History of Hemp Clothing

Cannabis is unique in that it can produce both a narcotic and an extremely long and strong fiber, all from the same plant. It was these two traits coupled with Cannabis’ amenability to domestication which led to its very early appearance in human history.

During the Neolithic period approximately 10,000 years ago, early humans began developing agriculture as a means of securing food supply. Given that Cannabis or  hemp  is a coloniser it is quite likely that human’s first contact with this plant occurred around that time. Because  hemp  is a coloniser it prefers to move into areas of fertile soil that is free of competition. This type of environment would only occur in nature during a period of catastrophe such as a flood or fire. But when Neolithic humans began clearing land for agriculture, it is very likely that Cannabis began spreading into these open fields initially as a weed and later as an actively cultured plant.

It is generally agreed that domestication of  hemp  began in Asia. Exactly where in Asia is not known although the earliest known occurrence of  hemp  agriculture took place in China’s Yellow River valley approximately 6,500 years ago.The Neolithic peoples of this valley, known as the Yangshao actively grew Cannabis and used its fibers to produce nets, ropes and  hemp  clothing.

It should be noted that  hemp  textiles date back farther than the Yangshao people with  hemp  cloth from approximately 8,000 B.C. found at Catal Hüyük (in Anatolia, in modern day Turkey).  Hemp  clothing and other textiles from this period were likely produced from wild  hemp  while the yellow river remains the earliest known location for actual cultivation, domestication and mass production of  hemp  textiles.

From these humble beginnings  hemp  clothing spread throughout China. From China it then spread north into modern day Russia, Scandinavia, the Baltics, Poland and Germany likely carried by Scythians traders. Aryans (Indo-Persians) are believed to have spread  hemp  into India.  Hemp  eventually made its way west into Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain and France.

As the colonial empires of France, England and Spain spread their influence into the new world so did  hemp  follow. Like their European forbears, Americans cultivated Cannabis primarily for the fibre.  Hemp  seed was planted in Chile in 1545,Canada in 1606, Virginia in 1611, and in the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts in the 1630s.

 Hemp  fibre was extremely important to the new world colonies as the principle material for production of  hemp  clothing, rope, ship rigging and ship sails.

Given the demand for this strong, durable fibre it was only natural for  hemp  production to reach industrial scale. And so, the  hemp  industrial revolution of the New World got its start in Kentucky in 1775 and in Missouri some 50 years later. By 1860,  hemp  production in Kentucky alone exceeded 40 mt and the industry was second only to cotton in the South.

By the end of the second world war global  hemp  production had fully matured reaching peak production of 273 mt in 1961. However, production gradually declined from the 1960’s onward reaching just 63 mt by 1997.

So why did production of  hemp  fall out of favour so precipitously? Well, that’s another story!