Hemp. The Original T-Shirt
Did you know that hemp was the very plant to have its fibers used to make clothing? Archeologists have found cloth dating back to 8000 BC made of hemp fiber in what is now modern day Iraq and Iran. Hemp has been an industrial crop in China for over 6000 years and made it to Europe at approximately 1200 BC. Even the original Levi’s jeans and parts of Henry Ford’s Model T were made from hemp. What’s more American than that?
During the middle ages in the UK, hemp was so important economically for its fiber and food production that King Henry the VIII ordered all landowners to sow a quarter of their land for hemp production. The sailing industry relied upon canvas (from the root word cannabis) for sails because it was three times stronger than cotton. There is nothing worse than blowing a sail in the middle of the ocean in the pre-satellite phone era. In North America, hemp was found well prior to Europeans arriving. Explorer Jacques Cartier noted in his journals how he basically found it growing on its own… like a weed. He didn’t write that exactly. The like a weed part was interpreted and added for comedic relief and effect.
Prior to the 20th century, historians estimate as high as 80% of the world's clothing was made from hemp fiber. It was an industrial and job-creating machine. Little old Canada alone was home to seven hemp mills. It was a crop and industry that genuinely fed and clothed the world, and had nothing to do with drugs.
And the reasons for it being so prolific and important makes perfect sense. It was growing with little to no irrigation or pesticides in climates and soil conditions as diverse and challenging as Iraq, Russia, and Western Canada. It is a multi-purpose crop which can be used for food, clothing, building materials, medication, and occasionally even recreation (that was a joke). Hemp uses ¼ to ⅕ of the water of cotton, doesn’t need pesticides, is stronger and more durable than cotton and produces twice the yield per acre. It’s a fantastic rotation crop for farmers as it returns over half of its nutrients to the field it is grown in.
We know what you’re thinking, if it is so amazing why aren’t we still using it? Well, we are glad you asked. Initially, there was a very legitimate economic reason that was market driven. In the late 19th century the mechanical cotton gin made processing cotton very efficient and very cheap. Hemp was being processed by hand, which made it very expensive in comparison due to the high labor costs.
As with most economic problems, a solution was presented by an entrepreneur. In 1917 George W. Schlichten patented a machine for separating the fiber that reduced labor costs by a factor of 100. This has evolved into what is now known as a decorticator. Curiously this gentleman and his invention remained largely insignificant for quite some time.
This is the part of the story where the conspiracy theories come out. There are many who argue that industrial tycoons in the lumber, paper, and synthetic fabric industries used their influence to create legislation that protected their industry and essentially outlawed what would be a very strong competitor. There are those who point to racism and cultural conflict, with industrial hemp being a casualty of the war on drugs. It’s obviously entirely possible that there is truth in both stories. The stories and theories are fascinating and historical detectives have a lot of material here to dive into should they want to develop their own theories. Neither narrative reflects very positively on the business and government leaders social attitudes during the early to middle parts of the 20th century.
The exact reasons for hemp being outlawed to grow and process in North America don’t change the fact that it is a crop that has an enormous amount of industrial and environmental benefit. It is one of the few industries that can create jobs, high-quality products, and improve the environment. Water shortages are becoming far too commonplace, and we use a ridiculous amount of this precious resource so that we can have the latest fashion trends available for cheap at the local mall. Rivers and lakes are being polluted so that we can have dozens of cheap cotton/polyester outfits in our closets.
Cotton and synthetic fibers aren’t bad, they are just overused. Hemp isn’t the answer for everything, but it is a grossly underutilized resource. It’s time to level the scale towards sustainability. Can purchasing a t-shirt really make a difference in this world? We dare you to find out…