Hemp, the oldest cultivated plant known to mankind, is making a strong comeback around the world. It seems unbelievable that this most beneficial plant is unknown to so many of us. Were it not for it's prohibition by the US government 60 years ago, it would still be grown as a source of food, fuel, paper, textiles, building materials and many other products. With the recent reintroduction of hemp into Canadian agriculture, Americans can get a glimpse of the future that will be in store for us when this agricultural crop is legalized. In 1999 an estimated $350 million will be spent on industrial hemp worldwide and in 2001 that figure will jump to $1 billion.
One area of that growth will surely be seen is hemp used for household linens. But this will not be a new use for this fiber. Many are familiar with hemp ropes and sails and even George Bush's parachute that saved his life during WWII. But how many are aware of hemp's history as fine fabric. Hemp fiber is very similar to that of flax, although it is stronger and produces a greater yeild per acre. It is also one of the most environmentally friendly plants in the world. For centuries the standard plants used for household linen were hemp and flax. "Throughout history hemp was used more widely in the countryside than in towns, since every farm had its field of hemp (and perhaps another of flax) designed to meet daily househould fabric requirements and to support part of the daughter's bridal trousseaux".
Starting around 1300 and up to the end of the 17th century, the finest sheets were of flax, most were of hemp and the poorest woven from tow, scrap hemp, or flax combings. Historians, citing the fact that the founding of the hemp-weavers guild long predated that of flax-weavers, believe that hemp was far more common that flax linen until the late 14th century. In the heirarchy of textiles, flax and hemp cloth were followed by fabrics made from tow and canvas.
"On garden tables or round Empire tea tables depending on the season, a cross-stitched hemp tablecloth - that was spun at home, woven at the neighbors' house and embroidered at school - would make white, scallion-mottled cheese seem even whiter..." - French novelist Colette for a 1920's sales catalog.
Toby Hanson and Claudia Schwartz, owners of Bell'Occhio in San Francisco, are well aware of the history of hemp linen. Vintage linens from the south of France are their specialty. In their shop, Toby and Claudia find that hemp linen pieces that are over a 100 years old are so durable that they are popular still for use as table linen, curtains and furniture throws. The handwoven and handsewn fabric is valued for its hand, weight and natural color, lending it to many types of decor, from country furnishings to Japanese inspired designs.
Today Japan has very limited production of hemp and government permission to grow it is necessary. This prohibition has contributed to the decline of what was once a great art form. The growing, spinning and weaving of hemp was once practiced by master craftsmen. According to Mr. Koji Wada of Kasuri Dyeworks in Berkeley, California, himself a master fiber artist, the production of fine hemp fabric is a "dead art". Hemp kimonos are now very rare and valuable and also very expensive. Finely woven hemp is even more valuable that finely woven silk. Hemp summer kimonos, or yukatas, were popular because of the breathability of the fabric and because it is cool to the touch. While hemp was used mainly for fine garments, it is also found in noren (door curtains), and table and bath linen.
At Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, certain objects are symbolically made from hemp. The bowstring used by Zen Archers is specifically made of hemp, which reflects its connection with the meditative practice of Zen as well as veryifying hemp's toughness as a fiber.
America grew up with hemp. Long grown in Kentucky, "The forests of Kentucky were felled for fields of hemp". It was the first crop for most of the pioneers. In Wisconsin, hemp was grown into the 1950's. The first laws regulating hemp were that it was mandatory to grow it, so necessary it was considered to colonial America. Today's resurgence of hemp products includes many lovely housewares, made by both small environmental entrepreneurs and larger design houses. Hemp products bought today may become the heirlooms for future generations as it has been throughout history.
Written by: Mary Christine
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