How were the once famous Hungarian hemp products made?

According to Iván Balassa’s disputed theory, Hungarians knew and grew hemp even before the conquest (9th century). Besides ropes and strings, they made accessory elements of clothes, like belts, from hempen fibre. This theory seems to be backed up by the fact that the Hungarian word “kender” is a loanword of ancient Turkish origin from the period before the Hungarian conquest. It is certain that indigenous Slavs in the Carpathian Basin already cultivated it in waterside settlements before the conquest.

Benefits of “fluff-weed” and the competitive hemp of Bácska on the London market 


The hemp weaving and spinning houses operating in Hungarian monasteries at the beginning of the 11th century, and King (Saint) Ladislaus I’s tithe regulation (1092) also refer to the existence of hemp and flax cultivation in the 11th century. One of the earliest Hungarian records about hemp is a writing related to the customs tariffs of Esztergom from 1198. There are data about its frequent use in settlement names as of 1231. Since the last quarter of the 14th century, it can be found in György Lencsés’s medical-botanical manuscript Ars Medica (1570) and Balázs Szikszai-Fabricius’s writing from 1590 among others. István Gáti wrote about it in 1792 as the “fluff-weed”, describing its advantages:

“Its main advantage is that body linen is made out of its thick fluff that grows on its weed, which is soaked in water and then braked to separate it from its weed.” – 1792


In the 1800s, many notes were written on the production of home-made hemp goods:

“Where home industry was introduced, it showed great successes. Hemp and flax are handled in home industry in many regions, busy housewives process them with great skill; they spin and weave fibres, and make clothes for themselves or sell them. And this private activity gets some savings money to the family.” – Békésmegyei közlöny (Bulletin of Békés County), 1878

_MG_0930_c.jpgThere are many reports on the former competitiveness and fame of the Hungarian hemp as well:

“In Europe, there is no hemp soil, except for certain shores of the Baltic Sea, which would serve as fine, elastic suitable raw material both for woven products and for spun goods with similar costs and efforts as the one that grows in the Hungarian mould (…) so one ton of Bácska-type hemp costs 360 forints in London, while the Riga-type is just 220-235 on the market. Polish hemp is out of question compared to the Hungarian quality, and the Italian can owe its advantages only to more rational cultivation and frequent fertilizations.” – Lajos Bodola, 1881 

Birds’ favourite titbit is hemp seed

1630_2.jpgMaking hemp yarn started with growing hemp plants. Hemp seeds were sown at the end of April because it is sensitive to frost.

“The hemp requires deeply tilled and well-crushed soil and it is grateful for a ploughing in autumn.” – Pápai Lapok, 1895

Some experience was needed to reach the optimal amount of hemp fibres during sowing, because the too close and too rare sowing gave poor result. In case of sowing too close, plants bent and sowing too rarely resulted in early seeding. As certain birds like doves and ravens like hemp seed, plants had to be protected somehow, thus scarecrows were usually set up on the hemp lands.

Harvesting and soaking in sump

000407.jpgIdeally, plants grew up by the beginning of July to end of August. Then harvesting could began, which meant eradicating the plants from the soil. After removing seeds, plants were organized in sheaves and were soaked. Soaking was done in dedicated hemp soaking ponds, sumps. Hemp needed soaking in order to separate fibres from the wooded parts. To prevent hemp from floating on the water, they kept it under the water with sticks, beams and logs. Soaking usually lasted for two weeks. It had to be checked if it had broken well; if it had, they could be sure that the fibres already separated from the wooded parts.

Drying and striking on the brake, smoothing and scutching 

000408_c.jpgThe next step of processing was drying that was started by dividing the sheaves “standing them on their feet” and let them dry in the sun. After some days, drying was continued at home. This step was important because only well-dried hemp could be struck. This means breaking the plant all over by a brake – with great power – repeatedly. The ready “struck” hemp had to be placed in a so-called “striking palm”.   F_6481_b.jpgThe next step was smoothing, when hemp was dragged through the arm of the brake in a bundle. Thus, the rest of the wooded part (bun) could fall out too. Smoothing was followed by scutching, with the aim of softening the material. In practice, they beat the material on a thick board with a pestle (muller). In more developed times, this process was made in a mill. The next steps were sorting, weaving and spinning.

What can be made out of hemp?

8031_2_1_b_e.jpgHemp was and is suitable for making a wide range of products for commercial and industrial purposes, for example clothes, shoes, paper, food and construction materials. After a time, the traditional fields of usage were extended with other fields including car parts, bio-fuel, base material of medicines and nutritional supplements. As food, hemp seed oil, hemp seed butter and hemp seed flour are used. The latter has a special feature, besides having low carbohydrate and high fibre content, 5371598_2_1.jpg it contains proteins that human body cannot produce and usually occur only in meat. A method of using it as construction material is the hemp-based block. It is not strong enough statically, but it is an excellent material for building the walls of ferro-concrete skeleton buildings. Another method is the use of hemp concrete (hempcrete), which is strong enough in itself. The advantage of a hemp house is that its construction requires significantly less time than the use of traditional methods.

Erdélyi Károly

Translated by Zita Aknai




More thematic virtual exhibitions