Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle student and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

April 2019 –  HEMP: 

Hemp plant

While we’ve been taking a close look at many fibers that have helped shape human history over the span of millennia, there is one fiber that takes the cake for oldest fiber on our list. It’s one that you might not think would be on the list, since the plant from which it originates is often confused with its psychoactive cousin that produces marijuana. The natural fiber we’re talking about this month is hemp, a plant which was as critical to the founding of human civilization as it is now to helping it grow.

Hemp is ancient – and I really mean ancient. Its use and cultivation date back farther than any natural fiber we will learn about this year. The Columbia History of the World, citing a small bit of hemp cloth unearthed from the year 8,000 B.C., has concluded that hemp is the oldest relic of human industry. Originating in Central Asia, the plant began to quickly spread across the world to Europe, East Asia, and eventually America. In fact, hemp was a staple to colonial America. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew it during the early American republic, and the first flags were sewn with it. Plus, all citizens back then were legally bound to grow the plant. Why was this you ask?

Hemp cord

Hemp is an incredibly useful plant. Once retted, dried, and strung out, hemp fibers are longer and stronger than those of flax, that natural fiber we learned about back in January. The fiber, often green, yellow, or brownish-gray, is a coarse material that can be turned into many things such as cordage (twine, yarn, rope, cable, and string), sponges, burlap, canvas, paper, or even clothing if softened enough. A reliable, tough fiber, hemp proved essential for even some of the most strenuous needs. Braving the rough seas of the Atlantic may have been more treacherous if it had not been for the hemp fibers that composed the lines and sails of ships. Historian Martin Booth estimated that the English fleet that decimated the Spanish Armada in the 16th century utilized over 10,000 acres of hemp in their ships, so it’s no wonder that the American settlers took to the idea of mass-producing hemp for their own navy and other needs.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll find that hemp has the potential to help solve a big problem here in the U.S. In 2016, we as a country imported an estimated retail value of $500 million in industrial hemp products. This was because of a ban that prevented American farmers to grow the plant. However, this past December marked a turning point in how Americans view the plant and its capabilities. Signed into law on December 28th was the Farm Bill which included a provision that legalized hemp cultivation. This move, less about the de-stigmatization of cannabis and more focused on hemp’s potential, is a huge step forward for America’s farmers. Hemp legalization will open up entirely new ways for its fiber to be used, and in the process, help a struggling farmer population here in the U.S. Hemp comes with additional superpowers, too: the plant detoxifies soil, prevents erosion, and requires little water and not a single pesticide to thrive.

Keep your ear to ground on hemp’s developing story! As this little plant’s capabilities continue to be explored, I’m sure that there will new ways for it to fit into our daily lives.