The History of Hemp Fibre: From Ancient China to Modern Times

The cultivation of hemp for fibre has been documented as far back as 2800 BC. C. in China, and was also practiced in the Mediterranean countries of Europe at the beginning of the Christian era. It spread to the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages, and names such as Hempshire (now known as Hampshire) were created to reflect its importance.

In ancient Chinese literature, there is evidence of the discovery of the sexuality of the hemp plant, and the differentiation between male hemp (xi ma) and female hemp (ju ma). Archaeological evidence has also been found to validate that hemp was used frequently throughout history. For example, the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, carried 130,000 pounds of hemp rope and 30,000 pounds of hemp sail cloth. Hemp paper has the potential to reduce deforestation in the paper industry.

Converted from plants to fabrics for clothing by the ancient Chinese, hemp spread around the world and spurred the expansion of empires and voyages of discovery. Hemp graves have even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to the Roman period and earlier. The Chinese legend refers to a mythical emperor Shen Nung who taught his people to weave hemp plants to make clothes because of its strength and abundance. More recently, hemp was banned and global awareness of the fabric remained dormant until it reappeared as a beautiful, soft and sustainable alternative to fast fashion.

Biodegradable and naturally organic, with no need for pesticides or herbicides, hemp also uses 50 percent less water than cotton. In addition to archaeological evidence, ancient documents indicate that hemp is a source of clothing and cordage. Global awareness is changing and hemp is once again in the spotlight as its benefits are better understood. Farmers will harvest and process the hemp plant, separate the fiber and stem from the flower, and sell the resulting components to several customers. While CBD content has been a main driver of its recent resurgence, interest in its use as a textile fibre also persists.

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