Once regarded as rough, itchy sackcloth worn only by hippies, hemp is emerging as one of fashion’s most sustainable and easy-to-wear fabrics. Rachel Kelly, founder and Creative Director of sustainable fashion brand Thought, tells Victoria Earle why it is the textile of the future.
Rachel, tell us more about Thought and its ethos.
Rachel Kelly: We are on a mission to help people discover the joy of living more thoughtfully. We believe sustainability should be a joy. Because when you enjoy something, you do it more often. This ethos props up everything we do – we believe thoughtful people can change the world.
Why did you choose hemp as one of the materials for your range at Thought?
Rachel Kelly: Hemp is fantastic and such an unsung hero in contemporary fashion. It has so many winning qualities.
I’ve always worked with hemp as a more sustainable alternative to linen. It’s up to eight times stronger than linen, so it’s a lot more durable and long-lasting, and breathable for those hot summer days.
But to be honest, all of those things would be a bit redundant for a fashion brand if it didn’t also look great – it has a strong, sturdy quality that means it holds its shape and can look smart, but it’s also the perfect fabric for a pared-back beachy look.
I imagine hemp as being coarse and rough to the skin. But you say it is super-soft.
Rachel Kelly: Yes, this is something we are trying to combat at the moment. Hemp has a bit of a bad name for a variety of reasons, but it’s incredibly soft and gentle on your skin, easily as soft as cotton or linen, and it gets softer and better with every wash and wear. I honestly couldn’t sing its praises enough as an elegant and comfortable fabric.
How is hemp better than cotton?
Rachel Kelly: Well, firstly it’s three times as strong as cotton so it lasts a lot longer. Your average cotton T-shirt will last ten years, but your average hemp T-shirt can last 20 or 30. It’s also thermoregulating and gets better with each wear and wash.
Unless it’s organic, cotton is a very chemical-intensive crop, whereas hemp is naturally pest-resistant meaning no pesticides.
Hemp is a carbon negative crop – it absorbs C02 whilst it grows. One acre of hemp can remove 10 tonnes of carbon from the air.
Cotton isn’t the worst crop in terms of C02 production, but it does leave a footprint. When hemp is harvested or loses its leaves, it returns the carbon and nitrogen it has absorbed, as well as its nutrients, back into the soil, regenerating it and helping maintain soil quality.
Hemp also uses much less water than cotton – cotton needs 5,280 gallons of water to produce 2.2 pounds whereas hemp needs 80 gallons to produce pounds. I’m sure you can agree that is a massive difference. Hemp also grows much more quickly and produces about double the amount per hectare of land too, so it’s much more land efficient.
Is hemp colourfast and how easy is it to wash and care for?
Rachel Kelly: Hemp is not colourfast but I think that is part of its beauty. I love how the colour changes a bit over time.
In terms of care, I think people these days tend to wash their clothes more often than they need to. We say wash less, live more!
Also when you do, wash on a cooler wash, as most detergents these days are powerful enough to clean on a 30-degree wash which is far better for the environment and will help the colour stay.
How do you source hemp for your range? What ethical standards must it meet?
Rachel Kelly: All of our fabrics must meet the same standards of being ethically and responsibly produced. We use industry standards to ensure our processes are the highest recognised benchmarks they can be. Our collections are increasingly Fairtrade and GOTS certified.
We are meticulous in assessing our supply chains to make sure they meet our values for people and the planet.
Can you walk us through some of your favourite hemp picks from your collection?
Rachel Kelly: I adore the Tiffany dress, it is super bright and colourful – perfect for the summer wedding season. People are always surprised when they realise it’s made out of hemp.
We do a really simple, effortless top that goes with everything and can be worn anywhere. It’s breathable and comfy and makes such a great wardrobe staple.
But I always say that if you are going to buy one new thing, buy a jumpsuit – they’re so versatile and easy to wear. Perfect for summer, but easily transition to cooler months by layering a jumper over the top.
How do you and your partner John find balance in your lives as parents and entrepreneurs?
Rachel Kelly: Very good question and I don’t really know if I have the answer! I think many other parents will understand what I mean when I say that you just do. Somehow everything comes together by the end of the day. It helps that we are passionate about what we do, so although it is technically ‘work’, it is so much more than a job. We’re lucky to have an incredible team who believes in Thought as much as we do, so it is very much a team effort. Together we keep working hard to create positive change.