top of page

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.)