Hemp Versus Cotton

Hemp versus cotton. Both have been cultivated for thousands of years as fiber and food crops. Where are they grown? Which is more environmentally friendly? Which has the stronger fibers? Which is better for upholstery? Read on to find the answers to these questions and more...


Hemp refers to varieties of the cannabis plant that are grown for industrial and commercial purposes such as clothing and health foods. It is similar to flax, jute, or ramie. Other varieties of cannabis contain a psychoactive compound known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. However, industrial hemp has only trace amounts of THC. One does not get high smoking hemp (but you can easily get a headache).

The hemp plant is tall and thin and grows from 5 to 15 feet in height. It is primarily grown in China as well as Europe, South America and North Korea. It is illegal to grow hemp in the United States except by special permit.

The use of hemp can be traced back to 8000 BC in the Middle East and China where the fiber was used for textiles, ropes, and fishnets, the oil for cosmetic purposes and the seeds for food. Hemp has been used to produce high quality paper for centuries. Today, hemp fibers are woven into clothing, cordage, curtains, rope, carpets, burlap, sacking, shoes, towels, and heavy-duty tarpaulins. The seeds are used for health foods, edible oils, biodiesel oil, paint, soaps, cosmetics, cremes, and a host of other products.


Cotton is a fiber, feed and food crop that is native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world. It is used to manufacture a wide variety of products including apparel, sheets, towels, tarpaulins, tents, cooking oil, shortening, and salad dressing. The meal and hulls are used as livestock, poultry and fish feed and as fertilizer. Like hemp, cotton is a very versatile plant.

China is currently the world's largest cotton grower, India is second and the U.S. is third. Cotton is grown in 17 states, primarily in the South. Texas is the leading cotton producing state. Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber cloth for clothing. Because it is so widespread, cotton tends to be less expensive than hemp.

Environmental Impact

Cotton is a very water and pesticide intensive plant to grow. It has a much higher environmental cost than hemp which requires fewer pesticides or fertilizers and no herbicides. Hemp requires much less water, grows very quickly (70 to 110 days), and uses minimal nutrients from the soil. Hemp plant roots aerate the soil, leaving it rich for future crops. Hemp will produce 1500 pounds of fiber per acre, whereas cotton will produce only 500 pounds per acre!

Fiber Properties

Hemp fabrics are stronger, more absorbent, more durable, and better insulating than cotton. Furthermore, they don’t stretch out of shape. This property makes hemp a perfect upholstery fabric because it can be pulled taut and remain taut throughout the life of the furniture. On the other hand, cotton is ideal for t-shirts, jeans, and other apparel where some stretch is desirable.

Cotton fabric is softer and more comfortable against the skin than hemp fabric. Hemp fiber has a rough feel to it in its natural spun state and is susceptible to fraying. Hemp also has a pronounced, naturally-occurring odor that some people don't care for.

Hemp fibers have a relatively large surface area and are very water absorbent. This allows the fiber to dye well and retain its color better than any other fabric including cotton or linen.

Cotton and Hemp Blends

Cotton blends very well with hemp. The hemp adds stability and strength to cotton, making the fabric stronger and slightly lowering its shrinkage. It also enhances dye retention. Note that both cotton and hemp will shrink when first washed.