Hemp: Ancient Fiber in the News

  hemp fiber cells
  In cross-section, the cells of hemp fiber are stacked like bricks. Illustration by Stephenie Gaustad.

In many United States locations but especially here in Colorado, hemp and other members of the Cannabis family are making headlines these days. But spinners have a different perspective on the controversial fiber: it’s a long, strong bast cellulose fiber with similarities to flax. It can be hard to get your hands on, so we’ve included flax fiber in a kit along with resources to understand and spin it!


In The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp, Stephenie Gaustad shares her love of spinning cellulose fibers and her years of expertise with these plant fibers. The following is an excerpt from that excellent book.


Discussions of hemp, especially of Cannabis sativa, are often clouded with confusion and controversy. This is a pity. It’s both a beautiful and useful fiber with long and illustrious history. Well before the written word, hemp was used for nets, shelter, and clothing. Early Asian writings indicate that its stalk yielded fiber for yarns and that its seeds yielded oil. During the time of sailing ships and European exploration, hemp was crowned “King of Plant Fibers.” The very word for sailcloth, “canvas,” is derived from Cannabis. Hemp has been spun into a wide range of yarns, from rough, sturdy stuffs for canvas, cordage, and ropes to fine, lustrous yarns for sheer, transparent cloths.


In the United States, legal controversy has put hemp fiber production in limbo. Although in some states it’s legal to grow hemp, in all states it’s illegal to do so without a federal permit. Hemp fiber, yarns, and fabrics are perfectly legal, however.

  Hemp fiber flax fiber
  Hemp (left) grows to as much as 15 feet (4.5 m) tall  whereas flax (right)grows to just 40" (101.5 cm) tall. Illustration by Stephenie Gaustad.


Hemp Fiber Characteristics
Hemp is about 78 percent cellulose. The remaining components are waxes, oils, lignin, and ash. This composition means that as your finished hemp project is laundered, the yarns will release those oils, waxes, and some lignin, which will make the fibers whiter. The yarns likewise become finer by about 25 percent. Hemp has no pectin. Spinning hemp wet can help to increase the strength of a fine yarn, but it does nothing to control the hairiness of the yarn, as it does when you spin linen.


The cells that make up hemp fiber are stacked like bricks, which make the fiber strong. When hemp is wet, like many of its cellulose fiber cousins, it’s stronger, more pliant, and less vulnerable to snapping under sudden pressure. Hemp permits rigorous laundering with little damage, making it superior for washcloths and towels. It’s also resistant to rot and salt-water damage. Hemp gained its reputation as King of the Plant Fibers because hemp ropes and canvas for sailing ships outlasted any other material of its time.


Hemp is both absorbent and cool to the touch. This combination makes hemp attractive for summertime apparel, whether knitted, crocheted, or woven. The bonus is it dries quickly. What could be more comfortable?

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