In pre-industrial times, farmers sowed hemp in spring and didn’t have to worry about it until harvest time. Hemp forms large leaves early in its growth cycle, and they shade out any other plants. It’s also resistant to many pests, so there’s no need for weeding or for pesticides.
Hard labour was only required during the harvest in autumn. The stalks had often grown finger-thick and had to be cut and tied into sheaves. The seeds were stripped using a rippling comb, then the stalks were crushed with a brake, swingled and finally heckled (that is, beaten and combed). All this was designed to separate the high-quality fibre from other parts of the plant. On the wall to your left, a display of historical photographs illustrates the various steps.
Listen to this:
That's the sound made by the brake we have standing here. It splinters the wooden core and loosens the fibre. The technical term for the resulting splinters is shives. The subsequent swingling, or beating, separates the coarse shives from the fibre. Finally, the hemp fibres are combed – using heckles like the ones hanging on the wall here.
Those are just some of the steps required if the whole of the hemp plant is to be utilised – seeds and fibres. But modern, high-tech agriculture focuses on specific types of utilisation.
These days, crop plants have to be harvested in a single operation. As a result, the present cultivars are not only bisexual, they’re also specifically bred either for high fibre yields, or for large, oil-rich seeds. Hemp that’s to be used for medicinal purposes is bred exclusively for consistent production of resin.
All depictions: © Hanf Museum