Before there was modern global commodities management, people were largely dependent on domestic crop plants. Hemp, for example, with its long, tear-resistant fibre, served as raw material for many textiles in the Middle Ages. People wore hemp virtually throughout their lives. Babies were wrapped in hemp shawls, an adult male’s doublet was made of hemp, and people were even buried in hempen grave clothes.
Like other fibres, hemp is spun into threads and yarns. That process is illustrated by the spinning wheel, used here to spin the loose fibres into a firm hemp yarn. If that yarn wasn’t used for sewing, you “dressed” a loom with it and wove cloths and lengths of fabric. Depending on the thickness of the thread and the quality of the weave, the result could be anything from fine dressmaking material to strong sailcloth.
Of all the plant fibres, hemp has the least stretch and is the most resistant to tearing. That makes it especially suitable for ropes, and for textiles that are subjected to high stresses. Outer material made of hemp fibre shows very little wear, which means that jackets and coats are very durable. But precisely because hemp fibre is so strong, it’s also slightly brittle. So a pair of rough hemp panties would probably not be very popular these days.
Something that was once enormously labour-intensive has been greatly simplified by industrialisation – which has also enable new processes to be developed. For example, these days, hemp is often "cottonised", treated to make it more like cotton. This involves a crimping process that slightly reduces the tensile strength, but makes the otherwise rather brittle fibre soft and fluffy.
So hemp has once again become a genuine alternative to cotton. And cool T-shirts and fancy jeans demonstrate that the hemp fibre has long since shed its eco-clobber image.
All depictions: © Hanf Museum