Hemp as a Fiber

Hemp is the common name for the fiber-yielding plant botanists call Cannabis sativa, “cannabis” and “canvas”. Also, cannabis hemp has been called Indian hemp, muggles, pot, reifer, grass, ganja, bhang, “the kind”, dagga, etc. There have been places all over America named after hemp, such as Hempstead County, AK, Hempstead, TX, Hemphill, N.C.,and Hempfield, P.A.

Researchers theorize that the first hemp plants came from the foothills of the Himalayas and that traders and migrating people spread the seed. The earliest known woven fabric was apparently made of hemp and it was as early as 8,000 or 7,000 BC. Hemp resists rotting and thus would play an important role in it being preserved over the years. Most historians agree from 1000 BC to 1883 AD, hemp was our planet’s largest agriculural crop and most important industry. Thousands of products were produced including fabric, lighting oil, paper, incense and medicines, plus essential food oil and protein for humans and animals. It was also used spiritually.

Why has cannabis hemp played such an important role in history? Over all it is the strongest, most durable, long lasting natural soft fiber on the planet. Its’ leaves and flowers were one of the most important medicines for at least 3,000 years, until the turn of the century. The real story of hemp is not a story of drugs however, but of “Fiber Wars”, an age-old battle for markets among alternative fibers. Cotton became a world power and is credited as the single greatest force in the early economic development of the U.S.

80% of mankind’s textiles were made principally from Cannabis hemp fibers until the 1820’s in America and until the 20th Century in most of the rest of the world. Ireland made the finest linens, not from linen but hemp fiber. It is hard to tell the difference. It was hemp that clothed the Continental Army and kept them from freezing to death at Valley Forge. Homespun cloth was almost always spun from the “family” hemp patch as America was moving west in their hemp canvas covered wagons.

Depending on the fineness desired, planting seeds close produced a fine fiber and further apart a coarser fiber. 200 seeds to the square yard was planted for rough cordage. Finest linen or lace is grown up to 900 plants to the square yard and harvested between 80 to 100 days. It was one of the easiest crops to grow and would grow just about anywhere and in any soil. It did not deplete the soil like many crops do.

After the invention of the cotton gin, cotton clothing could be produced at less cost then hand retting and hand separating hemp fibers. But due to hemp's strength, softness, warmth and long lasting qualities, hemp continued to be the 2nd most used natural fiber until 1930’s. But the coming of “plastic fibers” finally replaced natural hempen fibers.

Interesting point:“George Bush, while serving in W.W. II, baled out of his aircraft, lubricated with hemp seed oil, with a 100% hemp parachute and was pulled aboard a ship with hemp ropes and he stood safely in his leather shoes stitched with hemp.”

90% of all ship’s sails until late 19th century were made from hemp. So was the rope, nets, riggings, flags and even oakum (sealant) was made from hemp. The sailor’s clothing right down to their shoes were crafted from Cannabis hemp. Then there was the paper for maps, logs and Bibles, all made from hemp fiber. No wonder there were great wars, just to keep the trade routes open for hemp fiber. In fact in 1942 the U.S. government distributed 400,000 lbs of cannabis hemp seed to American farmers to produce 42,000 tons of hemp fiber annually for the war effort until 1946, after Japan cut off our supply of Manila hemp.

In 1619, farmers in Virginia were required to grow Indian hemp. In 1631, the law passed that Massachusetts farmers also had to grow it...followed by Conn. and the Chesapeake Colonies. Hemp was used as legal tender (money) into early 1800s. You could pay your taxes with Cannabis hemp throughout America for over 200 years. U.S. Census of 1850 counted 8,327 hemp “plantations” (min. 2,000 acres) growing hemp for cloth, canvas and even the cordage used for baling cotton.

Benjamin Franklin started one of America’s first paper mills with cannabis hemp. It was a cheap fiber, plenty of it and easy to replenish in one year, unlike the trees we use today. The forrest industry finally grew big enough to crowd out hemp fiber.

Botanically, hemp is a member of the most advanced plant family on Earth. It is a dioecious (i.e., having male, female and sometimes hermaphroditic) woody, herbaceous annual that uses the sun more efficiently than virtually any other plant on our planet. Hemp grows 12 to 20 feet tall in one short growing season. It is similar to flax as they are both a “soft” bast fiber found in the stem of the plant. They overlap in many characteristics. Botanically flax and hemp are dissimilar, yet to the naked eye the fiber looks the same. Hemp will rotate clockwise and flax rotates counter- clockwise upon wetting.

The conclusion in the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes is: "If all fossil fuels and their derivatives, as well as the deforestation of trees for paper and agriculture, are banned from use in order to save the planet and reverse the greenhouse effect:Then there is only one known annually renewable natural resource able to provide the overall majority of our paper, textiles and food, meet all the worlds transportion, home and inductrial energy needs, to reduce pollution, rebuild the soil and clean the atmosphere, allat the same time, our old stand-by that did it all before: Cannabis Hemp!"

References for Hemp:


  • "The Emperor Wears No Clothes" by Jack Herer, 1995
  • "Hemp Today" by by Ed Rosenthal, 1994
  • "Hemp -Lifeline to the Future" by Chris Conrad, 1993
  • "Horizons" by John Roulac 1997
  • "Hemp Stone Heritage 1 - In Accordance with Their Wills" compiled by Les Stark (Lancaster, PA wills..1729- 1845)

Videos and On-Line Resources:

  • Hemp Spinning with Joan Ruane (see www.Taprootvideo.com)
  • "Introduction to Hemp Spinning" by Joan Ruane - YouTube
  • Hemp Hemp Hooray - The Growing Hemp Industrial Market (video available to stream on Amazon)
  • "Hemp and the Rule of Law" by Keven Balling - documentary tracing the agricultural history and efforts to legalize commercial hemp production
  • "Hempsters - Plant the Seed" documentary released in 2010 about legalization and includes footage about Woody Harrelson's 1996 arrest for planting 4 cannabis seeds in Kentucky. Available on Amazon
  • Vote Hemp is a Washington, DC based grassroots nonprofit organization working since 2000 to bring back hemp farming in the U.S. Check out their information at www.votehemp.com
  • www.hemptraders.com Telephone: 310.914.9557 Online retail sales of hemp fiber, textiles and rope
  • www.hempbasics.com Manufacturer's online retail sales offering a wide range of hemp products
  • YouTube Videos, use "Hemp Fiber" in the Search function

Fiber Sources:


by Joan Ruane with help from Kenex Ltd and Peter Dragla & Ridgetown College

European Union and Canada have been doing extensive experiments on “modern” methods for hemp farming for some time now. Today Australia and Germany as well as the US are very active in developing machinery that will aid in the speed of production from the harvesting to preparation of the fiber for use in finished products.

Hemp can be grown in a wide variety of soil types. It does best in sufficiently deep, well-aerated soil with a pH of six or greater. Of course, having good moisture and nutrient helps in the growth and health of the plants. If planting by seed there should be a good fine, firm seedbed to get a uniform germination. Seeds should not go into the ground until the soil temperatures have to reach a minimum of 42 to 46F. Seeds need to be planted less then 2 inches deep. Hemp seeds germinate within 24 to 48 hours and emerge in 5 to 7 days with good moisture and warm temperature. To maximize stalk yield, for fiber, seeds should be planted as early as possible.

Hemp requires high levels of nutrient availability. Typical plant needs include 80 to 100 pounds/ acre of nitrogen, 35 to 50 pounds/acre of phosphate and 52 to 70 pounds/acres of potassium. Hemp plants produce a very large amount of plant material in a short vegetative period. Much of this biomass remains in the field after harvest, were it remains in the soil, increasing organic matter and contributing to future field productivity. If plants are properly sewn normal at 200 to 300 plants per square meter, they will shade out weeds. Hemp seeds for growing hemp for fiber, should be sewn at 50 to 70 pounds/acre ideally.

Hemp is a great rotation crop as it enhances the soil with its tape roots and has a short growing season. However, because of its demand for a lot of nitrogen farmers like to plant a nitrogen-fixing crop like soybeans the year before. Hemp seeding should not follow spices or other seed crops.

Harvesting for high-quality fiber should occur as soon as the last pollen is shed, which is normally 70 to 90 days after seeding. For fiber, the crop should be cut into two feet in length, dew-retted in the field, baled and stored or processed. New combines are being developed to speed of the production as well as methods to separate the fiber and hurd. Retting has long been the method of breaking down the outer bark so that the fiber and hurd can be removed. Retting began after the stalks are cut and left in the field and it takes 14 to 21 days. The finest textile grade fiber is obtained by water retting the stalks in pools or tanks of warm water. This is where modern methods are being developed to improve the retting process and separation of the fiber.

Under commercial conditions, hemp typically produces between 3 to 4 tons of baled hemp stalks per acre. Typically, the fiber/hurd ratio is 1:3. Hemp seed yields are between 800 to 1,200 pounds/acre.

Here in the U.S. the farmers are leaning toward getting hemp plants rather than seeds, plus finding the right seeds or plants for your climate and soil is a challenge as our stock of seeds were destroyed and we are having to start over. Should you be interested in becoming a hemp farmer, you might like to go to http://www.highgradehempseed.com. Good luck and have fun but be sure to get a license!!