Hemp - A Shocking Discovery

When I discovered hemp yarn I was more than surprised by the fiber’s wonderful attributes: stronger and softer than cotton, will last twice as long, and will not mildew. So I designed the light, casual men’s sweater in the photos. Interested to know more, I did some research and found that this yarn has a much bigger story to tell.

While I thought that hemp’s use in textiles was a recent concept, I learned that the fiber dates back to the Stone Age, and imprints have been found in Chinese pottery shards over 10,000 years old. From 1776 to 1937, hemp was a major American crop and textiles made from hemp were common. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, used products made from hemp, and praised the plant in their writings.

From the 1950s to the 1980s the Soviet Union was the world’s largest producer, along with China, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland, France and Italy. Seems everyone was in on the act. In the US, the government’s War on Drugs created an atmosphere of self-censorship where speaking of hemp in a positive manner was considered taboo. However, wild hemp and hemp grown for industrial use have no drug properties.

Until its rediscovery in the late 1980s, the use of hemp declined dramatically in the US. The main uses of the fiber were in rope, sacking, carpet, nets and webbing. But a clothing industry was reborn in 1988.

It is a sustainable crop with amazing applications. An acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as 2 to 3 acres of cotton. Cotton grows only in moderate climates and requires more water than hemp, which is also frost tolerant and grows in all 50 states, including Alaska. While pesticides and herbicides are used in the production of other fibers, hemp requires none.

In addition to usage in fabrics and yarn, hemp plants are used in the production of paper, which is superior to tree-based paper. It will last hundreds of years, can be recycled many times more and requires fewer toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process. Hemp produces fiberboard that is stronger and lighter than wood. It is used to produce strong, durable and environment-friendly plastic substitutes, which can replace thousands of products made from petroleum-based plastic.

Then there are the hemp seeds. They contain protein that is more nutritious and economical to produce than soybean protein. They’re not intoxicating, can be ground into a nutritious flour for baked goods or used to produce virtually any product made from soybeans: tofu, veggie burgers, butter, cheese, salad oils, ice cream, etc. Who knew! And hemp seed oil is used to produce non-toxic paint, varnish, detergent, ink, and even diesel fuel.

After making this discovery, every time I wear my hemp sweater and someone compliments it, I have to tell them my hemp story. So, try knitting my Jason sweater kit and see what kind of hemp story you may have to tell.