Hemp Fiber in US History

September 23rd, 2016 by Javed Pathan

Hemp Fiber

In today’s times, “hemp” is often viewed as synonymous with “marijuana.” In fact, while the two are closely related as members of the cannabis genus, their uses can be very different. The useful parts of the marijuana plant are generally limited recreational or medicinal use of the flower. The hemp plant, on the other hand, is wholly useful for a variety of items from food products to dry goods. The whole plant has value – from seed to stalk. In fact, hemp as a fiber material was once one of America’s most valued crops.

hemp historyFirst hemp-weaved fabric in the World found in Turkey – Image Credit Catalhoyuk

Hemp is thought to be the first domestically-cultivated plant, with evidence of hemp fabric dating to 8,000 years ago found in Turkey. Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans as seed for planting and as fiber used to build the lines and sails of the Mayflower. It was chosen for ships because it is naturally resistant to mold, decay and UV radiation (although they likely didn’t know that last fact at the time!) Hemp fiber is one of the strongest and most durable of all natural textile fibers. Not only is hemp strong, but it also holds its shape, stretching less than any other natural fiber.

Hemp is an extremely fast growing crop

Hemp crop producing more fiber yield per acre than any other source. Hemp can produce 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more fiber than flax using the same amount of land. By the mid-1600s, Americans produced cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from hemp during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Even the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag with hemp. Hemp fiber was so important that farmers were required by law to grow it, and were even allowed to pay their taxes with it. Can you imagine paying taxes with cannabis today? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Jefferson even invented equipment to better crush plant stems during fiber processing.

Ultimately, hemp’s use as a fiber crop was crippled by politics and foreign trade. In 1937, the federal government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, aimed at regulating the narcotic varieties of cannabis. Interestingly, this law turned over the regulation of hemp production to the Department of Revenue, which was then responsible for licensing all hemp growers. In addition, the 1950’s brought about cheap synthetic fibers from China and India. Was the material comparable to hemp in terms of quality and longevity? Not so much, but it cost pennies on the dollar.

World War II brought on another burst in American hemp-fiber production. The USDA’s Hemp for Victory campaign successfully convinced growers to again embrace hemp. The federal government even embarked on an ambitious project to construct new hemp processing plants. But before the project was fully realized, the war ended, along with demand for domestic hemp fiber. Many farmers were left high and dry with empty or partially constructed plants, and cancelled hemp contracts. By 1958, the last significant hemp crop in the U.S. had been harvested and processed.

As the saying goes, everything old is new again – that holds very true for American hemp growth. In the early 1990s a sustained resurgence of interest in allowing commercial cultivation of industrial hemp began in the United States. Hemp is on the rise – with 30 states again encouraging hemp growth (in some fashion). Some estimate that the global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products. Current industry estimates report US sales at more than $580 million annually.