Hemp. The first thing that might flash through your mind upon hearing this word is ganja, the image of a cannabis leaf, illegality, Bob Marley, or even vague memories from your teenage years. But as many people involved in Nepal’s natural fibers industry are hoping, this word will soon invoke the image of a viable and thriving textile industry which can play a significant role in boosting Nepal’s economy. In a nation with few exportable natural resources, but many unemployed people, especially in villages where no practical source of income exists, hemp and other natural fibers can be, or rather are becoming, the next big thing.
The use of hemp for textiles, however, is nothing new. People have been cultivating hemp longer than any other textile fiber. Its textile use goes back as far as 8000 B.C. when it was first woven into fabric, eventually providing 80% of the world’s textiles. By 2700 B.C. hemp textiles, as well as other medicinal uses for the plant, were incorporated into a majority of the cultures in the Middle East, Asia Minor, India, China, Japan, and Africa. Within the next 1000 years, hemp grew to be the world’s largest agricultural crop and provided for many important industries such as fiber for textiles and ropes, lamp oil for lighting, paper, medicine, and food for humans and domesticated animals. All this comes as no surprise considering that hemp is the largest and strongest plant fiber, twice as strong as the ubiquitous cotton. Because it is extremely abrasion and rot resistant, it was the primary source for canvas, sail, rope, as well as clothing, military uniforms, shoes, and baggage until man-made fabrics were introduced. It fell out of popularity in the west as manmade materials slowly gained popularity. Though not as practical environmentally and not as sustainable, they became the primary textiles as economical and political considerations were made by governments who wanted to promote industry.
Generally, the hemp plant, scientifically known as Cannabis Sativa, is best known for three things: narcotics from its leaves, oil from its seeds, and white bast fiber from its stem. It is a self-sustaining weed that can grow in many climates, but a mild humid climate (such as that of Nepal’s hill regions) is the most suitable for fiber production. And because this plant has been around in Nepal for centuries, Nepali people have used it for all its purposes historically. For centuries, villagers have extracted fibers from both hemp and wild nettle plants to weave mats, sacks, bags, fishing nets, ropes, and carry straps. Communities that are days away from roads, have learned to rely on themselves to provide textiles, rather than relying on deliveries from outside. However, in modern Nepal, hemp does not find much use as cheaper, machine-made, materials are widely and easily available.