Station: [13] Hemp Cellulose and Paper

What? It says here that Martin Luther, the church reformer, wrote his Bible translation on paper made from hemp?

Yes, and apparently without actually realising. Until people learnt to make cellulose from wood, paper was made from rags – old clothes. The man who collected them was called the "rag and bone man" or simply the “ragman”. He bought worn-out clothes and took them by the sackful to the rag-mill. As mentioned earlier, hemp was one of the main textile fibres throughout the Middle Ages. So clothing often consisted of hempen textiles and these were shredded and pulverised at the paper mill until only cellulose pulp remained. Fresh water was then added to bring the cellulose to the surface, where it was skimmed off with sieve-like screens. The layer of matted cellulose on the screen only had to be dried, and lo and behold: a finished sheet of hemp paper!

Cellulose is the term for the tiny plant fibres that give a plant stability. Perennial plants, which are especially stable, are very rich in cellulose, while annual grasses and flowers tend to be much less so. Although hemp is an annual, it is very rich in cellulose.

Today, with modern processing facilities, hemp cellulose is no longer obtained indirectly from rags, but directly from hemp fibres and shives. What’s more, cellulose is now turned into more than just paper. The packaging industry alone uses an increasing range of cellulose products.

Even now, most cellulose is obtained from wood. And yet we could be felling fewer forests if paper-making used more hemp: 

"Save the forests – sow hemp in the fields!"

There is some truth to that. Especially if hemp is fully utilized, as a source of fibre and pulp, of seeds and oil, and as a stimulant and remedy.

All depictions: © Hanf Museum