Hemp and linen are two natural fibers, both with long histories and a wide variety of uses. Both come from plants which have been used for centuries to manufacture fabrics for clothing, bedding, and more, and both are thought to have significant benefits compared with synthetic fibers such as polyester.
Although it’s true that 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, 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.
Even so, hemp has been used by man for millennia, cultivated for its long and strong fibers which are ideal for making cloth, rope, fishing nets, and even paper. It is thought to have been used for as long as 10,000 years, although it fell out of favor during the 1900s. This was in part due to the rise of synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon, but also thanks to marijuana illegalization which effectively outlawed the plant in many parts of the world.
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 which should ensure that low-THC, industrial hemp is farmed across America for many years to come.
On the other hand, linen has never faced such adversity. This fiber is produced 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 given the dubious honor of being used to wrap mummies in ancient Egypt.
While finer grades of linen are capable of being woven into a smooth and comfortable fabric, its coarser grades are suitable for making canvas and twine. Like hemp, this is an adaptable plant with a myriad of different uses.
So, aside from their usefulness and long histories, what else do hemp and linen have in common?
Similarities Between Hemp and Linen
As well as having many of the same uses, fabrics made from hemp and linen share many of the same properties.
- Both are tough fabrics which 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 is thought to have the longest shelf-life of any natural textile. It is resistant to mildew, mold, pests such as moths, and even ultraviolet light. This means that when you buy a product made from hemp, you can be sure 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 literally need to put these two fibers under the microscope.
When you look at hemp and linen up close, it is possible to 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.
The fibers of the two plants are also different colors with hemp ranging from yellow or gray to dark brown and linen being much paler. However, due to the absorbency of both fibers, they can easily be dyed to any color a manufacturer should choose.
Another major difference between hemp and linen is the length of the fibers. Hemp fibers can range between four and seven feet in length, whereas linen fibers are usually less than half as long. This is one reason why hemp is so strong and durable when compared to other natural fabrics.
Now we have discussed the main similarities and differences between hemp and linen as textiles, what about when it comes to 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 the use of 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 tap roots which are great for the soil. This means that not only is hemp a great candidate for crop rotation, but also that it can be grown on the same land year after year. Flax, on the other hand, 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 to provide a successful yield. While hemp requires around 80–100 kg/ha of nitrogen, 100 kg/ha of phosphorus, and 150 kg/ha of potassium, flax only needs 60 kg/ha, 30–50 kg/ha, and 70–100 kg/ha respectively. This means 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), whereas 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.
Of course, transforming hemp and flax plants into usable fibers also has some environmental impact. Both fibers are produced by a process called retting, in which 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, no significant differences were found.
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 both 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.
CBD oil is used to relieve a whole range of conditions ranging from pain to epilepsy. It is thought to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and have neuroprotectant properties meaning that it could also help patients with issues such as 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. This means that it is now legal in most places around the world.
Hemp vs. Linen: Final Thoughts
In our head to head comparison of hemp and linen, we have seen many similarities between these two remarkable natural fibers. 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.