Hemp is a soft bast fiber from the stem of a plant, as are flax, jute, and ramie. Hemp plant fibers are three to twelve feet long and are made up of bundled cellular fibers. The plant itself, Cannabis sativa, is hardy and can be grown in most locations and climates around the world and requires moderate water. Its recorded use for food, shelter, and fiber dates from at least to 8000 B.C.E. Although ethnobotanists and others cannot be absolutely sure, it is thought that hemp was first grown in Asia.
Hemp can be fabricated for clothing, canvas, rope, and other uses. While hemp is not as soft as cotton, it is stronger than other cellulosics, such as flax, and more absorbent than cotton. Due to hemp’s coarse and tough attributes it must be retted (rotted), a process by which the fibers are broken down microbially or chemically, decomposing the pectins that attach the bast fibers to the woody inner part of the stem known as the hurd or shive. Natural retting can be accomplished by simply allowing the cut stems to lie in damp fields for several weeks or by placing the stems in running water. The process of separating the bast fibers from the hurd is extremely difficult even when mechanized. The hurd is cleaned from the fiber by scutching (beating) and the fiber is further refined by hackling (combing). Thus, the retting, separating, and cleaning processes are lengthy and, therefore, expensive compared with other natural fibers. Overall, the production and processing of hemp is prohibitively expensive for routine consumer products.
Because hemp is naturally resistant to ultraviolet light, mold, and mildew, and to salt water, it has been used extensively for centuries by ships for sail canvas and rope. Farmers in the United States were encouraged to grow industrial hemp when, during World War II, the United States was denied access to abaca (called Manila hemp) from the Philippines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture produced a film titled “Hemp for Victory” and subsidized hemp cultivation by farmers. After World War LI, industrial hemp cultivation was outlawed due to its association with marijuana hemp, a different variety of Cannabis sativa. In 1999, Hawaii became the first state since 1957 in the United States to plant hemp seeds legally. Hawaii’s hemp project ended on 30 September 2003, when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) ended Hawaii’s attempt to grow industrial hemp. Industrial hemp is harvested in Canada, China, and most of Europe.
Hemp was reputedly used by Levi Strauss for the first Levi trousers sent to miners during the U.S. gold rush in the mid-1800s. Hemp fibers and yarns can be successfully combined with other natural fibers and yarns, including silk, and with synthetic fibers and yarns. Processed hemp is imported into the United States for use in industrial carpeting and upholstery as well as light supple dress weights.
In 2003, there were several businesses in the United States selling hemp fabrics or hemp blend fabrics for various uses. There were a large number of retailers who sold hemp and hemp blend products ranging from knitted T-shirts to woven and printed aloha shirts. Hemp fabrics become softer with repeated use and washing. Home products and accessories such as upholstery and table linens made from hemp are found to have strong market appeal to those seeking natural textile products.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, consumer use of hemp fabrics could be seen as a novelty touched by hemp’s arcane association with forbidden marijuana.
See also Hawaiian Shirt; Levi Strauss.
Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Blair, C. “Hemp Dies in Hawaii.” Honolulu Weekly, 8 October 2003.
Kadolph, Sara J., and Anna L Langford. Textiles. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1998.
Zimmerman, Malia. “Some See Profit in Hawaii Hemp.” Pacific Business News, 9 July 1999.