If you want a good nights’ sleep, might as well invest some quality bedsheets. Some that are not only soft to the touch, but also which will have contributed to a plethora of benefits before they’ve even been made.
Even though hemp and linen based bedding were around several centuries ago, way before the mass cotton and synthetics boom, they have recently been (re-)gaining in popularity and are fast becoming fast-fashion combatting favorites for their raw, minimally-processed style. In this article, we dissect both types from a sustainability point of view, right from the ground up through to the end of them being in your life (not someone else’s!).
Hemp vs Linen Bedsheets: The plants behind hemp and linen
Linen comes from the flax plant, one of the oldest fiber-producing plants in the world. Flax fibres originate from the stem of the plant itself while the rest serves many other purposes including for cooking, thanks to the oil extracted from the seeds, which can be used for feeding livestock and, well, humans.
Hemp comes from the Cannabis sativa plant. Like flax, hemp fibers are also extracted from the stalk and undergo a similar process called retting to separate the tougher outer layers from the finer ones on the inside. Once spun, the long-strand richly textured fibers are weaved into fine fabrics and graded by weight. Generally, linen ends up being slightly smoother than hemp due to the differences in fibre structure.
Because hemp grows prolifically like a weed up to 3 meters tall (thereby shading any weeds trying to grow beneath it), it requires hardly any chemicals comparatively to many other crops. Other ecofriendly benefits include the fact that hemp has natural insect repellence properties, therefore dispelling any pesticide use. It can therefore easily be grown organically and as part of regenerative agriculture practices.
In contrast, cultivating flax does generally require higher nutrient levels than for hemp and may require some pesticides to ward off pests, but interestingly, the majority of the chemicals are returned to the soil during retting.
It’s also worth noting that hemp requires very little water to flourish, which can generate considerable water savings in contrast to other crops requiring much more irrigation water. To illustrate, it takes 300-500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of hemp. In comparison, cotton requires 20 times more.
Helping the soil rejuvenate, capture CO2 and biodiversity to flourish
When used in rotation, hemp is known to enhance the following crops’ yield thanks to its effect on the soil. The plants’ deep roots favor underground micro-organism life which contribute to a healthy soil structure, which is a key ingredient to promoting soil carbon sequestration. It grows so quickly (100 days on average) it can sometimes be harvested several times a year. For the same area of land, hemp will generally produce higher yields than linen (up to 600% in some cases!), making hemp a smart, space-saving crop.
Both hemp and linen do wonders for biodiversity, ticking off the United Nation’ Sustainable Development Goal number 13 – Life on Land. Studies have found that both plants rank highly in terms of biodiversity friendliness, with the Cannabis fiber ranking within the top 5 within selected samples. And bees particularly like hemp flowers as they bloom over three long months.
Hemps’ carbon footprint is roughly 1.63 tons of CO2 for every ton of hemp produced. From a lifecycle point of view and compared to fossil-based composite textiles, growing and transforming plants like these has shown important energy and greenhouse gas savings, making them a textile of choice compared to others like polyester.
As mentioned, hemp grows easily unbothered by weeds, in various places around the world, from large agricultural landmasses like Canada and China to smaller countries in Europe like France and Romania.
On the other hand, flax can be a little bit more demanding. It grows best in cool temperatures and requires fertile soils in order to generate high yields. Canada and the US are also top producers as are Russia, Kazakhstan and China.
Some countries have highly regulated hemp farming measures, which can give you some indications that your bedding has been crafted under minimal quality norms. European producers benefit from labels such as European flax or Master of Linen which respectively guarantee to consumers the origin and transformation of the derived products as being made in Europe. However, most finer yarns come from China which, due to distance, can defeat the purpose of purchasing low carbon footprint products if you’re a consumer on the other side of the world.
Wherever you are, it is worth checking that growing and manufacturing standards are kept to high ecological and socio-economic best practices. When it doubt, it is always good practice enquiring with vendors should the origin of the product not be mentioned, and to make sure you obtain the key quality information you deserve to know.
Low level processing make the look
Hemps’ natural brightness, ranging from light to grey tones of beige, can avoid the need to use chlorine bleach, a common treatment associated with high energy use and pollutants. Fun fact: the greyer the tone, the more likely the raw material hemp was harvested under rainier conditions. In contrast, sunnier harvest times will yield lighter beige outputs. Either way, hemp is super resistant to ultraviolet light so it will never change color.
On the other hand, linen’s natural color tends to be on the silver side, with shades being generally more consistent from one batch to another (and not weather-dependent!). However, linen does get tinted in a wider variety of colors and various processes can occur depending on the finish produced (satin versus washed look). To make sure no nasties are added down the transformation chain, look for brands that have been certified by Oeko-Tex for instance as these will ensure no toxic products have been used. With that in mind, your skin and health will snooze safely.
Regardless of the color and finish, whether it’s beige or grey, either style can be considered as being intemporal and stylishly suitable to fit any bedroom for years to come.
Super natural properties
Hemp sheets are known to have, naturally within them, antifungal agents and to repel dust mites (nobody wants holes in their cozy bedding!). Hemp is supposedly even able to kill staph and other bacteria upon its surface. Likewise, linen, contains anti-allergenic properties making it a perfect textile for those with sensitive skin, even though ironically, they can seem a little harsh at the beginning. But, as time passes and the sheets soften after washing, having a set of either of these will undoubtedly help you snooze under naturally sanitized conditions, no chemical-products required.
Both are anti-static and, lest we forget, super comfortable. But often, either fibre can be blended with organic cotton for ultimate softness. Beware then of inflated marketing content, so that you don’t get caught with a “luxury” 80% cotton bedsheet when in fact you were hoping for more hemp or linen!
Cool yet warm
When it comes to nighttime, both hemp and organic linen share similar absorbency and breathability credentials, efficiently wicking away moisture with no need for fancy lab-developed chemicals or micro-technologies. In fact, both materials are reported to absorb way more water than their counterparts, like cotton, making them a bedsheet of choice especially on hot summer nights.
On the other hand, hemp and linen will also keep you toasty during the winter thanks to the way their fibers are shaped (like hollow cores) which will literally help trap your own heat when wrapped around you. If you’re looking for a differentiator, some say linen will make you fall asleep faster and deeper! Perhaps it has something to do with the long-strand texture mentioned above, giving you micro-massages all through the night?
What about the wrinkles?
As for clothes, linen and hemp bedsheets will crease from time to time but – thanks to ambient moisture – you’ll find they will relax and still look great un-ironed, saving you energy trying to making them look perfectly crisp. Drying them out in the air is of course de rigeur. Put them in the tumble drier and the heat will not do them any favors. If you’re looking for a little more elasticity though, linen is your choice as hemp does stretch less than other fibers.
Although both fibres have higher tensile strengths compared to other fabrics, explaining why they used to be passed down from one generation to the next, hemp is stronger than linen and is sometimes referred to as the strongest natural fibre in the world. Beware though, the more friction they bear (such as from repeated washing and detergent use), the faster they will wear. It is recommended to not wash these bedding at temperatures beyond 40 degrees Celsius and again, do not tumble dry!
And even though both fabrics are highly durable, because of their overall relatively natural unprocessed states, they are readily compostable and biodegradable materials, with an ability to decompose in as little as 4 years.
Both flax and hemp plants generate textiles with several common benefits including comparatively higher sustainability credentials than standard widespread cotton or polyester staples. Although this make come at a slight premium for your wallet, know that your linen or hemp sheets will keep their original quality for as long as you keep taking care of them.
Whichever you choose, remember to not over wash either bedding so as to maintain its natural properties longer. You can eventually pass them down to family or friends as an heirloom! By buying hemp or linen, you encourage an industry that is by far less resource intensive than other raw materials used for similar uses, and that produces products that are ultimately be better for your sleep (in this case) and the environment.