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Hemp: An Ancient Fiber for a Sustainable Future
Hemp is an ancient plant that protects the environment and provides fiber for soft durable fabric. A fiber from the Cannibis plant, it is believed to be one of the oldest domesticated crops. It builds soil, resists insects and requires a minimum of water. Anthropologists maintain that throughout history, hemp was carried nearly everywhere humans moved around the globe.
Hemp is a bast fiber, along with flax and jute. Bast refers to the complex tissue layer under the bark that transports fluids, store nutrients and supports the plant. Bast fibers are typically processed by scraping, soaking or steaming the stalks until they start to break down. Most bast plants produce course fibers, but flax, hemp and ramie produce fibers fine enough for soft clothing. Both hemp fiber and marijuana belong to the same scientific class, Cannabis sativa. One variety has been bred for medical and ceremonial properties; the other is bred to produce tall, fast growing plants, which grow vigorously outdoors producing high yields. The fiber has a high tensile strength and has been used for making rope and netting since ancient times.
Hemp fiber is grown today in more than 30 countries, but its history stretches back 8,000 to 12,000 years. Early civilizations used it for foods, oils, and textiles, including fabric and strong rope-like strands. Archaeologists recently discovered cannabis in a 2,700-year-old tomb. The textile manufacturing, often called “industrial hemp”, was once highly regarded in the United States–Kentucky and Colorado are currently leading new research into crop growing again.
Cultures all over the world value hemp for a variety of reasons. In Japan, the new emperor would wear a robe made from it during coronation as it symbolizes abundance, comfort and health. In Korea, hemp was widely used for summer clothing until the 1950s and was considered one of the four traditional fabrics, along with cotton, ramie and silk. It was believed that wearing coarsely woven cloth would attract good luck and that envy and jealousy would pass through the gaps. Both cotton and hemp were collected as taxes. Hemp fiber was used to cure rashes in infants and some babies wore hemp clothing for protection.
- Thomas Jefferson wrote his Declaration of Independence draft on hemp paper
- Hemp’s “stronger than steel” fiber is used in body armor and aircraft parts
- Batteries and renewable plastics are made from hemp
- Toasted hemp seed has always been the “go-to” after-school snack in Iran
This versatile fiber takes natural dyes beautifully.The ClothRoads shop has organic hemp fabric from Laos for making your own creations, plus bags and pouches dyed with natural indigo.
Look for the latest updates on Colorado’s growing hemp fiber industry in a future blog on ClothRoads.
Judy’s Recommended Resources
Fine, Doug, Hemp Bound; Dispatches From The Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution, 2014, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont.
Hamilton, Roy W. and Milgram, B. Lynee, eds., Material Choices: Refashioning Bast and Leaf Fibers in Asia and The Pacific, 2007, Fowler Museum, CA