Comparative History: The Turbulent Histories of Cotton and Hemp

Both hemp and cotton have been cultivated for thousands of years and were used to produce clothes and fabrics in some of the world’s most ancient civilizations.  These valuable raw materials have complex histories, rife with ups and downs.  

Hemp originated in Central Asia and was cultivated for fiber in China as early as 2800 BCE.  The author of the ancient Chinese Huangdi Neijing, one of the world’s oldest known medical books, described using hemp to make rope and textiles, treat wounds, reduce symptoms of sulfur poisoning, calm skin inflammation, and more.  Hemp cultivation spread throughout Europe during the middle ages, and the plant made its way to Chile in the 1500s.  In the 1600s and 1700s, hemp became a key ingredient to make clothes, shoes, ropes, paper, and food throughout North America, with American farmers legally bound to grow the crop during the Colonial Era

The hemp industry hit a major roadblock in the 20th century when hemp’s association with marijuana caused it to be harshly restricted in many countries throughout the world, including the United States, China, and Pakistan, to name a few.  At the same time, competition from new synthetic fibers also led to the closure of thousands of companies working with natural fibers. 

Today, as attitudes toward cannabis and CBD become more positive and more clear distinctions are drawn between hemp and marijuana, hemp is once again being cultivated for use in many industries, with China becoming the world’s leading producer of hemp. However, hemp cultivation remains highly regulated and severely punished in many countries despite this change.  

oil hemp in two jars and sauceboat on wooden board
oil hemp in two jars and sauceboat on wooden board

While the hemp industry is still working to overcome stifling regulations, cotton has become one of the world’s leading crops.  Like hemp, cotton has been cultivated for thousands of years, with cotton being worn by Chinese, Egyptian, and South American civilizations as early as 5000 B.C.  

Cotton goods were first brought to Europe in 300 B.C, following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian empire, but the use of cotton fabric remained expensive and limited. The cotton industry developed dramatically in the 1700s after Britain colonized land suitable for growing cotton, and improvements in machinery enabled the mass production of cotton cloth. Cotton quickly replaced flax and wool as Europe’s most popular fabric.   

In the 1800s, abundant land and labor, often through coercion and enslavement, allowed the Southern USA to become the world’s largest exporter of cotton.  Cotton exports are cited as putting the United States on the world economic map. Leading up to the American Civil War, raw cotton constituted 61 percent of the value of all U.S. products shipped abroad.  

The US cotton industry was shaken during the Civil War, leading to increased cotton exportation from Egypt, Brazil, and India.  Many questioned whether the cotton industry could thrive without slave labor. 

In the years following the Civil War, cotton production continued to grow, peaking around 2015,  with China alone producing 33 billion bales of cotton.  After 2015, growth in cotton consumption slowed and began decreasing in 2018 with the rising demand for synthetic fabrics.

Looking forward, cotton production is expected to remain incredibly high, and demand for hemp products is likely to increase with rising consumer awareness and interest and the revival of the textile industry following facility shutdowns due to COVID-19.  

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