A Closer Look At Hemp & How It’s Grown
When you think of hemp you may picture marijuana leaves, or unfortunate-looking jewelry that made appearances in the 1970s and 1990s. There are a lot of misconceptions about the crop and what kind of products it’s able to produce. Hemp’s history is full of greed, power struggles, and a whole lot of paperwork—not unlike that of America itself. Although the plant has had its fair share of challenges, the benefits of hemp products seem to shine through all the smoke and mirrors.
Hemp is a specific form of the plant species Cannabis sativa L. Because of the visual similarities between the hemp plant and marijuana plant, the two get confused but are used for very different purposes. Industrial hemp contains less than 1% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is what creates the high found by using marijuana—which typically contains 20% THC. Hemp is revered by farmers as “about the easiest plant to grow, requiring soil and sun and little other care.”
For the most part, the plant does not require pesticides because it is naturally weed-like itself, although crop rotation is needed in order to guarantee that mold and pests will not invade it. Hemp produces high yields because it is so fast growing and can be packed close together, taking up a considerably smaller amount of land than other crops.
The Huffington Post also reported that “hemp actually absorbs CO2 while it grows through natural photosynthesis, making it carbon-negative from the get-go.” In addition, hemp requires much less water than its previous competitor, cotton. While there are unfortunately cases where the unused harvest hemp is burned, the plant is otherwise part of a zero-waste process. How Products Are Made broke down a typical production process and describes how each part of the plant has a use.
During fiber processing, the core fiber is saved and usually used to make paper, horse bedding, or construction materials. Most hemp producers recycle the core fiber by removing dust, then baling and packaging. The dust can be pressed into pellets used for fuel. The dirt and small chips of the core are also used as a high nutrient soil additive.
The Political & Industrial Evolution Of Hemp
Once turned into fiber, fabric, and eventually clothing, hemp does not irritate the skin, as it is hypoallergenic. The material, similar in feel to linen, becomes softer the longer you have it and is durable enough to last a lifetime. Beyond clothes, hemp can create a biofuel alternative and was used for such until petroleum became popular starting in the 1870s. The crop can be utilized as a natural plastic, building material, paper, and more. I mean, the first American flag was made out of hemp for goodness sake! So why is this miracle plant not more widespread? We’ll have to go back to the beginning to answer that.
Today we consider the use of hemp very modern and possibly tied to recent legislation or changing of social norms, however, the plant has a much earlier origin. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)’s The Thistle stated in 2000 that hemp “was probably the earliest plant cultivated for textile fiber.” Use of the plant can be traced back as far as 8,000 BC during the time when Iran and Iraq were considered Mesopotamia. China was arguably the first nation to take advantage of the crop’s many benefits, specifically in papermaking and then in textile production, with the encouragement of Emperor Shen Nung during the Sung Dynasty (500 AD). The country appears to have the longest continuous history of hemp cultivation, followed by France, Spain, Chile, and Russia.
During the Middle Ages, hemp became a valuable crop as it was used for paper, food, textiles, and more. Three times stronger than cotton, and saltwater resistant, ships became dependent on the crop to create durable vessels for Vikings and the likes. Hemp began to spread around the world and found a consistent home in the form of British colonies in the 18th century. “Henry VIII encouraged farmers to plant the crop extensively to provide materials for the British Naval fleet.” Farmers were required, for some time, to grow the crop and citizens could even pay their taxes with it. While, at one point or another, hemp was grown in every US state, it saw a serious decline starting in the 20th century. The crop was overshadowed by the now-common cotton due to the invention of the mechanical cotton gin at the end of the 18th century, and it made it difficult for hemp to play the same game.
Why Did We Stop Using Hemp?
Soon the durable plant didn’t have a chance, as it was pushed out of the spotlight through 20th century propaganda. Companies with ties to new petroleum-based synthetic textiles, such as DuPont (an American conglomerate) and many other powerful groups, saw hemp as a threat to their businesses and began lobbying against it. In 1937 the Cannabis sativa L variation was on the verge of becoming an incredibly valuable crop but was swiftly cut down by the passing of prohibitive tax laws. The nail in the coffin came in September of that year when hemp production was banned in the United States completely. Soon after, the Canadian government followed suit and barred production under the Opium and Narcotics Act on August 1, 1938. The Thistle has perfectly articulated the ironic and unfortunate nature of this 20th-century turn of events.
Hemp, which has historically had over 25,000 diverse uses ranging from paints, printing inks, varnishes, paper, Government documents, bank notes, food, textiles (the original ‘Levi’s’ jeans were made from Hemp cloth), canvas (artists canvases were used by the great masters) and building materials, still remains banned in this country whose Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.
Hemp had a last hurrah during the World War II when “the USDA’s Hemp for Victory campaign successfully convinced growers to again embrace hemp.” The moment didn’t last long because when the war ended, so did the demand for the once-popular crop. The previous ban on cultivating the plant remained and kept Americans from producing hemp domestically. To add insult to injury, the year 1970 saw hemp classified as an illegal, Schedule 1, drug through the Controlled Substances Act. This new classification imposed strict regulations on the harvesting of industrial hemp.
A New Day For Hemp
For years, all hope seemed lost for the herbaceous plant, though the U.S. slowly began importing food-grade hemp seed and oil in 1998. A series of bills, acts, and court decisions were granted in the following years that started to shift the harsh reputation that the early 20th century had given hemp. This all changed on December 20, 2018, when the Hemp Farming Act was passed, making it possible for hemp to be grown and produced as a regular crop instead of being classified as a drug.
While it’s unclear what the future holds for hemp production in the US, studies show that is a very profitable crop and could create a whole new industry of jobs. Many of the drawbacks of hemp clothing today are caused because of the necessary importing, like the cost of transportation, the price for consumers, and accessibility to these products.
This fiber is niche now, but could turn into a billion dollar crop and durable fabric if we can push past its convoluted past. For now, we can enjoy the handful of small brands that are forging a new path for hemp fabric. Back Beat Rags, Olderbrother, Thought, Patagonia, and prAna are just a few companies that are incorporating hemp into their sustainable styles. Due to the small scale production of hemp at the moment, it is often blended with cotton or synthetic fibers to create a “hemp viscose”—don’t be fooled, the real stuff does not need to be combined with anything to create an amazing product.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and is currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. Audrey is deeply passionate about conscious living and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.