Festival du Chanvre in Montjean sur Loire, France

        Farmers in the Loire valley of northwestern France grew hemp commercially until the 1960s and continue to preserve hempís heritage today. One can experience these past days of glory once a year in Montjean sur Loire during the Festival du Chanvre - a unique hemp festival drawing thousands of visitors.

        Located 25 km west of Angers, along the banks of the scenic Loire river, Montjean presents part of its hemp history to many tourists each August. This is really the place to be for anyone wanting to see demonstrations of hemp breaking and rope making, performed by locals. For five days, experienced hemp farmers, known locally as chanvriers, along with volunteers, demonstrate how hemp was traditionally harvested and bundled before being placed in the Loire river for retting. Both manual and powered hemp brakes were demonstrated. The fiber was then twisted into rope.

        The next Festival du Chanvre will take place in August, 2000. Hemp related conferences are planned during the week. A hemp market also will be held and the organizers are looking for exhibitors.

        For additional information contact:
        Tel.: +33-2-41-390947 / Fax.: +33-2-41-390443.

Hemp straw as traditional
construction material

Janos Berenji and Radoslav Djakovik

Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops - Novi Sad
21470 Backi Petrovac, Yugoslavia,
e-mail: berenji@EUnet.yu

        The province of Vojvodina, in the Northern part of present-day Yugoslavia (Fig. 1), is well known for its centuries-long tradition of hemp growing and utilization for textiles. The traditional way of hemp growing and straw processing by small farmers required a considerable amount of seed for sowing (up to 100 kg per hectare), which was not available on the market, but produced on the farms in a self-sufficient manner.

Figure 1. Map of Yugoslavia.

Figure 2. Seed hemp plants intercropped with maize.

        The production technology of textile hemp was different from the one applied to seed hemp. Textile hemp was sown at high density like wheat in order to obtain thin straw containing fine fibers. However, seed hemp was usually intercropped with corn. The sporadically distributed seed hemp plants branched intensely and formed a long (2-3 m tall) and thick stem protruding from the corn field (Fig. 2). After threshing the seed, the robust straw remained as a by-product suitable for using in traditional constructions.
        Numerous advantages were attributed to hemp straw as a construction material. These same attributes apply today. As a by-product of seed production, hemp straw is cheap and available in appropriate quantities. The straw is long enough for easily constructing large surfaces. Hemp straw is tough and resists weather conditions very well. Consequently, it lasts much longer than other plant products used in similar ways, for example maize or sunflower straw.
        Fences of different sizes and shapes can be constructed from hemp straw. Figure 3 shows a concrete wall on the left, with a hemp straw wall continuing on the right. The straws are lined up vertically and fastened to the two horizontal holders, also formed from hemp straw, by string or wire. This can be seen in the close-up view of the fence in Figure 4. The position of each vertical straw is the same as it was in the field. Such fences are still used, not often to the street side of the houses, but in the back yards, for protecting the poultry from escaping into the vegetable gardens.

Figure 4. Details of the fence in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Hemp straw fence.

        Walls of different buildings, such as the shed shown in Figure 5, could be formed applying the same technique of horizontal and vertically arranging hemp straw, as explained above for the hemp straw fence. Since such buildings require higher walls than the length of single hemp plants, the appropriate height of the wall is achieved by interweaving and overlapping a number of plants vertically.

Figure 5. A shed with hemp straw walls.

Figure 6. Corn-cob shelter constructed from hemp straw and roofed with corn shocks.

        Corn-cob shelters made from hemp straw (Fig. 6) are a special way of using hemp straw as construction material. The shelter is usually built on a dry place in the backyard. After cleaning the surface indicated for the shelter, a circle of 2.5-3.0 meters in diameter is scratched on the ground. In the center of the circle a massive 5-7 m long central mast, usually made of locust tree, is dug into the ground approximately 50 cm.
       Around the edge of the circle a 10 cm wide and 15-20 cm deep ditch is dug. The hemp straw is placed in it with the root end down and it is fixed by filling in the ditch. The height of this circular wall matches the length of the hemp straw and it is usually about 2.0-2.5 m. Then, for insolation purposes, the bottom of this barrel-like construction is filled with dry wheat straw. A ring of the same diameter as the circle scratched on the ground is made from 6.0-8.0 mm thick steel cable and is placed around the hemp straw wall from the outside, 50-70 cm above the ground. At this point the shelter is ready to be filled with corn cobs. As the filling progresses, the first ring will fail to maintain the upper part of the hemp straws in their vertical position. Therefore, a second ring should be placed at 50-70 cm above the first one, and the filling of the shelter with corn-cobs can go on. Ring by ring the filling continues. Above the second ring a new layer of hemp straw must be placed so that the upper part of the former layer is overlapping with the lower part of the next layer, and the region of overlap equal to two internodes. In the same way, additional layers of straw can be placed in order to further increase the height of the shelter wall. This process can be carried on until all the corn-cobs are stored. The height of the shelter is usually limited to 3.0-3.5 m because a shelter too high could tip over. Such an undesirable tippage can be recognized in Figure 6. The filled shelter is roofed with corn shocks placed obliquely with the upper ends (which is the top part of the corn plant) fastened around the central mast. The tip of the central mast usually protrudes from the roof. Simply making a whole at the lower part of the shelter by moving the straw apart can easily empty the shelter.
        This kind of corn-cob shelter made of hemp straw is cheap, strong and easy to build. As the close-up view of the shelter shows (Fig. 7), the wall made of hemp straw provides excellent air circulation which helps the corn-cobs dry and protects them from molding. The filling of the shelter could start with corn of up to 30% moisture content. After drying to a shelled grain moisture content of 15%, up to 5-10 tons of such grain can be stored in one shelter, without any quality damage, for as long as 4-5 years if necessary.

Figure 7. Detail of corn-cob shelter.

        Traditional constructions made of hemp straw can still be seen in villages known for their seed hemp production. Those presented in this paper were found in the villages of Lalic and indicated on the map in Figure 1.

Museo della Canapa

        How was the Museo della Canapa of Pisoniano, Italy born? Thoughts of youth come flooding back to remind us of a time when, as children, we had watched the adults involved in preparing hemp and our grandmothers spinning. It was hard work lasting all day for a lifetime. We now discover that nobody talks about hemp anymore.

        How was it possible to forget the straw, the rough sheets, the cloth and the hemp seeds we stole to eat as the birds did? What could we do? The answer was given one day while clearing out a hayloft and discovering gadgets which were used to break the stalks. From that moment, we started to search for the missing parts. How tiring! Asking everybody we often got the following answers: "I had them, but who knows where they ended up." or "I burnt them. Why should I have kept them?"
        Once, being particularly lucky, we found a spindle for spinning hemp thread. As years went by, the collection grew and we continued to search for missing pieces, hoping to find a hand loom. We were finally rewarded in finding two from the 17th century. Both were in good shape and my twin brother Settimio repaired them and got them going again. After 20 years of work, we were ready to open an exhibition, but who would prepare it and where? As with all "twin" decisions we immediately agreed on an old disused building. Eventually, we found premises that were genuinely old, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. We restored them with diligence and passion and the first exhibition finally opened on August 9, 1997.

        Innumerable visitors from all over Italy and the world came during the opening 20 days of the exhibition. More than 2000 visitors signed the log book, a considerable number for a small village with roughly 800 full-time residents. The visitorís comments were full of praise for our work, for having been shown in a refined sequence, antique objects in all their richness and detail, most of them originals from the 17th century and a few from the 16th century. Many visitors returned, bringing along relatives and friends to show them the reality of what they had only heard from their grandparents and older residents of the village. These visitors admired the hemp seeds, the plant, the spinning and weaving, and all of the other skills involved.
        The exhibition includes several tools used to process hemp such as fully operational hand looms, reels, tools of wood and iron, spinning wheels, spindles and many more items. Hand-embroidered hempen household textiles, underwear, mattresses, ropes, towels, slippers with hemp soles, etc. are all displayed in the appropriate surroundings. There are also books, articles, newspaper clippings and photographs, and various hemp products such as beer, body care products and sweets.

        The exhibition was deemed a museum under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture and Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and the Council of Regione Lazio. The Museo della Canapa is located approximately 40 km east of Rome in the Comune di Pisoniano, Via S. Maria 27, 00020 Pisoniano (RM), Italy. Opening hours for visitors can be arranged by calling either Mr. Domenico Bernardini at +39 (0)6 218 4189 or Mr. Settimio Bernardini at +39 (0)774 411 316. The Museo della Canapa website is http://members.tripod.com/~canap