It’s hot. It’s the middle of summer, and it’s hot. These are the “dog days” of summer. Most likely you’ve heard the expression, and conjured up images of panting dogs in the sun. Actually, this nickname for the hottest part of the summer has nothing to do with dogs – at least not the panting dog in your backyard. The “dog days” are the time of the year when the Dog Star, or Sirius, rises in the night sky. As opposed to a “three dog night” – not the band, but a super cold winter night. This does refer to actual dogs, or at least the wish for actual dogs, to keep you warm on such a frosty night.
But back to summer: How to stay cool in the dog days? Remember that cotton t-shirt and jeans from July 4? Here’s another option: a linen or hemp shirt. Why is that better than cotton? Cotton absorbs, true. But then it just stays wet against your skin. Linen and hemp are part of the family of “bast” or stem fibers. That stem has a kind of layered tubular structure. This layering enables the inner core of the fiber to absorb moisture and to wick it away from your body, keeping you dry and cool. Yes, linen wrinkles, but who cares. It’s summer, and it’s hot.
Linen come from the flax plant. (It will make sense in a minute.) The Latin generic name for the flax plant is Linum usitatissimum (literally, “the most useful linum” – actual Latin – what the Romans called the flax plant). It is certainly a useful plant: It is also where we get many other products like linseed oil and linoleum.
Hemp is, as you have probably heard, from the cannabis (AKA marijuana) family, but has very low levels of the psychoactive chemical in pot, which is THC. “Very low levels” meaning that you’d be hard-pressed to get high off of industrial or textile-use hemp. Hemp used to be a mainstay of American agriculture. Indeed, it was another one of George Washington’s Mount Vernon ventures. More recently, hemp has been difficult to acquire in the US. This is largely thanks to Dow and other chemical companies. They realized that they could synthesize all kinds of chemical imitations of natural fibers for less money that it took to grow and harvest the natural fibers. You may imagine that their eyes lit up with dollar signs. They thought that hemp, being easy to grow in a range of soils with little water, threw a monkey wrench into their plans. It was the chemical companies that started the “Reefer Madness” scare campaign of the 1930s and 40s, demonizing all cannabis species in all applications. The campaign was very effective. All forms of cannabis have been categorized as a Schedule I drug by the USDEA, including our useful hemp even though it would be very disappointing if you tried to smoke it. Now, many advocates of sustainable agriculture and small farms are fighting to restore hemp to the mainstream of fiber and cloth production.
So, enjoy the dog days, and look for linen and hemp clothes to keep you cool and comfortable.