Hemp has always been in production and use across the world—but as soon as cannabis started coming under fire for being a substance that causes altered states, even the non-smokable form of hemp came under fire. Today, as cannabis is starting to be accepted into society once more, we are also embracing the wonderful way that hemp works as a fiber, from hemp backpacks and purses to necklaces and shirts. As we move forward into this bold new world of clothing possibilities, we should also remember the awesome ways that hemp function as a garment fiber in the past.
How Does it Work?
Hemp is a strong, canvas-like fiber (in fact, “canvas” comes from the word “cannabis”)—so while it makes amazing jewelry, purses and backpacks that can stand the test of time, it is not the most comfortable or soft thing to use for clothing that makes contact with skin. For that reason, hemp that is used in clothing is usually blended with either flax, cotton or silk, usually at a ratio of 55 percent hemp and 45 percent of the other material.
A Fiber of Firsts
Hemp was actually one of the first plants that was processed into fiber for clothing, due to its durable nature and how easy it is to grow. Remnants of hemp have been found as early as 8000 BCE in Mesopotamia, making it one of the earliest examples of human industry. It was also grown to be made into cloth in the Sung Dynasty in China in 500 CE. The emperor of the Sung apparently liked having it around as a textile and ordered his subjects to grow it. By 1200 CE Europe was also cultivating cannabis for fabric.
Hemp served as very important crop during the Middle Ages, when Henry VIII actually declared that all farmers had to use at least ¼ of their land for hemp growing. The fiber was essential as the material for sails and painting canvases, two very important items at the time, and up until the 1920s it is estimated that about 80 percent of clothing in the UK were made from hemp fiber.
Early Days of Colonization
Hemp was still grown as a major fiber during the early colonials days in the U.S. Jacques Cartier noted when he first got to the new world that hemp grew everywhere as a wild weed, and that the natural hemp that grew in the colonies was of a very strong variety. Hemp was grown in California, Kentucky New York, Oregon, Utah, Texas, New England, Virginia, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Missouri during the colonial days and the early days of the US, and was considered an important textile cash crop and one of the major ways that early American clothing was manufactured. The amazing ability of the American continents to produce hemp was not lost the on the British–they imported hemp grown in Canada for textile until the 1800s.
Decline in Production
Sadly, at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, hemp production started to decline. The U.S. embraced the cotton gin and cotton production, and unfortunately, the evil of slavery that came with it. Since cotton was easier and more affordable to produce, it began to weigh out over hemp. Then in the 1930s, the combination of propaganda against cannabis and synthetic textile companies driving hemp out completely suppressed the production of hemp, to the point that it was actually outlawed along with smokeable cannabis. This victory of synthetic textiles over hemp has to be one of the most extreme cases of capitalist competition in history.
Luckily, now that we are rethinking the insanity that is complete prohibition of something as helpful and benign as cannabis, we are also rethinking the prohibition of one of the world’s most useful fibers. Today, hemp clothing is back in fashion. Hemp necklaces made of macramé-woven hemp and beads are a great way to practice a hobby and make unique jewelry that is strong and durable but also very affordable. Similarly, hemp can be used to make things like backpacks and tote bags that really last, or woven in with cotton to make harty clothing. Today wearing hemp is a multi-layered statement—you are claiming you support the earth and sustainable practices, the legalization of cannabis, and a return to our natural roots.