Hemp as Fabric
The stalk of the hemp plant has two parts, called the bast and the hurd. The fiber (bast) of the hemp plant can be woven into almost any kind of cloth. It is very durable. In fact, the first Levi’s blue jeans were made out of hemp for just this reason.
Compared to all the other natural fibers available, hemp is more suitable for a large number of applications.
Here is how hemp is harvested for fiber:
- A field of closely spaced hemp is allowed to grow until the leaves fall off.
- The hemp is then cut down and it lies in the field for some time washed by the rain.
- It is turned over once to expose both sides of the stalk evenly. During this time, the hurd softens up and many minerals are returned to the soil. This is called “retting.”
- After this step is complete, the stalks are brought to a machine which separates the bast and the hurd. We are lucky to have machines today — men used to do this last part by hand with hours of back-breaking labor.
The cloth that hemp makes may be a little less soft than cotton, (though there are also special kinds of hemp or ways to grow or treat hemp, that can produce a soft cloth) but it is much stronger and longer lasting. It does not stretch out like cotton. Environmentally, hemp is a better crop to grow than cotton, especially the way cotton is grown nowadays.
In the United States, the cotton crop uses half of the total pesticides. (Yes, you heard right, one half of the pesticides used in the entire U.S. are used on cotton.) Cotton is a soil damaging crop and needs a lot of fertilizer.
Hemp as Paper
Both the fiber (bast) and pulp (hurd) of the hemp plant can be used to make paper. Fiber paper was the first kind of paper, and the first batch was made out of hemp in ancient China. Fiber paper is thin, tough, brittle, and a bit rough. Pulp paper is not as strong as fiber paper, but it is easier to make, softer, thicker, and preferable for most everyday purposes. The paper we use most today is a `chemical pulp’ paper made from trees. Hemp pulp paper canbe made without chemicals from the hemp hurd. Most hemp paper made today uses the entire hemp stalk, bast and hurd. High-strength fiber paper can be made from the hemp baste, also without chemicals.
The problem with today’s paper is that so many chemicals are used to make it. High strength acids are needed to make quality (smooth, strong, and white) paper out of trees. These acids produce chemicals which are very dangerous to the environment. Paper companies do their best to clean these chemicals up (we hope.) Hemp offers us an opportunity to make affordable and environmentally safe paper for all of our needs, since it does not need much chemical treatment. It is up to consumers, though, to make the right choice –these dangerous chemicals can also be used on hemp to make a slightly more attractive product. Instead of buying the whiter, brighter role of toilet paper, we will need to think about what we are doing to the planet.
Because of the chemicals in today’s paper, it will turn yellow and fall apart as acids eat away at the pulp. This takes several decades, but because of this publishers, libraries and archives have to order specially processed acid free paper, which is much more expensive, in order to keep records. Paper made naturally from hemp is acid free and will last for centuries.
Why can’t we just keep using trees for paper?
A simpler answer to the above question is:
Because we are running out! It was once said that a squirrel could climb from New England to the banks of the Mississippi River without touching the ground once. The European settler’s appetite for firewood and farmland put an end to this. When the first wood paper became a huge industry, the United States Department of Agriculture began to worry about the tree supply. That is why they went in search of plant pulp to replace wood.
Today, some “conservatives” argue that there are more forests now than there ever were. This is neither true, realistic nor conservative: these statistics do not reflect the real world. Once trees have been removed from a plot of land, it takes many decades before biological diversity and natural cycles return to the forest, and commercial tree farms simply do not count as forest — they are farm land.
As just mentioned, many plant fibers were investigated by the USDA — some, like kenaf, were even better suited than cannabis hemp for making
some qualities of paper, but hemp had one huge advantage: robust vitality. Hemp generates immense amounts of plant matter in a three month growing season. When it came down to producing the deluge of paper used by Americans, only hemp could compete with trees. In fact, according to the 1916 calculations of the USDA, one acre of hemp would replace an entire four acres of forest. And, at the same time, this acre would be producing textiles and rope.
Today, only 4% of America’s old-growth forest remains standing — and there is talk about building roads into that for logging purposes! Will our policy makers realize in time how easy it would be to save them?