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Hemp has been used to produce textiles for thousands of years. The strength and versatility of its fibers has meant it can be viably used for anything from durable rope, to soft, comfortable clothing.
There are two main types of fiber within the hemp plant. These are bast fibers (long outer fibers), and hurds (short inner fibers). It is these bast fibers that are ideal for the textile trade. It is what hemp was most traditionally cultivated for. Bast fibers account for 20-30% of the hemp plants stem. These bast fibers can be split further into two more categories:
Primary bast fibers – These are very long fibers that are high in cellulose and low in lignin. The primary bast fibers of hemp are some of the strongest plant fibers known to man. As a result it is these that are most valued in the hemp stem. They account for 70% of bast fibers found in hemp.
Secondary bast fibers – Whilst still useful, secondary bast fibers tend to be less valued. They are shorter in length, with a high cellulose and low lignin content. They tend to be more common in crops that are less dense, causing the plants to grow squatter as they do not have to compete so much for light.
The manual process of extracting bast fibers from hemp has always been very labor intensive. Without modern technology, our forefathers were forced to do the process by hand. Fortunately, modern advances have made fiber separation much easier. Through the use of steam explosion processes, fiber separation is now much easier and much more efficient. These fibers can then be spun, ready for fabrics, or pulped to make paper.
To give you an idea of the versatility of hemp textiles, consider this, anything that can be made from cotton can also be made from hemp. Its long fibers make it much more durable and it is a lot more environmentally friendly to grow.
Cotton is an extremely destructive crop. They require up to 50% of the world's pesticide stocks to grow. Pesticides are responsible to the deteriorating quality of out soil and water. These pesticides also contain carcinogens which often find their way into the food chain, potentially impacting our health. When you compare this to hemp, you wonder why we ever decided to start using cotton. Hemp can be grown organically, without pesticides, with extreme ease all over the world. It is a very resilient and hardy plant that actually improves the quality of soil. Cotton requires very specific condition with lots of water, making it much less versatile.
Hemp is more absorbent, taking to dyes better than cotton, it is also stronger, softer, grows faster and requires less resources to cultivate. Also, 1 acre of hemp can produce the same amount of fiber a 2-3 acres of cotton. It is a wonder that cotton is used at all. Hopefully with the relaxing of laws on hemp, we will see a lot more use within the textile industry!
So, who produces the most hemp fiber and textiles today? The answer is China. The Chinese government has not subjected its people to the same nonsensical laws that the west has when it comes to hemp. They have had nearly 6000 years of uninterrupted production. They use it to produce clothes that are soft, safer and more durable than their cotton or synthetic counterpart.
Hemp textiles used to be a major industry in the west, but it died with industrial revolution, as industry owners clambered to find resources they could have a monopoly on – you could never monopolize hemp if it were legal; it is too easy to grow. To give you an idea of how big the hemp industry used to be, and how strong and versatile hemp textiles are – nearly every rope and sail used on ships prior to the invention of the engine were made of hemp, it is a textile that dates back thousands of years.