The strongest natural fiber in the world.

‘Sooner a camel would pass through a needle´s eye, than a rich man come into heaven!’ If we follow these famous words of Jesus in the Lutherian translation, Jesus must have been something of a surrealist.

 

For the Bai and the Hmong-Miao people, living in south-west China and northern Vietnam, the hemp plant, till today, stands in the center of economy and culture.Camels walking through needles´ eyes we’d expect to find in paintings by Salvador Dali rather than in the Holy Bible. In fact the word Kamelos as used in the Greek document from which Luther made his translation, meant not animals but ropes made from cannabis, ropes used for example in the Greek war fleet. ‘Sooner a hemp rope would pass through a needle´s eye…’ the biblical word was making nothing more then a simple every-day comparison – and the correction of Luther´s translation mistake brings to light a hitherto hidden piece of hemp history. Not only is kannabis at the root of the Greek word kamelos but also in the Ènglish word canvas, the same canvas used by the tailor Levi Strauss, who emigrated from Franconia to San Francisco, for his riveted trousers patented in 1873 – the original blue jeans. No other material would have been able to withstand the tensile test pictured on the Levi Strauss firm´s label – two horses trying to tear apart a pair of jeans – no other material than the indestructible sailcloth made from hemp. His customers, mainly the gold-washers who often stood in creeks and rivers, appreciated not only the tensile strength of their working trousers but also that ability of hemp to absorb large quantities of water without suffering damage or rot. This ‘wetability’ of the hemp fiber was absolutely unique before the chemical fibre began its triumphant march, and made cannabis a raw material no one could do without when it came to robust clothing and uniforms, wagon covers and tents. In the first place hemp was necessary for maritime use: For sails and rigging of a large square-rigged ship, say the famous frigate USS ‘Constitution’ or ‘Old Ironsides’ as it was nicknamed, over sixty tons of hemp fiber were needed.

‘Steam over sail’ and ‘nylon over linen’...

Large spinning machine in Rumania....could in short describe the fall of the hemp fiber markets: Cheap imported cotton for clothing, cheap substitutes from the colonies like jute and sisal, and, since the thirties, chemical fibres as well, robbed hemp of its traditional markets. 

A similar development took place in the market for paper, where hemp fiber was replaced around the middle of the 19th century by a new raw material that seemed to cost almost nothing: Wood. New machines shredded trees and chemicals glued the wooden fibre, which is inferior to hemp fiber, to a much preferred raw material for paper. The fact that four to five times the amount of paper could be made from hemp as from wood played almost no role in those days, since the trees grew all by themselves and only had to be cut down. Only since the dire climatic consequences of the deforestation of our planet have recently become known, could hemp once more come to the rescue.

The hemp fiber could again become economically competitive for paper production only when the ecological damage caused by deforestation is taken into account. The same goes for textiles made from cotton: 50 % of all pesticides are used for cotton cultivation alone in the USA. As long as the dramatic damages caused by those poisons are not taken into account in the sales of ‘cheap’ cotton T-shirts, hemp textiles, produced entirely without any pesticides – are just a high-priced ‘niche-product.’

As a technical fiber in insulation material and automobile construction, as well as special paper (cigarette paper), hemp has recaptured its market already. Many people do not want to do without hemp-made jeans, T-shirts and shirts any more despite its almost doubled price compared to cotton products. No poison gets to the skin, and, because of the hemp fibers perfect regulation of moisture, it is singularly pleasant to wear: ‘Cool when it's hot, hot when it's not.’

 

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