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Hemp ties - The possibility of a sustainable alternative?

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

I have always had the impression that most men aren't that concerned with the material composition when acquiring a new necktie for their wardrobe.

For most circumstances, the color options and patterns of the tie tend to crown themselves as the primary determining factors behind the decision-making process. Indeed, frequently asked questions, which I'm sure you have encountered at least once, usually sound like 'Oh, but can this match with that suit?' or 'Is this too similar to that tie I already have?'

Of course, this is usually the point where some cool menswear cats would jump in and assert that they care more about the tie being a sevenfold piece that is finished with a hand-rolled blade.

(Yes, I hear you.)

But what is more intriguing here — at least to my curiosity — is that most of this discussion of what makes a good tie still takes place within the realm of silk, be it a 50oz plain silk tie or an Ancient Madder from Macclesfield. After all, those who are well-versed enough in their 'tie-clopedia' to venture beyond into the land of wool or linen ties (and all sorts of other blends) are the minority.

Now, while there are solid reasons as to why most neckties are made with silk (more to follow shortly afterward), what I intend to do in today's write-up is to ask the broader question of whether there are alternative sustainable materials that have yet to be fully explored in the tie market.

To this, I'll be approaching this question by investigating the potential use of hemp in ties. So sit back and relax as we examine this niche subject. Enjoy.

Silkworms in their cocoon stage. (Image credits to PETA UK)

Why silk?

In recent years, silk has increasingly been in hot water due to the animal cruelty that could occur during the silk harvesting process, where silkworms are oftentimes killed in their cocoon stage.

I am using the phrase 'could' and 'oftentimes' here because silkworms don't always have to be killed for the harvesting, though that tends to be the norm. (I'll come back to this point towards the end of the write-up.)

Despite this, there are understandable reasons as to why silk tends to be the 'better' fabric option when it comes to ties.

Apart from the ease in 'bouncing' back in shape after being tied and untied continuously — a point which I have briefly discussed in my write-up on the 4*1 Kent style jacket — silk is also reasonably lighter than most other fabrics, especially in comparison to wool.

In fact, what is often overlooked is that the lightness of silk time and again allows the tie knot to be thinner and less chunky than many of its counterparts, ideal for those who favor a smaller knot.

Of course, there is a reasonable argument to be made that silk has a lot of sheen. And for the purpose of formality, there are no other fabrics that can rival silk in that department.

Hence, it's important to bear in mind that the alternative solution discussed below is not meant to be a replacement for silk ties. To put it simply, it is a merely alternative option when it comes to selecting a tie.

Choosing the right fabric. (Photo taken by Matthew Poon for The Suitstainable Man.)

The sustainable fabric conversation

Let's take a step back for a moment to discuss why are we having this sustainable fabric conversation in the first place. Or better yet, why the question of sustainable fabric hasn't really been asked in menswear.

Let me first answer the latter. To my experience, there are two key factors that differentiate classic menswear from regular fashion.

1) We tend to view garments as investment pieces that will last for years, if not decades. Regular fashion items are more likely to be treated as consumable goods.

2) We place a much stronger emphasis on the material selection, be it the cloth for a bespoke jacket or the leather for a pair of bespoke shoes. And while we place arguably less attention on the fabric of the tie, overall speaking, we still have a better understanding of the implication of how material determines the appearance of the garment. Meanwhile, regular fashion items, well, let's just say they are more about the logos for the majority of the time.

Now, what these two factors combined will result in is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are more likely to be more conscious of our material choices, searching for the best ones that could stand the test of time.

On the other hand, however, we become ‘too persistent’ with our choices. More often than not, we become skeptical of any new market alternative, questioning whether they will give the same characteristics as our go-to favorite.

One way or the other, the question of sustainability in fabric still exists regardless of us being more conscious of our consumption behavior. Or, to put it differently, it shouldn't stop us from looking at more sustainable alternatives.

This leads us to the discussion of hemp.

Cannabis sativa. (Image provided by Unsplash.)

What is hemp fabric?

For those of you who aren't familiar with the material, hemp fabric originates from the cannabis plant Cannabis sativa, for it is renowned for its tremendously durable and tensile stems. As such, the plant has been cultivated as a textile plant for millennia, with one source suggesting it could even be traced back to the 28th century BC!

What crowns the plant as the contemporary go-to sustainable fiber, however, also has to do with the fact that each part of the plant is used for different purposes — roots for fibers, seeds for proteins, as well as the leaves and the smokable flowers for oils. In other words, material wastage resulted upon the harvesting process is often low.

In addition, with regards to land use and chemical pollution, hemp is also known for requiring less land for cultivation, as well as releasing less toxic substances into the soil. (For more information, check out this pioneering study from 1998.)

What elevates the crop from a 'magical' to a 'holy grail' tier, however, would be the plant's carbon negative properties — meaning it absorbs more carbon than it produces.

Now, the reason why you may not have encountered this type of fiber as frequently as, say, wool or linen, is due to the plant's psychoactive qualities; thus raising the barrier for farmers to get access to the crop. Regardless, with the recent legislative changes related to marijuana in the US, we may be able to see more of this plant in the market soon enough.

(If you are interested in how the recent legalization of marijuana in the US has aided more farmers to plant hemp, check out this journal article.)

How does hemp fabric perform?

As brilliant as hemp fabric may sound, I am aware that #menswear gents wouldn't usually be convinced of new material until they see how well the fabric performs in their garment or accessory. To this, I can confirm my experience so far has been fairly positive.

As of late, I have acquired a stunning hemp (75%) and wool (25%) blend tie from Vanda Fine Clothing, with the fabric being sourced from Carnet in Como, Italy. This eggplant necktie comes in a basketweave design, thus manifesting itself as a discrete option suitable for being dressed up and down.

Now, before I offer my own two cents on the quality of the fabric, I suggest we first look at the description Vanda offered on this tie.

'Made of a unique hemp and wool blend by Carnet in Italy, this lightly lined, four-fold tie has a lovely texture and drape. Hemp is similar in drape, strength [,]and character to linen, so the addition of wool gives this tie some wrinkle resistance and bounce...'

Indeed, having worn the tie around 5 times as of writing, I can validate the description is rather accurate. Bolstered by the firmness of the hemp fabric (and, of course, with the aid of Vanda's exceptional craftsmanship), the tie knot immediately feels firm upon my first wear. And while the fabric may come across as being quite thick at first glance, it is rather breathable, thus making the tie an ideal piece to wear in spring and summer.

Meanwhile, it is intelligible as to why there is 25% wool in the fabric mix. Just like what is implied by Vanda, hemp is prone to accumulating wrinkles over time, much like linen. The addition of wool undoubtedly mitigates this issue to a great extent.

Yet, if you examine the picture below more closely, you could see the area where the dimple is usually formed still displays a deeper crease whilst the other areas have already bounced back in shape. Then again, this is a matter of personal preference — the crease doesn't bother me.

To cut a long argument short, I would suggest that if you were to ever acquire a hemp tie, always go for a blended piece.

The area where the dimple is usually at exhibits a particularly apparent crease.

Going forward

So what can we make out of this write-up?

First and foremost, I should clarify that this article is not meant to be an endorsement nor a criticism of a particular material. As you could see from what has been mentioned, silk is ideal for tie-making based on its certain characteristics, while hemp gives a completely different yet equally interesting appearance. What is clear, however, is that neither can replace the other.

This leads to my second point — it is perhaps not appropriate to jump to the conclusion on what is the best fabric. What this reductionist approach tends to overlook is that regardless of what material it is, as long as the fabric is mass-produced, it is always more prone to causing more environmental degradation or animal cruelty.

This is the case for silk, in which less violent approaches of harvesting tend to require the producers to wait until the moth has hatched from the cocoon. Nonetheless, it shouldn't be the producers that get all the bad rap, considering more time-consuming approaches are regrettably not feasible when you also have brands and consumers demanding a rapid return of goods.

The same story can happen to hemp as well, frankly speaking. Shall the demand for hemp continue to rise, the best practices associated with the plant may no longer exist. For instance, some parts of the plant may be left unutilized when there is a particularly sudden increase in demand for the other parts, rendering the leftover bits to rot.

Taking a step back, we should bear in mind that it is the mechanisms and policies hidden behind the curtains that do more to influence whether fibers are harvested in line with environmental and ethical concerns.

What we could do as consumers, then, is to continue to support artisans and other makers alike who run their business in a way we could vouch for. Advocating for materials which we believe in and, in return, they could reciprocate that to their suppliers as well. Small changes all started somewhere, after all.

Anyway, that's it from me today. Take care and bye for now.

This article is not sponsored by any brands. Likewise, I have not received any benefits for writing this write-up. All opinions are my own.

Photography: As stated, otherwise by The Suitstainable Man team


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