities and differences between hemp and linen as textiles, so what about cultivation? Is one plant easier to grow than the other? Let’s take a look.
Growing Hemp vs. Growing Flax
Hemp is famously easy to grow. It is naturally resistant to many pests, meaning that it can be grown successfully without herbicides and pesticides. It is also high-yielding, and a hectare of hemp produces significantly more usable fiber than the same area of flax.
Another advantage of growing hemp over flax is that it has long taproots that are great for the soil. This means hemp is an excellent candidate for crop rotation and can be grown on the same land year after year. On the other hand, flax can only be raised in the same area for around five years before the soil becomes depleted.
One downside of growing hemp is that it is a very hungry plant and needs a lot of nutrients. Hemp requires around 80–100 kg/ha of nitrogen, 100 kg/ha of phosphorus, and 150 kg/ha of potassium. Whereas flax only needs 60 kg/ha, 30–50 kg/ha, and 70–100 kg/ha. So when it comes to feeding requirements, flax has a definite edge.
Another important consideration when growing hemp and linen is the environmental impact of the two crops. Is one greener than the other? Keep reading to find out.
Hemp vs. Linen: Environmental Impact
According to studies on biodiversity and environmental impact, this is another area where hemp and linen are almost inseparable.
In terms of encouraging biodiversity, hemp definitely comes out on top. Fiber hemp is rated as the fifth-best crop for biodiversity (behind alfalfa, timber trees, oilseed hemp, and ginseng. Flax only comes in ninth (after apples, peanuts, and grapes).
However, when it comes to overall environmental impact, flax just about takes the lead. A study by the European Environmental Agency rated different crops from A to C depending on their effects on the environment. Flax came in fourth (after pasture, short-term coppices, and winter grains), and hemp followed closely at fifth. The reason for this appears to be hemp’s need for heavier watering in comparison to flax.
One of the major environmental disadvantages of hemp cultivation is its enormous demand for water.
Of course, transforming hemp and flax plants into usable fibers also has some environmental impact. Both fibers are produced by a process called retting. During retting, the fibers are separated from the other plant material using water and enzymes.
A 2008 study by Turunen and van der Werf suggests that while flax retting could cause more environmental problems due to its increased need for pesticides, hemp requires more water to complete the process. Other than that, the researchers found no significant differences.
Hemp vs. Linen: Versatility
The final category in our head to head is versatility. Both hemp and flax plants are used for their fibers and their seeds. Hemp seeds and flax seeds are considered extraordinarily healthy and contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, among other nutrients.
However, hemp has another distinct advantage over flax as its leaves and flowers contain cannabinoids such as CBD. They also possess other beneficial compounds like terpenes and flavonoids, and together these provide a wealth of health-boosting properties.
People use CBD oil to address a whole range of conditions, from pain to epilepsy. It is thought to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and have neuroprotectant properties. Therefore, it may also help patients with medical conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
And since CBD oil contains only trace amounts of THC, it will not get you high as cannabis does. Best yet, it is now legal in most places around the world.
Hemp vs. Linen: Final Thoughts
We have seen many similarities between these two remarkable natural fibers in our head-to-head comparison of hemp and linen. However, in our opinion, there is a clear winner and that, of course, is hemp.
Okay, we may be slightly biased, as here at WayofLeaf, we are massive fans of all things hemp-related. However, due to its unbeatable durability, clear benefits for soil and biodiversity, plus its ability to produce CBD, we believe that hemp genuinely deserves to be crowned king.