Hemp – the Red-Headed Stepchild Of the Fiber World

A while back I took a peek into the history of rope and I did my very best to side-step the whole messy, controversial topic of hemp. I was feeling pretty clever about that. But a few of my readers called me out (more than a few actually) so I guess I wasn’t so clever after all.

hemp fiber

So I guess we’re doing this. Let’s have some hemp history!

You cannot delve into the history, cultivation, and use of hemp without getting all tangled up in the legalization of marijuana in the United States and the socio-economic politics of that. Plenty of the links I provide here in this post are going to take you to sites that advocate the legalization of marijuana. What is my personal opinion on that subject?

a) I don’t care very much and I wish politicians would work on issues like the stunning illiteracy rates in our children and our national debt instead of who can smoke what.

b) I wish people who got high would stop driving.

c) Every single person I know who gets high (and I know a lot) tells me they do it for medical reasons and not to get giggly, relaxed, and silly. The fact that they do get giggly, relaxed, and silly is an unavoidable side effect.

d) Nearly all of the people who are smoking pot for “medical reasons” think I should stop taking aspirin when I get a headache because they read somewhere that aspirin was dangerous.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family. All members of the cannabis family contain THC and useful fiber. Today the cannabis grown for industrial purpose, which is what we call hemp, contains about 35% fiber and trace amounts of THC. The cannabis that is grown for medical reasons and/or to get people high, which we call marijuana, contains about 15% fiber and LOTS of THC.

Cannabis in the Ancient World

The original, ancestral plant that modern members of the cannabis family originate from no longer seems to exist anywhere. It was bred and cross-bred and cultivated and changed into what we have today. But its safe to say that at one point humans were using the same cannabis plant to cultivate fiber and get high. According to Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean, cannabis probably originated in northern Asia in the Neolithic Age. It spread all over the Eurasian continent and into Africa very rapidly sometime around 1000BC. The plant itself adapts easily to new environments and can grow almost anywhere. Its just a weed after all.

The Egyptians were cultivating cannabis at least 4000 years ago. We know they had hemp rope. Hemp seeds and hemp oil have been recovered in several tombs. At least one ancient Egyptian scroll, from 1700 BC, contains references to medical cannabis. Then then there is this little hieroglyph:

Egyptian Goddess Seshat with a cannabis leaf above her head
The Egyptian Goddess Seshat with a cannabis leaf above her head. Image found on The Holy Herb.

Herodotus was a Greek Historian who wrote done everything he knew and saw in the fifth century BC. His works are a treasure of knowledge and we are very lucky they survived. An ancient historian writing about history, culture, and the natural world? That’s just beyond priceless. Among the many (MANY) gems tucked away in Herodotus’ works is a description of the Scythians and how they used cannabis. The Scythians are credited with the domestication of the horse. They were the world’s first mounted archers. They were deadly, terrifying warriors who would sweep in on small fast horses, shoot everything with arrows, steal goods and livestock and sometimes people, and then ride off. Villages had very few defenses against them. With regards to hemp, Herodotus tells us:

Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are.

And then he explains how those Scythians were getting righteously stoned from the same plant.

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.

scythian hemp bowls
Scythian hemp bowls from Twelve Constellations of the Girdle of Gaia.

Hemp in the Middle Ages

Things get a bit muddled here. That’s probably because most of the early, 20th century archaeologists who studied artifacts couldn’t tell flax from nettle from hemp and referred to any woven fabric as “linen”. Jadwiga Zajaczkowa speculates that since there are mentions of medieval pot-smoking Romans, Grecians, and Arabs but nothing for Northern Europe that the varieties of cannabis had begun to distinguish themselves. Vikings had hemp rope and hemp sailcloth but they don’t seem to have smoked it. So I’ll go out on a limb as say that by 500 AD, we had two distinct varieties of cannabis, the kind cultivated for fiber and the kind cultivated for medicinal/recreational uses.

Hemp production was going strong in England by 800 AD. It shows up in Scotland by 1000 AD. Russia was growing flax in the north and hemp in the south. As England developed into a naval power, and needed more and more hemp to make rope and sailcloth, hemp had to be imported from Russia. Henry the VIII began passing laws requiring farmers to grow hemp as a way to maintain his nation’s independence. By the 16th century, those requirements had spread to all British colonies.

Hemp in America

Yes, in colonial days, American farmers were required to grow hemp, in certain amounts, to keep the British Empire afloat. It was the law. The British Navy needed miles and miles and miles of hemp rope for each ship. British naval captains sailed with hemp seed and were under orders to distribute that seed and foster the cultivation of hemp whenever they could. Thus hemp reached the New World.

During and after the Revolutionary War, American farmers were still growing hemp. There was a whole country to explore and develop. The new nation needed its own navy. It needed rope and sacks and paper. You couldn’t run a government without paper and most paper was made from old, worn out hemp cloth. The first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were on hemp paper.

George Washington grew hemp. Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. It was their patriot duty and they did it to set an example for the nation. Many farmers followed that example and hemp was an important crop in America. Hemp can grow almost anywhere but it found a real home in Kentucky. American hemp cultivation may have begun in places like Virginia and Connecticut, but it boomed in Kentucky and later Missouri. In 1850 Kentucky produced 40,000 tons of hemp. 

Harvesting Hemp

Hemp is harvested and processed much like flax and nettle. All those bast fibers are handled in much the same way. Cultivated hemp is planted close together, forcing it to grow straight and tall. Then its cut and the stalks are retted. Retting can be as simple as laying them out for several weeks to collect morning dew. It can mean tying them into bundles are submerging them in water. Retting is about giving the stalks time to soften and decay.

After retting, the hemp goes through a hemp brake to brake it open. The woody pith has to be separated from the outer fibers. Thomas Jefferson invented a new, better hemp brake and refused to patent it. (That’s significant since he is the father of our patent system.) He thought that the efficient processing of hemp was too critical to the success of the nation and choose to give away his innovation instead of profiting from it.

hemp break
Breaking hemp with a hand brake in Central Kentucky c1920. Photo Credit: Kentucky Historical Society.

After braking, the hemp fibers are hackled, or combed. Then it can be spun. Sometimes it goes through more processing to remove the lignin, which is a stiff woody polymer. Lignin is why unprocessed hemp isn’t soft. Its also why it makes great rope. The hemp we buy for handspinning today has (usually) had its lignin removed

Hemp Looses its Luster

In the early 1900’s Americans started turning against hemp. After thousands of years, after humans took cannabis from one little valley in northern Asia, spread it all over the world, and cultivated the bejesus out of it, we decided it was not for us. Here are the real (in my opinion) reasons why:

1) The Philippines started making better rope. Its called Manila hemp but its not a cannabis plant at all. Its a relative of the edible banana.

2) The invention of steam powered boats meant the world didn’t need so much hemp rope anymore.

3) The US government started taxing hemp (and all cannabis) growers. Taxes always stifle economy.

4) Marijuana and hemp got caught up in Prohibition.

5) We learned how to make rope from metal and synthetic materials.

6) In the 1940’s American farmers got talked into growing hemp and many of them lost money in that venture. During World War II, the Japanese forces captured the Philippines (and did terrible things to those people that the world has mostly forgotten about) and the US lost its access to Manila hemp. So the Hemp for Victory campaign was launched by the US Department of Agriculture.

Plants for processing hemp were built and farmers started planting. Then we won the war, liberated the Philippines, and went back to Manila hemp. The demand for American hemp crashed. That was the last, most recent big push to revive the hemp industry.

Hemp Makes a Comeback… Maybe

Hemp has been on the ropes (hahahahahaha) for several decades but it hasn’t been knocked out yet. Farmers have been growing hemp under special permits ever since they needed special permits to grow it. Sometimes those hemp farmers get busted because they are growing marijuana inside the hemp fields. Sometimes they get busted for no (apparent) reason at all.

Hemp really is a good source for fiber. It really is renewable. Its easy to grow and doesn’t degrade the soil. Its definitely a better, if more expensive, source for paper pulp than trees. Now that we can remove the lignin from the fibers, it can be made into a soft, supple fiber. Hemp, industrial, fiber heavy hemp, won’t get you high.

And its looking more an more like the laws against marijuana won’t last long anyway. I don’t think marijuana laws have much affect on hemp cultivation though. Unless the world goes back to sailing the high seas and fighting wars with wooden sail boats, the demand for hemp is low and will stay low. But there should always be some around for us intrepid crafters to play with.

I have a few other posts in which I ramble on about fiber-related history. If you like that sort of thing, check out:

A History of Rope

A Sea of Stitches – Sailors who took their stitching with them

Knitting For a Living – The Medieval Knitting Guilds

Spinning in Cowgirl Boots – A History of Red Dye 

Gunnister Man – A Scot with many handknits

16 thoughts on “Hemp – the Red-Headed Stepchild Of the Fiber World

  1. Thank you! I do love learning stuff like this… Partly for the history, and partly for Zombie Apocolypse preparation.

    I think it’s still possible for hemp to make a comeback – It’s often used in vegan clothing. Plus, hemp oil is becoming popular for health and beauty products, and cooking, too. (I’ve heard it has amazing anti-inflammatory benefits.) But, can the plant still be used for fiber after extracting the oil? I don’t know… Couldn’t find any info on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a timely post. Thank you. Some time ago I picked up a ball of polished hemp cord to “play with.” It’s been sitting here trying to decide what it want to be. Maybe coasters, placements, basket. I didn’t understand why it was so expensive. $5 for 70 yds. I believe your post explains the problem. Maybe I should check out unpolished hemp in hardware section. Thanks again for wonderful and useful info.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. $5 is a bit pricey.
      “I think we should go into the hemp growing business! It seems very easy to grow. Then we could have all the hemp fiber we wanted. I’ll just go wrestle a permit out of the federal government… shouldn’t take too long….”

      And I think that’s how people just sucked in to the hemp growing business/menagerie. 🙂


  3. One more comment on hemp. The label on my ball of hemp said CAUTION: Do not ingest! Really? Do they think someone is going to smoke the rope? HaHaHa.


    1. The Sctythians were very interesting. I agree. I had to restrain myself from going on a bit about them. The women warriors, the battle queens, and the whole “no woman can marry until she had slayed an enemy in battle” is just awesome. But It seemed a bit off topic for a yarn blog.

      But they wore felt huh? Maybe I’ll have to get back to the Scythians someday. And maybe I can sneak in a little female-friendly blood letting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Northerners were into mushrooms and fungi, as part of the magic that Odin the All-father won by hanging upside down from the World tree, sacrificing an eye to see into the weird (unknown). Moving from the old, old gods (frost giants) to the new old gods (the Aesir, Odin and company who dwelled in Asgard) is, among other things, a story of technological change and societal shift brought about by acquiring a little knowledge. Old old gods = safety comes from moving around a lot, not being a target — and food comes from hunting and finding it. New old gods = hunting is good, but maybe we build some huts and boats, get better at fishing, and try growing some food (and later, raiding the neighbors).

    Northmen were definitely into investigating what all fun could be had from ingesting low-ish levels of all manner of poisons, and took up the business of fermenting mash from grains & whatnot (juniper, honey) — part of deciding what grains were worth the trouble to grow, and how to get the most from what was hard to make happen. Because farming, no matter the product, has always been hard work.

    All new meaning to the phrase, “Get a rope…”

    I also have some of that polished hemp cord, which I intend to make into a handbag. Maybe one of those really formal looking 50’s styles.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Also, allowing growing of industrial hemp (and growing an industrial hemp industry) is part of how Canada has addressed it’s national debt issues. Yes, they have fewer people, who need fewer services, and the country does not have the same international roles as the US does, and therefore Canada has less of a national debt problem than the US. But they don’t not have national debt, and they have an economy which is significantly agricultural — with lots of land that needs good use.

    One of the reasons the state of California (another traditionally agricultural economy) decided to start officially softening on “the California business” (meaning pot, not as much industrial hemp, so far) was the formal economic model (and measureable benefits) they saw the Canadians begin to realize with industrial hemp. Added to the cost of marijuana prohibition at the state level — well, now, that is a strong incentive. To have decided to take up the social challenges that go with any softening on medicinal or recreational use of pot, that means to me that California was — maybe still is — faced with an insurmountable prohibition cost. And other states have similar issues (although perhaps are not traditionally agricultural economies, and would therefore have different aspects to address).

    The legal climate around “the California business” will begin to establish norms and rules, and the rest of the US — and the world — will have to decide what to do, if anything. What can be seen from the new Californian formal economic model so far? I notice that people who work for the state of California get paychecks again, not IOUs. How related is this?

    I like your idea about no driving while high — seems like a sensible norm and rule. We have (mostly) brought about social change with alcohol: no driving drunk. Although there is more to do — drunk drivers keep killing, wreaking heartbreak and sorrow. Seems to me the larger shift was the social attitudinal change, without which there would be no laws prohibiting driving while drunk (and now, while high).

    I send praise and recognition to designated drivers.


  6. BF…before the fire..I had a gorgeous ball of soft hemp fiber my dad gave me as a present…he got it from Canada. Wish I could find more like it, as it was a dream to spin, and worked up beautifully. I’ve found other offerings that were more like spinning or knitting with nettle..just awful.
    Thank you so much for doing such great research and sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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