Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Camborne Pullover and the History of Hemp

Camborne Pullover
It's a sweater.  It's a poncho.  No, it's a "Swoncho!"  Ok, it's actually called the Camborne Pullover, but since it's bulkier than a sweater, but more fitted than a poncho, we've been calling it the Swoncho around here.

The Camborne Pullover is knit in Rowan's Hemp Tweed yarn, a beautiful blend of wool and hemp in a versatile worsted weight . . .  But let's be honest here, "yarn" is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "hemp."

But perhaps it should be . . .

Hemp has been grown for fiber for at least 12,000 years.  Naturally resistant to mold and ultraviolet light, sailing ships used hemp rope for their riggings, and hemp fiber was used to make sail canvas.  In fact the word "canvas" is derived from the word "cannabis."  (Both hemp fiber and marijuana are products of cannabis plants, but different species of cannabis.)

"Garden Hemp" in a book published in the year 512
With sailing ships being the best method of long-distance transportation, hemp rope production was extremely profitable.  When The Virginia Company established settlements in the New World a 1619 law required all planters to grow hemp.  When the Puritans arrived in 1620 they initially struggled for survival, but by 1645 they were thriving - in part because they were profiting from hemp.

What did our founding fathers think of hemp?  George Washington grew hemp as a cash crop in 1765.  Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that produced hemp paper, and in 1776 Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.

But in the 19th century Americans discovered Manila hemp.  Although it was new to us, in the Philippines they had been using fiber from the banana plant to make rope, paper and fabric for centuries (our modern manila envelopes and manila paper are made from Manila hemp).  Manila hemp is not related to the hemp plant, but Americans called it Manila hemp because the fiber's qualities were so like the hemp we were familiar with.  Hemp production in the US went down in favor of less expensive imported Manila hemp.  

Hemp stem showing fibers around a central core.
So how is hemp yarn made?  Fiber is made from the stem of the hemp plant.  Hemp grown for fiber is planted close together which forces the plant to grow tall and straight, with few leaves.  Similar to how flax is processed into linen, the cut hemp is left lying in the field for four to six weeks to rett.  The natural wetting and drying from the dew in the morning and the heat in the afternoon removes the pectin from the plant, a natural glue that attaches all those lovely fibers to the stem of the plant.  (And yes, pectin is the same natural plant glue that you add to your home-canned jelly).  The hemp is then collected from the field and baled like hay.  The hemp is rolled to remove the woody center core from the outer fibers, and then it is cleaned, carded and spun. And finally, we have yarn!

So should you smoke your Camborne Pullover?  Don't bother.  Hemp fiber is made from the stems, and the leaves (the smokeable part) rot away during the retting process.  In addition, species of hemp grown for fiber have less than .1% of THC and the smokin' variety has 20% THC.

But you should knit a Camborne Pullover!  The pattern is free with the purchase of Rowan Hemp Tweed yarn - and we've got the yarn on sale at 20% off!

Happy Knitting . . . . Scout

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