The hemp plant has been utilized for centuries to craft everything from paper and rope to clothing and fabrics. While we often think of hemp just being good for oils and nutrients, the plant’s composition itself can be used for so much more. Since some of the earliest days on this planet, the human race has turned to hemp to craft textiles like clothing and fabrics. While this practice died out a bit during the 20th century, we’re finally beginning to see a resurgence of hemp textile popularity, especially in the US.

From the first use of hemp as a textile to what the future has to hold about this special plant, every moment of hemp’s history deserves to be known. Below, you can read all about the history of hemp textiles and where they stand in the US today.

The History of Hemp Textiles

The use of hemp textiles stretches far back into both US history and world history. When closely examined, it appears as though hemp was actually one of the world’s first uses of fabric ever recorded. Archeologists were able to locate pieces of fabric made out of hemp in what used to be ancient Mesopotamia–one of the world’s first recorded societies. With hemp fabric dating back almost 10,000 years, it became clear that modern societies were not the first to utilize this special plant. Not even close.

Hemp was being relied on for fabrics in ancient Chinese civilizations even back in 500/600 AD. Here, this type of textile exploded in popularity, as not only was it abundant, but it was easy to work with and created durable, workable fabrics. China continued to rely on hemp as a textile for thousands of years to come, and as they did so, the rest of the ancient world began to catch on as well.

As time went on, societies began to realize hemp’s potential for other uses, as well as how to further perfect it as a fabric. Hemp was being used for rope, boat sails, clothing, and even paper in China as well as all across the Middle East. Soon after this, the Vikings discovered hemp’s handiness, and they, too, helped spread its popularity across Iceland. While there isn’t concrete evidence that Native Americans used hemp, there’s a large possibility hemp was already in the US long before colonizers arrived; however, settlers strongly relied on hemp during the establishment of the 13 colonies — the sails they used on their boats were even made out of hemp.

Hemp in the 20th Century

Throughout the decades, cotton-making technology began to advance and hemp’s popularity as a textile slowly started to fade. By the time the 20th century rolled around, various bills and regulations were imposed on the hemp plant in the United States, essentially discouraging Americans from using the hemp in any capacity, whether it be for clothing, rope, or paper.

Despite seeing clear benefits from the hemp plant in terms of industry, in the 70s, the US officially named hemp a Schedule I illegal substance, and cultivation halted entirely. A plant that the country–and the world–once thrived off of was now completely illegal for those within the United States. For years to come, hemp and its myriad uses faded into a figment of people’s imaginations, and the demonization of such a plant became more prominent than ever.

Hemp Fabric Today

Henry Ford’s prototype vehicle body panel was composed of 70% cellulose fibre, which included hemp.

Thankfully, the US has come quite far since the hemp ban back in the 70s. Despite regulations, the US started importing hemp seed oil and allowed a handful of farmers to start growing and cultivating the plant once again. Eventually, President Obama signed a bill that allowed for further hemp research and cultivation, and, for years, various hemp-related bills were proposed to congress, though all were shut down. Until 2018, that is.

Only a few years ago, the 2018 Farm Bill was passed in Congress, allowing for the cultivation and sale of hemp as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. The hemp plant contains very little THC normally, so as long as its levels are 0.3% or under, it is completely legal to grow and sell. With this, hemp was no longer considered a Schedule I illegal substance, and its popularity has only exploded since.

Now that the hemp plant is being cultivated all across the US, people are once again realizing the potential of hemp as a textile and hemp fabric. Many companies have started crafting clothing, specifically outdoor clothing, made out of hemp fabric because of its durability. The more you wear hemp fabric, the softer it gets.

Not to mention, hemp fabric has proven to be much more insulating and water-proof than traditional cotton, and growing it may be transformative for the environment. Decades ago, we learned that hemp produces at least four times more hectares of oxygen than trees do, and they take nearly ¼ of the time to grow and be ready for manufacturing. Hemp has the potential to combat deforestation, all while working to purify the air and create eco-friendly textiles, among many other things.

Hemp rope, too, is making a comeback in the textile industry, as hemp’s fibers have proven to be some of the strongest on the planet. (Henry Ford made a car out of it, after all.)

What the Future Has to Hold

Hemp clothing displayed at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Currently, hemp is a bit more expensive as fabric than other materials, but its benefits for the environment make it more than worth it to spend a pretty penny — and, as the years progress,we can expect to see hemp textiles more and more. In terms of production and manufacturing domestic hemp fabric, Larry Serbin of Hemp Ventures projects the US will be at the same level as other countries in the next five years.

 But just how can the US move forward in developing the hemp textile infrastructure and how many decorticators are operational in the US, including size?

“The government needs to get out of the way and treat hemp like any other crop. Most regulations should be removed.  THC level defining hemp should be increased to 1% at least.   There are only a handful of people doing or planning to do decortication in the U.S.  My guess right now is about 3-4.  More decortication facilities need to come online, but this will start to quicken in pace when the demand for hemp fiber increases”, says Serbin.

While the hemp plant continues to be rediscovered for its beauty and eco-friendly aspects, finding clothing, rope, chairs, even face masks made out of hemp should soon become commonplace.

We asked Lenora Criswell and Anna Chanthavongseng, co-founders of Jasper and Ivy – a hemp apparel clothing company, where they see hemp textiles in the United States in the next 5 years.

“This far it has been somewhat of a novelty in the apparel industry. There is a small demand for hemp textiles in the home goods and recreational industries. I believe the best bet would be to expand these markets. We as consumers are slowly bringing hemp into the mainstream. This country needs to bring manufacturing jobs to the working class; hemp is a win/win for the economy and the environment.” Criswell stated.

“Education is key in terms of expanding the hemp market. Consumers need to be aware of the advantages of the hemp plant as a whole, especially the fiber side of it. Besides apparel, innovators are using long and short fibers to create a myriad of products — from sustainable packaging, paper, an ingredient for supercapacitors, building materials, the list goes on. But I do agree with Lenora that there needs to be an infrastructure built around hemp fiber. From decortication, to combing, and degumming — there is a lot of work to be done in order to make it as affordable and accessible as other plant fibers.” says Chanthavongseng.

From the start of the ancient world to the United States today, hemp textiles are slowly doing a 360-degree turn in society. It took decades, but we’re finally embracing the plant and its benefits in the ways that it was once, and how it has always been meant to be.

Mell Green – NHA volunteer writer