While hemp textile production is of high interest as more countries legalize the plant, the process is complex and time-consuming.
Few countries have the infrastructure to produce it to scale. But in some areas of the world, hemp textile production is more than just an economic vehicle—it’s a centuries-old process that holds great cultural significance.
Hmong hemp culture spreads across a region shared by present-day southwestern China and northernmost Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. For centuries, women of the Hmong ethnic minority have cultivated hemp to weave linen (plain weave) fabrics. And today, they preserve their traditional methods of growing and preparing hemp fibers for weaving into fine fabric by using very few tools.
Growing Flexible Fiber
The Hmong of northern Vietnam are surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful limestone mountains covered in lush greenery, creating a place where hemp crops thrive due to the high altitude, warm temperatures and frequent rain and sun.
Hemp linen fabric made from long, thin, and flexible fibers is not only durable and stain-resistant but also suited for storage in humid conditions without molding. These are important features in a self-sufficient, mountainous region, where it rains often.
Hang Thi is one of the skillful Hmong women who cultivates fine hemp fibers to weave into yarns and fabrics. She learned how to cultivate and process hemp from her mother and grandmother—knowledge that has been passed down through generations.
“In this environment, hemp develops flexible fibers and usually does not need any added nutrients when growing,” Hang Thi says. In temperate northern Vietnam, winter floods create a clay sediment mixed with lime that enriches the soil. Cultivators then use buffalo manure (or animal dung) to fertilize the land before planting seeds in mid-March during the spring rains.
Hang Thi says families in northern Vietnam often cultivate hemp fiber in gardens near their homes, which are usually sheltered within corn fields to protect the crop from strong winds. Growers also sow the seeds densely to ensure the stalks elongate rapidly while remaining thin.
“The seeds must be sown closely together so that the stalks do not become too coarse,” Hang Thi says. “And it is important to harvest just before the plants begin to flower.”
She adds that harvesting juvenile plants can preclude developmental differences between males and females and yield uniformly high-quality fiber, and that stalks should not grow to more than 160 centimeters (about 5 feet) in height. “By following these simple steps, we grow strong, fine and flexible fiber,”