When it comes to Highland bagpipes, the phrase “more than one way to skin a cat,” could not be more true. Go to any band practice and ask advice on how to do something. You will get 5 different answers and each person will insist that their way is the best. One of the biggest areas of conflict is what type of hemp to use and where to use it.
Currently, there are 3 types of hemp that bagpipers use: unwaxed yellow, waxed yellow, and waxed black. The name hemp is more of a title rather than a description. Traditionally hemp was made from the fibers of the Cannabis sativa plant. With modern bagpipe hemp comes the first controversy.
There are only a few companies that produce bagpipe hemp, one or two in the U.S. some in Asia, and Coats Industrial in Europe. Almost all hemp sold in the U.S. and most of Canada comes from one supplier, most likely Coats. Several factors must be considered when trying to determine of what bagpipe hemp is actually made. Each of these factors might play a part in your decision to use one over the other.
Yellow hemp is very good at absorbing moisture and swells when saturated. When yellow hemp is stretched to the breaking point it does not break cleanly. The ends will have wispy fibers extending from the break. Yellow hemp also tends to be thinner and more round than black hemp.
Black hemp does not absorb as much moisture, although black hemp tends to be coated in a thicker layer of wax. It will create a clean break when stretched to the breaking point. It also is slightly stronger than yellow hemp, it's thicker, and tends to be flat.
Cotton thread will also absorb 25 to 35% of its weight in moisture. When it gets saturated, it will swell. It is also made up of short fibers. Cotton thread is almost always round. These factors all point towards yellow bagpipe hemp being made from cotton.
Linen thread will only absorb 15 to 20% of its weight in moisture. It also does not swell as much because it locks the moisture in its core. Linen thread is made from the flax plant and it will have long fibers. Linen thread tends to be more flat as it gets thicker. Black bagpipe hemp is most likely made of plain linen thread or linen thread with a polyester core.
Modern pre-waxed hemp is usually coated in paraffin. Paraffin, and Beeswax, help to keep the hemp from absorbing water and swelling. Beeswax has the added benefit of being stickier and more hygroscopic. Generally, black waxed hemp will have a thicker coating of paraffin than yellow, but its coating is essentially the same thing.
Black hemp tends to be more stable than yellow. It does not absorb much moisture and so will not swell and shrink all that much. Black hemp is slightly elastic, probably due to long fibers and a polyester core, and once compressed it stays compressed. It creates a strong, tight seal but moves easily.
Yellow hemp absorbs a lot of moisture causing it to swell quite a bit. It will create a very tight seal but, it also shrinks quite a bit when dry. The paraffin coating tends to be tacky. It will also stay tacky when it gets wet, unlike black hemp. It is not elastic and breaks very easily.
Since the different types of bagpipe hemp have different properties, they can be used in different ways depending on your needs. Addressing these needs is something every piper is going to have a different opinion about. This is where the rest of the hemp controversy comes from. In Part 2, we'll address this controversy.