Textile archeologists found the first traces of woven hemp in China (8000 B.C.) and Kazakhstan (4000 B.C.). Around 500 B.C., Herodotus described the fine linens of the Scythes and their steam baths made by throwing hemp on burning stones. Texts mention hemp rope mixed with a vegetation-based putty during the Gallo-Roman era (50 A.D.). Hemp was imported from Greece to Massilia (the early name for Marseille) and transformed in the old port’s main square which today goes by the name of La Canebière (canebe means hemp in Occitan).
If the plant was already cited in 2727 B.C. in a text on Chinese pharmacopeia to fight malaria, rheumatism and as a sédative, legend says that Buddha, on the road to enlightenment, survived on one hemp seed a day (around 544 B.C.). For Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), hemp cured phlebitis and stomach pains. Used in the 18th century on smallpox sores, burns, gonorrhea and palpitations, it was prescribed for Queen Victoria to relieve her menstrual cramps. After being prohibited for many years, today it is prescribed as a treatment during chemotherapy or for people with HIV.
Since the dawn of time, hemp oil has been extracted for domestic use – lamp oil, paint, varnish, soap – and for the leather industry.
Perfected by Tsai Lung for the Chinese emperor between 62 and 117 A.D., the technique of making paper with hemp was discovered in the Western world after the Battle of Samarkand (751 A.D). In 1456 Gutenberg printed a Bible on hemp paper, the United States’ Declaration of Independence was also written on hemp paper in 1776. In 1807, Canson filed a patent for tracing paper made from hemp tow. In 1850 with the appearance of petrochemicals, wood replaced hemp in the making of paper thanks to the huge forests in Canada and the United States. Today it is used mostly for special papers (Bibles, cigarettes), bags and rope.
The first known hemp rope was found in Czechoslovakia in 1997 and dated from 26,900 B.C. ! In 1492 : 80 tons of hemp sails and rope helped bring Christopher Columbus’ ships to America. The plant was a barter commodity in all of America’s early colonies. It was mostly used by the Navy !
17th and 18th century : the European powers battled for nautical supremacy. Hemp was vital for sails, rigging (rope, cables, ladders, lanyards) and fishing lines. Officially created by Henri II in 1547, the French Royal Navy became as important as the Danish, English and Spanish flotillas during the reign of Louis XIV (1653). Richelieu and then Colbert brought hemp cultivation to an industrial stage by creating a cord factory in Rochefort-sur-Mer : an average-sized ship required 80 tons of hemp for its rigging and 9 tons for its sails.
During Napoleon’s time, the continental blocade (1806) put England in danger. So the country could get the hemp it needed for ship sails and rigging, France opened the Baltic ports (this engendered, among other events, the fire of Copenhagen) but Napolean demanded that Russia’s Tzar pay subsidies to be able to ship his country’s hemp to England. The Hemp War and the Treaty of Tilsit was a financial disaster for Russia !
Even if the famous toile “de Nîmes” – the original denim – was woven in hemp, new raw materials like cotton, coal and crude oil led to the progressive abandoning of European hemp cultivation. In the United States, chemical advances introduced synthetic fibers (a patent was filed for nylon in 1938) as an alternative to natural fibers. Hemp fell out of grace ! In 1937, the “Marijuana Tax Act” banned hemp growing and also ejected it from the American pharmaceutical industry where it had a vital role.
In 1942, the American army needed hemp to make rope and canvas for tents. The US government produced a propaganda film “Hemp for Victory” to promote the cultivation of this banished fiber.
But by 1945, nylon was back on the scene and hemp growing was banned throughout the world thanks to a United Nations edict, only France and the URSS resisted.
Today, France is the top European producer of hemp. Recognized around the world for its environmental qualities (carbon sinks, toxic waste detection, absorbtion of sewage overflow, eco-construction benefits), hemp is now a modern resource, a component of new, biosourced materials on the cutting edge of innovation.