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A British Hemp Heritage Historical Story

Industrial hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years. As a civilisation, we have relied on this plant for its strong strength as a manufactured material. In the UK, we have a rich legacy when it comes to the history of industrial hemp fibre. From rope and sail canvas to household fabrics and industrial materials, hemp has played an important role in our textile heritage.

British Hemp Heritage

Industrial Hemp, derived from its cannabis cousin, was once grown in Dorset, Kent and other parts of the country where it was used by the rope factories. This was also substituted with Malia Hemp (Abaca plant) which was imported from the Philippines. Frost Brothers Limited established their first rope factory on Commercial Road in East London in 1790, where Manila hemp was hand-spun. The Ropery, est. 1786 in Chatham, saw semi-skilled artisans comb and spin raw Riga (Russian) hemp into yarn for rope.

Whilst much hemp was imported, homegrown hemp did not disappear entirely. The cultivation of hemp fitted in well with small-scale British farming, as it needed little attention during the summer and could be grown on the same plot year after year. Hemp was an important component of the flourishing linen industry in 16th century East Anglia, and continued to be grown across the nation. English hemp in particular was ideally suited for making hempen cloth clothing and became sought after for its quality.

British Hemp Heritage

The British hemp fibre industry played a vital part in our world wars. The fibre was processed under traditional craft methods to create ropes, sails and uniforms which gave Britain a competitive edge during battles. This production also allowed a self-sustaining industry to exist within the country which contributed to its prosperity. Due to globalisation after the war, producing textiles abroad became much cheaper. Much of this processing equipment was shipped out to Asia. Unfortunately, this once highly competitive industry has now been lost through a lack of education and machinery, where skills did not pass down to the next generation. The last pieces found from this incredible natural fibre production are still present in Bridport Museum, Dorset. The industrial town has played a pivotal role in hemp farming and materials production for the last 700 years.

British Hemp Heritage

Currently there are no existing complete end-to-end supplies of local hemp textile production here in the UK. It is our aim to rediscover this knowledge with farmers and textile producers to revolutionise the industry again. With a historical textile cottage industry, there is potential to rebuild this space, with the hope of encouraging farmers to take on the challenge of specialising in hemp agriculture. With many benefits for the environment, we believe these farmers should be receiving subsidies for improving their own soils and ecosystems. Our long term goal is to work with more factories closer to home within Europe. One day, we hope to experience a change towards our own localised production for the UK.