Whilst being introduced to hemp in Mumbai, India in the summer of 2018, I was told stories of how it was the most used fabric on the planet until the 1700s. Clothing almost everyone from Mandalay to Michigan, with uses so diverse that almost every industry could find an application for it.
I've compiled a list of pioneers over time who integrated hemp into their work in some way in the hope that you may enjoy discovering a few little known facts.
Henry Ford was always thinking two steps ahead. Famed for business ideas which led to scales of mass production never seen before combined with an unheard of $5 daily wage for all his workers - leading to mass consumption and kickstarting sustained economic growth. It wasn’t long before his workers were customers.
His innovation covered material advancement and research into hemp, soon proving that the oil extracted from it cold be refined to run a car engine, and the fibres could be compacted to make a composite stronger and lighter than steel.
Unfortunately for everyone, the oil and steel conglomerates didn’t take too kindly to this and lobbied the US government to criminalise hemp under the pretext that it was harming society alongside the cannabis plant.
Johannes Vermeer is just an example of the many painters who created renowned masterpieces that survive today on tightly woven hemp canvasses. With the rise of the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century, painters began to use Venetian sailcloth - renowned for its quality - to paint on. The word ‘canvas’ was soon derived from the Latin ‘cannabis’.
It was superior to painting on wood which absorbed moisture and warped, whilst easier to use in humid environments than frescos which dried poorly. Hemp was also easily portable meaning that famous portraits and masterpieces could be transported around Europe and beyond with ease.
Discovering the New World in 1492 led to fascinating findings. Abundant gold nuggets, spices, species and disease. However, it wouldn’t have happened until a few centuries later without the use of hemp.
All ships of the time used hemp sailcloth due its saltwater resistance and durability, ropes for their intertwined strength (that were still used until WWII) and gaps in the hull stuffed with a hemp/tar blend to ensure watertightness. Concerned that they may become stranded in whatever distant land they reached, his ships were loaded with hemp seeds which could be planted should need arise, but also proved a rich source of nutrition for his crew.
Growing up in the mountains of Serbia (now Croatia), hemp was an abundant plant used in many walks of life by poor and resourceful locals. Nikolai Tesla was one of those who discusses his hemp clothing passed down from his father in his autobiography - and even explains his applications for it in some of his early inventions as plugs in pistons and binder on larger structures.
Over two million large blocks of rock were used in constructing the largest of the Pyramids at Giza. Dragged over 500 miles from the quarry, the construction of the pyramids remains one of the most incredible feats of human achievement - but also clouded in mystery. No-one can say for certain how they were built, how long it would have taken, or how many workers would have died.
Remains of hemp have been found in the blocks of rock which the great Pharaoh Ramasses oversaw the building of. As the strongest fibre of time time, huge rocks would have been hauled high into the air suspended by hemp rope.
As one of the most abundant crops in the world until the 1900s, the list of things hemp was used for is endless, but hopefully this has added a little colour and imagery to a topic you may not have known much about!
These days, hemp has been refined by fabric mills into a beautifully soft, elegant fabric with hollow fibres that allow it to breathe in the summer, but remain cosy in the winter.