The History of Hemp

The History of Hemp

First converted from plants to wearable fabric by the ancient chinese, hemp spread around the globe powering the expansion of empires and voyages of discovery.

Its strength and abundance meant entire naval fleets used hemp sails as populations and their armies wore hemp all year round

More recently, hemp was outlawed and global awareness of the fabric idled until its reappearance as a beautifully soft, sustainable alternative to fast fashion.

first chinese emperor in hemp clothing

The Discovery of Hemp

Turn your mind back 10,000 years, to a time when Instagram wasn’t a thing…and neither was clothing…the first evidence of hemp growing as a plant can be found in China.

Fast forward a few thousand years to 2800 BC Chinese legend refers to a mythical Emperor Shen Nung teaching his people to weave hemp plants into clothing due to it’s strength and abundance with which it grew.


Once the ancient Chinese dynasties had mastered the use of hemp in clothing, rope and even medicine it began to spread West through trade networks. Ancient horse mounted warriors, the Scythians, traded along the Silk Road around 800BC and brought hemp to Europe.


In early Europe (50BC – 1000BC)  hemp became loved by Kings, commoners, farmers, early day tailors, naval commanders and restauranteurs thanks to the incredibly diverse nature of its offering and the abundance with which it grew.


Hemp’s uses spanned medicine, food, fabric for sails, rope and clothing, as a building material and even as the string in bows and arrows. As a result, it became really important economically – supplying the world with food and textile. It was particularly brilliant because it grew using only rainwater and without need for any chemicals or tending to…just harvesting!

Once it was processed, it was a phenomenally strong material that could withstand almost anything..even lifting enormous rocks into place on the Egyptian Pyramids!

Empire Expansion

a ship with hemp sails

Hemp helped facilitate global trade and the expansion of empires because entire naval fleets were rigged with hemp sails and ropes. They were fantastically strong and salt resistant and anywhere a ship went it always had one thing on board to help in case it had to land somewhere unknown..hemp seeds!

Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492 was made possible thanks to hemp sails – where it was then introduced into the Americas. Around this time hemp was extremely important in England, whose navy depended on it. So much so that King Henry VIII signed into law a requirement for all farmers to grow a certain amount of hemp each year . Names sprung up all over the country due to its importance, for example the county of Hempshire – now known as Hampshire.

Hemp vanishes from daily use 

In the 18th century it is estimated that 80% of the world’s population were wearing hemp clothing, however it won’t be music to your ears when I tell you this soon died out. Hemp was extremely laborious to process into fabric, it took days and days of work to wear the fibers down into finer and finer threads. As a result, in the 19th century cotton became preferred because it was easier to work with.

Furthering hemp’s woes were nasty oil and steel barons who were concerned that hemp could become a competing resource in the form of biofuel and as a strong material..stronger and lighter than steel. Additionally, many newspaper magnates also owned large lumber yards and forests so they could get cheap paper for their printing. As hemp was growing as an alternative form of paper they were concerned what this might mean for them.

Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 

marijuana tax act 1937

All these powerful, selfish men grouped together and lobbied the US government to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, this effectively made hemp pointless to grow because it was so expensive that farmers didn’t bother.  They then went even further to damage hemp’s reputation by negatively linking it with refugees arriving from from Mexico (We’re confused too..)


A combined unfair stigma of drug taking and racism would prove too much for hemp and it disappeared from the shelves, public awareness, and our wardrobes for the next 80 years (except when the US Army realised they really, really needed it to win WWII because they ran out of hemp


The recent history of hemp is very US based because they effectively set these rules and the stigma certainly spread internationally. People all over the world have an unfair stigma of hemp in their heads because of its relationship to cannabis. (Even though you can’t smoke it!)

Hemp today

Global awareness is shifting and hemp is coming back into the fore as awareness of the benefits of the plant become better known. Fortunately for us, hemp in fabric form is a beautifully soft material that looks and feels just like linen – but with a far more interesting history!

We’re thrilled to be playing our part in the history of hemp by being the UK’s first hemp shirtmaker and growing awareness through brilliant men’s hemp shirts.

View the collection here


hemp clothing


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