Hemp is a natural fiber product of the Cannabis sativa plant. There are other byproducts of this plant, but hemp is produced from a type specifically bred to yield long fibers. Its cultivation for industrial purposes has been undertaken for thousands of years, and the fibers were used to manufacture rope, canvas, paper, and clothing until alternative textiles for these purposes were discovered.
Traditionally, hemp has been a very coarse fiber, which made it well suited to rope but less than ideal for clothing designed to be worn against human skin. Advances in breeding of the plants and treatment of the fibers have resulted in a much finer, softer fiber, which is ideal for weaving into clothing. While hemp clothing in the late 20th century came to be associated with fringe movements, it was once widely utilized as a textile: the word canvas, for example, is related to Cannabis, one of the original components of canvas.
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As of 2006, it was still very difficult to grow industrial hemp in the United States, due to the plant's confusion with marijuana. Though the two plants are members of the same species, they have been bred to achieve different ends, and industrial hemp does not contain enough tetrahydrocannabinol to make it a psychoactive substance. The growth of this plant in the United States is heavily regulated, although the neighboring nation of Canada grows commercial amounts of the product.
In addition to providing useful fibers, hemp seed also has high nutritional value, and it can be used to make biodegradable plastics, some fuels, and a variety of other things. While this plant is unlikely to save the world, as many proponents are fond of saying, it is an underutilized vegetable resource. Hemp is rich in healthy fats and some vitamins, depending on how it is grown. As a result, it is frequently used in skin salves and balms, as well as in nutritional supplements.
Hemp clothing tends to be strong, insulating, absorbent, and durable. This durability makes it well suited to garments that will see hard wear, because the fibers can last up to three times longer than cotton fibers. Most frequently, this type of clothing is woven, although the fibers tend to form chunkier threads than other natural textile components like cotton. Hemp can also be used in knits.
Untreated hemp fiber is pale blonde in color and takes dye well. Many textile products made from this fiber are colored with plant dyes, which gives hemp an undeserved reputation for being dull in color. In fact, it can be dyed as vividly as other textiles like cotton.