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The Venetian Hemp Guild - The Substance of A Hundred Operations

The Venetian Hemp Guild - The Substance of A Hundred Operations

In Italy, hemp was once called "quello delle cento operazioni" which means "the substance of a hundred operations"

because of the many processes to which the plant was subjected before its fibers could be used.

Long before the days of automation, young girls would assemble this magical plant right in their very own houses. It was not easy work. Each girl took five or six stalks in one hand and what remained of the roots in the hollow of her other hand. Then, with a quick snap, she broke the stalk about twelve inches from the root. Next, she crooked the middle finger of her left hand and passed the fibers through the crook. While the thumb and forefinger of her right hand still held the unbroken part of the stalk, she grasped the woody part of the stem and pulled it away from the fibers.

The stripped fibers were held between the thumb and little finger of her left hand and they were twisted into a coil. The coils were then placed in piles to be beaten and swingled. Beating involved pounding the fibers to make them soft. First, the fibers were tied into tight round bundles. If the beating were to be done by hand, the bundles were placed on a stone and were either pounded manually with a heavy wooden mallet or flayed with a whip. In hemp mills, the pounding action was done by rolling a heavy millstone over the hemp manually or by a water wheel.

Next, the hemp was swingled. This was done by placing the hemp strands over a wooden board and removing any visible splinters. The last main step was combing—the separation of any fibers that still clung together by passing them through a rough and then a fine-toothed comb.

Very often these tasks were done in groups and they took on the atmosphere of a social get-together, much like the American sewing and quilting bees. In many villages, the townspeople worked on the hemp at night in someone's home and ended the evening on a festive note with games and dancing.

Whether hemp was processed in private homes or in large factories, the end product was fiber that was without equal in terms of strength and durability. The Venetian Senate recognized the importance of hemp fiber for its shipbuilding and trade industries, and to ensure that Venetian hemp standards would remain high, it established a state-run factory called the Tana to oversee the quality of all the hemp that was processed into the rigging and anchor lines of the Venetian fleet. On "the manufacture of cordage in our home of the Tana," declared the Senate, rests "the security of our galleys and ships and similarly of our sailors and capital."

Venice postcard

According to Venetian statutes, all rigging for Venetian ships had to be manufactured from the highest grade of hemp. Unfortunately, the best hemp came from Bologna, and the Florentines who owned the Bolognese fields charged exorbitant prices for the commodity. Although it had no intention of using inferior hemp in its ships, the Tana tried to dupe the Florentines into believing that because of their high prices, Venice was going to import a lower and cheaper quality of hemp from Montagnana. The ruse worked and the Florentines lowered their prices, a compromise that fattened Venetian pockets considerably.

By insisting on only the highest grade of hemp and by enforcing rigid codes of excellence in her rope factories, Venice outfitted a fleet second to none in Europe.

Any cargoes, whatever their value, had a better chance of reaching their destinations if carried by a Venetian ship than by any other vessel. Because of its superiority, the Venetian merchant marine dominated the Mediterranean for centuries, an accomplishment due in no small measure to the high quality of raw materials such as hemp which went into each and every one of her sea-going armada.

During the nineteenth century, Italy became one of the world's main hemp-producing centers, supplying hemp fiber to Switzerland, Germany, England, Portugal, and Spain. It was not for cord or heavy rope that Italian hemp was prized, however, but for the fine fabric and clothes that could be manufactured from its whitish fiber. In skilled Italian hands, hemp fiber was turned into a thread that almost equalled silk in its delicacy. It was much finer than cotton and certainly much stronger. Two and one-half pounds of hemp, for instance, could be spun into 600 miles of lace threads!

For those who could afford them, tablecloths and specially designed dresses spun from fine Italian hemp were prized possessions.


This Hemp Blog Article was written using bits & crumbles from "Marihuana The First Twelve Thousand Years", by Ernest L. Abel

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