History of hemp
Industrial hemp is one of the oldest cultivated crops on earth. Varieties cultivated for industrial use contain barely any psychoactive substances, although they are of the same family as medicinal marijuana and the cannabis sold in Amsterdam's coffee shops today. The bast fibres surrounding the woody stem of the cannabis plant are the strongest natural plant fibre in existence, and they are one of the many advantages of industrial hemp.
How hemp was cultivated, harvested and processed in the past
At our museums in Amsterdam and Barcelona, visitors can discover in detail how hemp was cultivated, harvested and processed in the past, as well as the many ways in which the plant has provided the raw materials for all sorts of products, ranging from rope and sandals, to kimonos and water bags. Hemp textile products were very popular because the fibres were so strong.
On display in our museums
The collection of hemp artefacts on display in our museums includes unique prints and book illustrations from the 19th and 20th centuries, rare photos of hemp cultivation in Italy and Eastern Europe, and antique tools that were used in the process of cultivating hemp, all of which stand witness to the long history of this plant. Even though these images often paint a romantic picture of rural life, this was not the reality of the situation. Hemp processing was hard labour and it would take whole families' every effort just to earn a living at it.
The basic stages of industrial hemp processing
Hemp has been processed in the same way for centuries. After the crop has been harvested, the flowers, seeds and leaves are removed by beating the plants with sticks. The hemp stems are then 'retted' (i.e. allowed to decompose slightly) by leaving them on the ground, where they will become wet with dew each morning. Retting the hemp causes the bast fibre to separate from the woody core. The moist stems are bundled up and placed against coppiced willow trees or a special fence to dry. Fire is sometimes used to dry the hemp thoroughly.
During the breaking of the hemp, a wooden tool known as a 'breaker' pulverises the stems, separating the bast fibre from the inner woody core. A flat piece of wood is then used to beat the bundles of fibres and remove more woody material. The last fragments are removed by ‘carding’ - drawing the fibres across a pointed hemp comb - after which, the fibres are ready for further processing into thread from which rope or textile can be produced.
Although modern tools and a mechanized process are now used in place of the wooden breakers of yesteryear, the basic stages and the essence of industrial hemp processing remain the same.