Industrial hemp fibre
Hemp fibres are among the strongest soft fibres in the plant world. Humans discovered early on how to fabricate thread, rope and textile from it.
Thanks to the cultivation of hemp, people were able to stop wearing animal hides and switch to clothing made of woven fabrics. Hemp clothes once had a reputation for being rough and abrasive, but the samples of hemp and hemp-blend textiles on display in our museums in Amsterdam and Barcelona prove that this supremely versatile fibre can be as strong as an anchor rope or as soft as silk. Pay us a visit and test them for yourself!
The first clothes were made of hemp fibre
The oldest known examples of woven material are made from hemp. Various items of clothing and fabric, ranging from sandals and ritual robes to bandages and carpets, have been found on archaeological digs. First, the long, strong plant fibres were twisted into simple twine; in turn, strands of twine were plaited together to make stronger ropes. Cross-weaving allowed ropes to be made into nets for fishing and hunting. As weaving technology developed, finer and finer meshes became possible, until the net finally developed into true woven cloth.
One of the highlights of the Museum Collection (on loan from Robert Clarke) is a Chinese ceremonial costume, handmade from hemp as has been traditional for thousands of years.
Hemp and the history of sailing ships
Hemp was the second most used material in shipbuilding after wood, and played a crucial role in exploration and expansion across the globe. The plant's fibres were used to make many items: sails, ropes, rigging and cloths. Hemp fibres were mixed with tar and smeared between the seams of ships' hulls to make them watertight, in a process known as ‘caulking’. No other natural fibre can withstand the forces of the open ocean and the stresses of salt water as well as hemp does. Without hemp, Columbus would have never reached the shores of the New World.
Furthermore, the Dutch Golden Age, with its ships that spread trade goods across the globe, would have never happened without hemp. Detailed model ships on display in the museums show all its applications, and there are countless examples of hemp rope, varying from fine thread to impressive anchor ropes with a circumference of 30cm.
Modern uses of hemp fibre
From the early 20th century onwards, new synthetic materials became increasingly popular with the clothing industry. However, in the last few decades there has been a gradual change. The environmentally sustainable properties of hemp are becoming recognised once again. Hemp textiles are not only qualitatively superior to, for instance, cotton, but their production is much less ecologically damaging. Recent studies have shown hemp fabric can actually destroy bacteria on its surface, preventing the spread of diseases such as staph (Staphylococcus Aureus) and pneumonia (Klebsiella Pneumoniae). If hospitals adopt the use of hemp and hemp-blended fabrics, their anti-bacterial properties could save lives.
Hemp clothes are strong and tend to last much longer than other fabrics. They can be made as light and soft as cotton. Hemp cloth creases less than linen, is highly absorbent, and is also ideal for people with sensitive skin. The same qualities that made hemp the only fibre for sea voyages make it ideal for shoes, and Nike and Adidas have both produced training shoes in hemp, which are also on display in the museums.