There are practical, if cruder alternatives to separate the long fiber for high-quality textile production, but in fact such techniques are used mostly for non-textile applications. This involves production of “whole fibers” (i.e. harvesting both the long fibers from the cortex and the shorter fibers from throughout the stem), and technologies that utilize shortened hemp fibers. This approach is currently dominant in western Europe and Canada, and commences with field dew retting (typically 2–3 weeks). A principal limitation is climatic—the local environment should be suitably but not excessively moist at the close of the harvest season. Once stalks are retted, dried, and baled, they are processed to extract the fiber. In traditional hemp processing, the long fiber was separated from the internal woody hurds in two steps, breaking (stalks were crushed under rollers that broke the woody core into short pieces, some of which were separated) and scutching (the remaining hurds, short fibers (“tow”) and long fibers (“line fiber, ” “long-line fiber”) were separated). A single, relatively expensive machine called a decorticator can do these two steps as one. In general in the EU and Canada, fibers are not separated into tow and line fibers, but are left as “whole fiber.” In western Europe, the fiber is often “cottonized,” i.e. chopped into short segments the size of cotton and flax fiber, so that the fibers can be processed on flax processing machinery, which is very much better developed than such machinery is for hemp. In North America the use of hemp for production of even crude textiles is marginal. Accordingly, the chief current fiber usages of North American, indeed of European hemp, are non-textile.
George Washington’s initial interest in hemp was as a cash crop. After deciding not to cultivate it as a cash crop, Washington grew it to meet the needs of his own plantation. Hemp was used at Mount Vernon for rope, thread for sewing sacks, canvas, and for repairing the seine nets used at the fisheries. Washington’s diaries and farm reports indicate that hemp grew at all five farms which made up Mount Vernon, (Mansion House, River Farm, Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, and Union Farm).
Canadian experience with growing hemp commercially for the last 4 years has convinced many growers that it is better to use a single-purpose cultivar, seed or fiber, than a dual-purpose cultivar. The recent focus of Canadian hemp breeders has been to develop cultivars with high seed yields, low stature (to avoid channeling the plants’ energy into stalk, as is the case in fiber cultivars), early maturation (for the short growing seasons of Canada), and desirable fatty acid spectrum (especially gamma-linolenic acid).