Thursday, 26 April 2012

Old Linen - Part 2

Hemp  -  Chanvre  -  Hanf

Late 18th and 19th century German hemp and French chanvre

Hemp - made of the Cannabis plant - has been found on every continent in this hemisphere, it was used long before its first recorded uses. It’s safe to believe, that no historian knows which peoples were first to experience her treasures.

Cannabis Sativa L.  -  512  A.D.
from Vienna Dioscurides, Austrian Nationalbibliothek, Graz

Cannabis, family Cannabaceae


   species: Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalia, and Cannabis sativa L.,  

In every society where people discovered  Cannabis hemp, they often discovered the five uses for hemp which include: hempen fibers, oil from the seeds, the seeds for food, a medicine, and for its narcotic properties. Cannabis use has existed for over ten thousand years, and is one of the oldest crops used for cultivation. It was cultivated in China as early as 4000 BC. Most cultures viewed hemp as a gift, or treasure, from the Divine Sprit, to be used during ceremonials, at which time it was either burned as incense, ingested for deep meditative and heighten awareness, smoked for pleasure, or worn for clothing during these ceremonies. Hemp has been mentioned in many important documents over its recorded history, The Zend-Avesta, a sacred book used by the peoples of India dating back to 600 
BC, spoke of hemp’s intoxicating resin. The Chinese emperor and herbalist, Chen-Nung wrote about hemp’s medicinal uses 5000 years ago, his pharmacoepia recorded its effects on malaria, female disorders, and many other illnesses, hemp was referred to as, Ma-fen “hemp fruit”, said; “if taken in excess, will produce hallucinations”. The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621 recommended hemp for depression. The New English Dispensatory, of 1764 suggested applying hemp roots to the skin for inflammation.  (source:


Hemp is one of the earliest domesticated plants known.

 In Elizabethan times, farmers were fined for not growing Hemp; 
  • Until 1883, more than three quarters of the world's paper was made from Hemp fiber;
  • A Hemp crop produces nearly four times as much raw fiber as an equivalent-sized tree plantation;
  • Trees take approximately 20 years to mature. Hemp takes 4 months;
  • Hemp fiber needs no pesticides;
  • Hemp needs no herbicides because it grows too quickly for any weed to compete; 

  • For more than a thousand years before the time of Christ until 1883 AD, Cannabis/Hemp was our planet's largest agricultural crop and most important industry for thousands of products and enterprises, producing the overall majority of the earth's fiber, fabric, lighting oil, paper, incense and medicines, as well as being a primary source of protein for humans and animals alike;
  • Napoleon's principle reason for tragically invading Russia in 1812 was also due to Russian Hemp supplies!
  • The word 'linen', until the early 1800s meant any fine fabrics made from Hemp or flax.

Antique LIS woman hemp dress, detail
exhibited in the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Hemp use archaeologically dates back to the Neolithic Age in China, with hemp fiber imprints found on Yangshao culture pottery dating from the 5th century BC. The Chinese later used hemp to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and an early form of paper.

The classical Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 480 BC) reported that the inhabitants of Scythia would often inhale the vapors of hemp-seed smoke, both as ritual and for their own pleasurable recreation.

Textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber summarizes the historical evidence that Cannabis sativa, "grew and was known in the Neolithic period all across the northern latitudes,
from Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, the Ukraine) to East Asia (Tibet and China),"
but, "textile use of Cannabis sativa does not surface for certain in the West until relatively late,
 namely the Iron Age."
and also:
"I strongly suspect, however, that what catapulted hemp to sudden fame and fortune as a cultigen and caused it to spread rapidly westwards in the first millennium B.C. was the spread of the habit of pot-smoking from somewhere in south-central Asia, where the drug-bearing variety of the plant originally occurred. The linguistic evidence strongly supports this theory, both as to time and direction of spread and as to cause."
(source: Wikipedia)
Jews living in Palestine in the 2nd century were familiar with the cultivation of hemp, as witnessed by a reference to it in the Mishna (Kil'ayim 2:5) as a variety of plant.

In late medieval Germany and Italy, hemp was employed in cooked dishes, as filling in pies and tortes, or boiled in a soup.

Hemp in later Europe was mainly cultivated for its fibers, and was used for ropes on many ships,   
also to make sail canvas.

19th century German "Bauernleinen" - Farmer's linen - Canvas - made of Hemp - Hanf

The following images show a range of different weaves and color tone


  The word canvas derives from cannabis.

 German sacks were made of hemp, sometimes 'stiff' as canvas... this one...


...which belonged once to a cooper (Küfer)  -  SOLD

  canvas made of hemp


The use of hemp as a cloth was centered largely in the countryside,
with higher quality textiles being available in the towns.

French 19th century women's shirt in chanvre - hemp

French mid-19th century men's shirts in  chanvre - hemp, circa 150 years old


 The Spaniards brought hemp to the Western Hemisphere and cultivated it in Chile starting about 1545.  However, in May 1607, "hempe" was among the crops Gabriel Archer observed being cultivated by the natives at the main Powhatan village, where Richmond, Virginia is now situated; and in 1613, Samuell Argall reported wild hemp "better than that in England" growing along the shores of the upper Potomac. As early as 1619, the first Virginia House of Burgesses passed an Act requiring all planters in Virginia to sow "both English and Indian" hemp on their plantations. The Puritans are first known to have cultivated hemp in New England in 1645.
(source: Wikipedia)

The valued primary fibers are contained around the hollow, woody core of the hemp stalk. These long, strong fibers that grow the length of the hemp stalk are considered bast fibers.  Hemp fiber possesses properties similar to other bast fibers (flax, kenaf, jute and ramie) and excels in fiber length, strength, durability, absorbency, anti mildew and antimicrobial properties.
Once a hemp crop has matured and been harvested, hemp primary fibers are separated from the hemp stalk through the "retting" process. For "dew retting", the cut stalks are left in the field for several weeks to allow natural humidity and bacteria to decompose the fiber-binding pectins. Other ways to separate the fiber from the core are: water retting, warm water retting and chemical retting. When the retting process is complete, the fibers are readily separated from the core, and processed for specific products.

Primary fibers are long-staple length fibers, averaging 8 inches (20 cm) in length. These hemp fibers can be spun and woven to a fine, crisp, linen-like fabric and used for apparel textiles, home furnishing textiles and carpeting.
(info source: internet)

19th Austrian and German hemp

A late 17th century French armchair...

 ...recovered with mid-19th century really home loomed linen/hemp from the Black Forest,
about 17 years ago, daily 'occupied' by Mr. B  - and still good!  I call this quality!

Hemp curtains

here a pair of wing chairs, early 20th Century, re-covered with 19th century hemp


Anti mildew and antimicrobial properties makes hemp very suitable for sails, tarps, awnings, and grain sacks.

 German grain sacks made of hemp, mid-19th to early 20th century

Primary fibers can be cut to shorter staple lengths to accommodate a variety of spinning systems.   Hemp fiber blended with wool, cotton, linen or other fibers, adds strength, durability, absorbency and breathing ability, making hemp-blended fabrics cool and comfortable to wear and touch.

 French women's  shirts  made of hemp, ca. 100-120 years old

German man shirt from the 19th century


French Nappes de vendange en chanvre - hemp, 19th century
from the Bordeaux and Cognac (Charente) region
(more about these beautiful table cloths in a further post)

French 19th century kitchen and bath towels in hemp


Some English, American, Canadian  History of Hemp:

Henry VIII required the cultivation of one quarter acre of hemp for every sixty acres of land under tillage, for maritime purposes in England.
The British began cultivating hemp in its Canadian colonies in 1606, cultivation began for Virginia in 1611.  The Pilgrims introduced cultivation to New England as early as 1632, they learned about the cultivation of hemp from the Native American people.


Hemp Equals Freedom In The New World

Hemp was already in the new world when the first European colonists arrived, thought to have been introduced from China by explorers, migrating birds from across the Bering Strait, or possibly drifting shipwrecks.

It is reported that the colonist were not eager to grow hemp, however the European motherland wanted hemp, and cultivation was deemed mandatory. The Puritans at Jamestown grew hemp, as part of their contract with the Virginia Company. Jean Talon at the order of French Quebec colony minister, confiscated all thread the colonists possessed and forced them to buy it back from him with hemp. Talon supplied the seeds to farmers, which had to be reimbursed after hemp crops were harvested.

Mandatory cultivation of hemp continued throughout the New World, the General Court in 1637 at Hartford Connecticut, and the Massachusetts courts in 1639 ordered all families to plant one teaspoon of hemp seed. “that we might in time have supply of linen cloth among ourselves.” Several colonies passed legal tender laws, hemp was so valued it was used to pay taxes.

Until 1776 many colonies passed laws to encourage farmers to produce hemp, Virginia designed laws to compel farmers, fining those who did not comply. Lobbyist were hired to promote, and education the public about the importance of hemp. Books were published that wanted to establish hemp as America’s trademark product.

Colonies under the crown, were banned from spinning and weaving hemp, this fostered dependence to England, which was demanding raw materials from the colonies as a way to increase its labor forces. The exported fibers, were then bought back as finished products from England. As the market was flooded with hemp, immigrant weavers from Ireland arrived in Massachusetts, setting up shop and passing their skills to the peasantry. What may have seem a small movement, grew into self-sufficiency from the British Crown, to the extent of a boycott of English fabric products. These were some of the conditions which lead into the War of Independence from the British. The American paper industry was born of hemp, linen, and cotton rags which provided writing materials throughout the war, essential for communication.
In 1777, Edward Antil wrote in his introduction of Observations on the Raising and Dressing of Hemp, “hemp is one of the most profitable productions the earth furnishes in northern climates; as it employs a great number of poor people in a very advantageous manner, if its manufacture is carried on properly: It … becomes worthy of the serious attention … of every trading man, who truly loves his country.”  (

The Columbia History of the World (1996) states that that weaving of hemp fiber began over 10,000 years ago. There are carbon tests that have suggested the use of wild hemp, dating as far back as 8000 B.C. The widespread use and production of hemp throughout the UK 800-1800AD was discovered by analysis of soil sediments and indicates its greatest peak of usage was up until 100AD, after which other crops were beginning to be developed.

In the 16th Century Henry VIII encouraged farmers to plant the crop widely to provide supplies for the British Navy. A steady supply of hemp was needed for the construction of battleships and their components. Riggings, pendants, pennants, sails, and flags were all made from hemp fiber. Hemp was also used as a sealant on the timber of ships. Hemp paper used for maps, logs, and even Bibles that may have been on board.

 In the 17th Century farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were all ordered by law to grow Indian hemp and by the early 18th century you could actually go to jail if you were not growing hemp on your land. In this time period hemp was considered to be legal tender, in other words hemp was money and you could pay your taxes with hemp for over 200 years!
(source: of US hemp)


"Homespun"  -  Home loomed"

...Spinning and Weaving... 

An old German loom

19th century home loomed hemp for grain sacks

 "Homespun" and so-called "Home loomed" is a name given by now to country fabrics weaved from flax, hemp or wool by  peasants during the 19th century (1800s) when hemp and flax was grown on small farms, then harvested, retted and spun, ready for weaving.
As it was very often home spun by women, it was not always Home loomed, but certainly Hand loomed and mainly by men until the late 19th century.  See info below.

The weave, texture and natural shades of home spun and loomed products vary and are not as smooth and regular as industrial textiles. 

straw colored flecks seen in some home spun are actually tiny pieces of flax or hemp stalk woven into the textile.

The hand looms were very narrow, therefore the cloth / panel was not very wide and had to be joined with a seam to make larger pieces like sheets for example...

....and like this very large 19th century French hemp which is made of 4 panels,
with hand stitched seams.....

.....making a lovely bed spread....




The use of hemp for fiber production has declined sharply over the last two centuries, but before the industrial revolution hemp was a popular fiber because it is strong and grows quickly. It produces roughly 10% more fiber than cotton or flax when grown on the same land.  Because hemp has hollow fibers and cotton does not, hemp clothing better regulates body temperature. Hemp fiber also has anti-microbial properties, making it useful not only in clothing, bedding, and upholstery but also in medical bandages.  (source: Wikipedia)
Collection of French antique HEMP SHEETS,
dating from 19th century, between 120 and 200 years old


Antique French hemp sheets, dating from the 19th century (the 1800's)
Perfect for upholstery, slip covers, curtains etc.....


Hand loom weavers - or Home loomed

Hand loom weavers were mainly men - due to the strength needed to batten. Sometimes they worked from home. The women of the house would spin the thread they needed, and attend to finishing.  Over time, competition from the power looms drove down the piece rate and they existed in increasing poverty.

Power loom weavers

Power loom workers were usually girls and young women. They had the security of fixed hours, and except in times of hardship such as in the cotton famine regular income. They were paid a wage and a piece work bonus. Even when working in a combined mill, weavers stuck together and enjoyed a tight-knit community. The women usually minded the four machines and kept the looms oiled and clean. They were assisted by 'little tenters', children who on a fixed wage ran errands and did small tasks. They learned the job of the weaver by watching.  Often they would be 'half timers', carrying a green card which teacher and overlookers would sign to say they had turned up at the mill in the morning and in the afternoon at the school.  At fourteen or so they come full time into the mill, and started by sharing looms with an experienced worker where it was important to learn quickly as they would both be on piece work.  Serious problems with the loom were left to the tackler to sort out. He would inevitably be a man, as were usually the overlookers. The mill had its health and safety issues, there was a reason why the women tied their hair back with scarves. Inhaling cotton dust caused lung problems, and the noise was total causing hearing loss. Weavers would mee-waw as normal conversation was impossible. Weavers used to 'kiss the shuttle' that is suck thread though the eye of the shuttle- this left a foul taste in the mouth due to the oil which was also carcinogenic.
(source: Wikipedia)

More about weaving/looming in a further post....


Hemp - as well as linen - is particularly suitable for dyeing....


As I'm just realizing...
this post is getting long,

and has to be (will be!) continued with
  French  Chanvre - Hemp 
 Old Linen - Part 3

P.S.  All hemp shown in this post is from my collection and available / for sale,
except  the 'canvas-like' printed grain sack which is sold.
For any inquiries please email me here


  1. Very good post thanks so much for taking the trouble to write this up. I am off to my first brocante of the season this weekend. I am looking for the rustic textiles that you describe here.I am a recent convert.

  2. Very informative post and beautiful, as well.
    I love learning about the variations. Thanks!

  3. You have defined the standard for covering this topic and I am amazed at the history, the uses, the development... all! This is a beautifully illustrated reference on hemp and cannabis. I read every word and marked it as a reference to "old linen - hemp" for future review.

    Wow! Now, I am looking forward to the next installment and thank you kindly for your research and beautiful photos!


  4. Drool......................................
    Your photos are like candy! My type of candy! I can feel the fabric through your photography. Those stacks of dyed pieces are wonderful...the light blue stripes on the hemp sacks. The night shirts! When can I come over and rummage through your closets!! I'm definitely saving this series, Karin. So much work, such great information! XO Trish

  5. A lovely post! We have hemp shoes in Argentina, called alpargatas which are very typical and popular. They are flat, rustic, and extremely comfortable! Love the linen as well!

  6. Fascinating history of hemp. I wonder why we aren't using it anymore - it grows well in our climate (as marijuana) but if we could make paper and save forests, and grow it for fabric usage - how wonderful that would be. I love the hemp with the blue stripe in your photos.

  7. Such an amazing post. I loved every single word, photo and fact shared. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, your love of fabrics and your incredible collections.

  8. Thank you for such an informative post. When looking at your monogrammed tea towels I realized I have something similar which I bought in Finland from a church market sale. I got quite excited over this!

  9. You have so well researched this fabulous fabric! I love seeing all of your examples, truly beautiful!

    The 2012 Artist Series Feature on Anita Rivera, Designer & Paper Artist, with her Giveaway is on my site!

    Art by Karena

  10. Is this the same cannabis? I guess one has sweet dreams wrapped on that! :-)

    1. :-))

      @ Karin:
      Wonderful lesson!!!

      Sundaygreetings from sunny Frankonia
      ♥ Franka

  11. What an amazing post! I really think that this is an example of the best of what blogs can be--when we can learn and be inspired at the same time. Not to mention be in contact with wonderful people. I can only begin to imagine how much work this was for you, my goodness--especially in a second language! : O

    Now I will have to get the ladder to see in our linen closet (it is raised, inconvenient, I know!) to see if we have any chanvre or just linen. I know that the reputation in Provence is that chanvre will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I am curious as to why we have stopped using it--it seems, like bamboo, far kinder to our planet!

    Merci encore et bon weekend! Stay warm and I send you sun!!

  12. What a stunning post! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and the history of hemp. As Trish mentioned, I can almost feel your fabrics through your fabulous photography. It is interesting that we don't use hemp any more. I am saving this series and I appreciate all the hard work you put into bringing all this history and information to us. Karin, you are a wealth of knowledge of linens. Thank you so much.

  13. I thought I'de 'fick' through this post and enjoy the pics, then i decided to read a bit about the history of Hemp, I couldn't stop!
    Thank you so much for all your hard work.
    Bee x

  14. Karin I've been up and down this post several times and I love it. You keep right on showing your linens and hemp I can never get enough. Thank you for sharing your treasures! Oh and Happy Anniversary Mrs. B!


  15. Hello Karin

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this informative post. Linen is one of my all time favourite fabrics and I have many pieces in my wardrobe. I particularly love how linen accepts dye. Irrestible.

    Thank you

    Helen xx

  16. Fascinating facts and history of Hemp, Karin. I particularly loved the picture of it growing as a crop, so close together. Amazing. I think its also such an attractive plant. There was a company that sold the most beautiful hemp clothing in Spitalfields Market in London many years ago. I had several weekend shirts that I would wear whilst gardening in the summer.

  17. Karin, what a wonderful start to my Sunday morning! This post is so welcome, and appreciated.....interesting facts for us fabric hounds!!
    I have marked this also for future what I want to know is......How much of this is your stash, lucky, girl!! Beautifully photographed, like it would all be sitting in a nearby cupboard?? N.xoxo

  18. Amazing! I almost missed this fabulous post...say not so! Thank you so much for all this information and these wonderful photos! You are so kind to share your knowledge and fabulous collections. Now I have to go back and read it all again!

  19. Karin, you are so knowledgeable! This post...c'est magnifique! I know it must have taken an extraordinary amount of time. Thank for you sharing all that you know!

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  23. Great post, thank you.
    Regards, Keith.

  24. Very interesting and informative. How stupid is it that a fibre that was so valued is now practically banned! Your pictures make me want to snuggle up in one of those shirts under a cozy soft hemp blanket.

  25. An extraordinary post; so much to learn and to love❣️ It makes perfect sense that you are passionate about these textiles. Thank you for all you've researched and shared here; I'll be saving this post and forwarding the link to friends.

    Merci beaucoup

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