Cannabidiol, or CBD, has been much in the news of late as the legalization of cannabis products continues to surge. Hemp is the main source for creating the sort of CBD that doesn’t get you high but deliver many benefits for those who suffer from anxiety, pain, epilepsy, and many other conditions, as noted by the National Institute of Health. But hemp has been happening for thousands of years when the Chinese made paper with it and ancient Egyptians used it for medicinal purposes. It has been used to make sails, rope, and cloth. Levi Strauss used it to make the first pair of blue jeans. Now it has even shown up at Fashion Week.
China started up with hemp about 6000 years ago, and by 1200 B.C. the sturdy and multi-functional plant had made it to Europe. Ancient Egypt must have some high time as well since the 1881 excavation of the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II (Ramses The Great, sho regained from 1279 to 1213 B.C.) revealed traces of cannabinoids in his remains. The Ebers Papyrus, among the world’s most ancient medical journals, circa 1550 B.C.), contains hieroglyphics that cite the seeds, juice, and root of the cannabis plant for treatment of everything from fever to ingrown toenails.
The hieroglyphs actually translate to “medical cannabis,” a term that is very much in the news today. But hemp, the mildest of the cannabis family, was employed for many other purposes in a variety of cultures, and many of those uses are still in play.
Some scholars prefer to err on the side of caution, thinking that hibiscus cannabinus was the strain referred to in Egyptian hieroglyphics and that it might have been the source of Egyptian rope, rather than hemp. The rope was indispensable in operating the bots that traveled the Nile, but vestiges of hemp rope have not been found in Egypt. That said, hemp rope is a recurring theme in many Middle Eastern and East European histories. Today, Romania has a thriving business in hand-twisted hemp rope, natural and untreated with chemicals. These ropes are used for both decorative and industrial purposes.
Even the innovator, King Henry VII led the 16th-century movement for hemp cultivation, ordering farmers to plant increasingly larger hemp crops in order to provide materials for the Royal Navy. To keep the fleet afloat, hemp was needed to create sails, rigging, ropes, burgees, and oakum (the stuff used as caulking for wooden ships.) Hemp cultivated in Britain dates back to 800 A.D.
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Hemp paper has been around much longer than paper derived from wood pulled, which is the norm today. About 2000 years ago, the Chinese began creating paper from hemp and rags, and that process remained state of the art for centuries. In 1450, 35 copies of the famed Gutenberg Bible were printed on fine Italian hemp paper, each page embedded with a watermark visible when the page is held up to the light.
Eventually, most paper producers switch to wood-because trees were the more abundant that cloth-with the first American paper mill opening in Pennsylvania in 1690. Today, as the planet’s wood sources are being depleted by deforestation, a movement has begun to revive the production of hemp paper.
Hemp is considered to be a much more durable source for paper because the hemp fibers are longer and stronger than wood and, unlike wood, most of the plant can be used in the making of the paper. In addition, hemp paper doesn’t yellow or crumble over time, as evidenced by the surviving Gutenbergs. The trees very much appreciate the newly revived popularity of hemp paper.
Back in High Fashion
After decades of dismissal, hemp is once again on the fashion pages. There is plenty of historical precedent for such fashion statements, especially in the United States, where the iconic blue jeans by Levi Strauss were created from hemp canvas. In 2008, cannabis made a comeback on the runway with Calvin Klein’s hemp-based pantsuit and dramatic long coat. Not to be outdone, fashion diva Donatella Versace used cream colored help silk to create a show-stealing backless gown. By 2017, top designers enthralled their Fashion Week audience with marijuana leaf designs and cheeky pot-related slogans. Today, many designers embrace not just the strength of the fabric, but also the sustainability of the growth process, as hemp does not need pesticides and requires much less water than cotton.
For the record, most designers mix the hemp with cotton fibers to reduce the scratchiness of the fabric.