The Hemp Weavers

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Image retrieved from on February 20th, 2014.
Image retrieved from on February 20th, 2013.
For any one doing research on the early American Indians and mound builders, the Smithsonian Institution's bureau of Ethnology Reports are a gold mine of valuable information, Most of the material was gathered in the late 1800s. The 13th Report, of 1891-92, contains a paper by W.H. Holmes titled, "Prehistoric Textile Art of Eastern United States." Homes found that, "The materials employed by the aboriginies were greatly diversified. Though historical as well as through purely archaeological sources we learn that both vegetal and animal filaments and fibers were freely used...The inner bark of the mulberry was a favourite material and other fibrous barks were utilized. Wild hemp, nettles, grasses, and other like growths furnished much of the finer fibers."
Most investigators, who have written about Indian textiles and fiber products have assumed for some reason that the Indian hemp was from the apocynum cannabinum plant only, and that cannabis sativa was not used by the early inhabitants of North America until it was introduced by the Virginia colonists in the 1600s. Once again, they were in error. Holme's research indicated that although mulberry, and apocynum cannabinum was often used for the cause backing in bags, carpets, sandles, etc., the finer weaving was usually of wild hemp (cannabis sativa).
The fabrics examined by Holmes were found in grave mounds and caves along the rivers of Kentucky and Tennessee. One of the most interesting finds was from Morgan County, Tennessee: "...they were found in a grave three and one-half feet below the surface and in earth strongly charged with niter and other preservative salts. The more pliable cloths, together with skiens of vegetal fiber, a dog's skull, some bone tools, and portions of human bones and hair, were rolled up in a large split-cane mat...Enclosed with the mat were three pieces of fabric of especial interest, all pertaining, no doubt, to the costume of the person buried.
"The piece of cloth shown in plate...probably served as a mantle or skirt and is 46 inches long by 24 wide. It is of coarse, pliable, yellowish-gray stuff, woven in the twined style so common all over America. The fiber was doubtless derived from the native hemp, and the strands are neatly twisted and about the size of the average wrapping cord...Apiece of fabric of much interest is presented in is most likely a complete skirt, the narrow woven band with its gathering string serving as a belt and the long fringe being the skirt. The length is 20 inches. The material and the weaving are the same as the piece of cloth already described, although the work is some what coarser.
"Of equal interest to the preceeding is the badly frayed bag shown...It is 20 inches in length and 13 inches in depth. The style of weaving is the same as the two preceeding examples;...The construction of the border of rim of this bag is quite remarkable. As shown..., the upper ends of the vertical strands are gathered in slightly twisted groups of four and carried up tree for about to inches, when they are brought together and plaited with remarkable neatness into a string border.
"As if to convey to the curious investigator of modern times a complete knowledge of their weavers' art, the friends of the dead depostied with the body not only the fabrics worn during life but a number of skeins of the fiber from which the fabrics were probably made. This fiber has been identified as that of the Cannabis sativa, or wild hemp.
"That the well-preserved fabrics just illustrated represent fairly the textile work of the mound-builders is practically demonstrated by the evidence furnished by the mounds themselves...there are among them some finer examples of weaving than obtained from the caves and shelters of Tennessee and Kentucky, but there is nothing specifically different in material or methods of combination...The fiber is quite fine and is more probably of hemp than of the bark of trees."
In addition to the articles already mentioned, the Indians used hemp to make sandals, fish nets and lines, rope, carpets, and baskets, Henry Spelman, who came to Virginia along with Thomas Hariot in 1609 reported the Indian's method of gathering corn: "There corne is sett and gathered about the time we use, but ther manner of gatheringe is as we doe our apells, first in a hand basketts emtinge them as they are filled into other bigger baskets wherof sum are made of the barkes of trees, sum of the heampe which naturally groweth..."
John Adair, who's HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN INDIANS was published in 1775, said the Cherokees and other south eastern Indians at that time still preserved in their purity many of their ancient arts. "Formerly, the Indians made very handsome carpets. They have a wild hemp that grows about six feet high, in open rich, level lands, and which ripens in July: it is plenty on our frontier settlements."(Kentucky?)
"When it is fit for use, they pull, steep, peel, and beat it; and the old women spin it off the distaffs, with wooden machines, having some clay on the middle of them, to hasten the motion. When the coarse thread is prepared, they put it into a frame about six feet square, and instead of a shuttle, they thrust through the web a long cane, having a large string through the web, which they shift at every second course of the thread. When they have thus finished their arduous labour they paint each side of the carpet with such figures, of various colours, as their fruitful imaginations devise...There is that due proportion and so much wild variety in the design, that would strike a curious eye with pleasure and imagination...
"the women are the chief, if not the only, manufacturers; the men judge that if they performed that office, it would exceedingly depreciate them."

pp. 26-31 The Great american Hemp Industry by Jack Frazier (1991)

mound builders