By Lyster H. Dewey–Botanist in Charge of Fiber Plant Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry.


The two fiber-producing plants most promising for cultivation in the central United States and most certain to yield satisfactory profits are hemp and flax. The oldest cultivated fiber plant, one for which the conditions in the United States are as favorable as anywhere in the world, one which properly handled improves the land, and which yields one of the strongest and most durable fibers of commerce, is hemp. Hemp fiber, formerly the most important material in homespun fabrics, is now most familiar to the purchasing public in this country in the strong gray tying twines one-sixteenth to one-fourth inch in diameter, known by the trade name “commercial twines.”


The name “hemp” belongs primarily to the plant Cannabis sativa. (pl. XL, fig.1.) It has long been used to designate also the long fiber obtained from the hemp plant. (Pl. XL, fig. 4.) Hemp fiber, being one of the earliest and best-known textile fibers and until recent times the most widely used of its class, has been regarded as the typical representative of long fibers. Unfortunately, its name also came to be regarded as a kind of common name for all long fibers, until one now finds in the market quotations “Manila hemp” for abaca, “sisal hemp” for sisal and henequen, “Mauritius hemp” for Furcraea fiber, “New Zealand hemp” for phormium, “Sunn hemp” for Crotalaria fiber, and “India hemp” for jute. All of these fibers in appearance and in economic properties are unlike true hemp, while the name is never applied to flax, which is more nearly like hemp than any other commercial fiber.

The true hemp is known in different languages by the following names: Cannabis, Latin; chanvre, French; canamo, Spanish; canhamo, Portuguese; canapa, Italian; canep, Albanian; konopli, Russian; konopj and penek, Polish; kemp, Belgian; hanf, German; hennep, Dutch; hamp, Swedish; hampa, Danish; kenevir, Bulgarian; ta-ma, si-ma, and tse-ma, Chinese; asa, Japanese; nasha, Turkish; kanabira, Syrian; kannab, Arabic.


Hemp was formerly the most important long fiber, and it is now used more extensively than any other soft fiber except jute. From 10,000 to 15,000 tons are used in the United States every year. The approximate amount consumed in American spinning mills is indicated by the following table, showing the average annual importations (Computed from reports of the Bureau of Navigation and Commerce, U.S. Treasury Department Bureau of Statistics Department of Commerce) and estimates of average domestic production of hemp fiber for 35 years:

Average annual imports and estimates of average annual production of hemp fiber in 5-year periods from 1876 to 1910, inclusive, and from 1911 to 1913, inclusive. (Missing chart from p. 284)

There are no statistics available, such as may be found for wheat, corn, or cotton, showing with certainty the acreage and production of hemp in this country. The estimates of production in the foregoing table are based on the returns of the Commissioner of Agriculture of Kentucky for earlier years with amounts added to cover the production in other States, and on estimates of hemp dealers for more recent years. While these figures can not be regarded as accurate statistics, and they are probably below rather than above the actual production, especially in the earlier years, they indicate a condition well recognized by all connected with the industry. The consumption of hemp fiber has a slight tendency to increase, but the increase is made up through increased importations, while the domestic production shows a tendency toward reduction.