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Ultimate Guide to Hemp Clothing: History & 3 Best Suppliers in NZ

Cannabis is the first plant that humans cultivated. No one can be sure when the first piece of cannabis hemp clothing was worn, but we can be sure that the...

Cannabis is the first plant that humans cultivated. No one can be sure when the first piece of cannabis hemp clothing was worn, but we can be sure that the oldest piece of hemp clothing was found in Turkey some 9,000 years ago. It was used for a baby. Even earlier, hemp has been traced back to Indonesia having been spun into a usable material for clothing over 10,000 years ago.

In order for the hemp fibers to be used for clothing, they would first need to be “retted” from the hemp plant by letting it rest in water. After “retting” was completed, early humans could then weave these long, strong fibers to create fabric. This makes hemp ideal for apparel because the fiber is both light in weight and absorbs very well. It is also significantly stronger than cotton, with over three times the tensile density.

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Image credit: Valerie Adams, My Hemp Craft.

Hemp Clothing History

Hemp has been cultivated by humans for roughly 12,000 years. Hemp grows to full maturity in 3-4 months and it has over 50,000 different modern uses (it’s very versatile!). The first hemp apparel items are speculated to have likely started out as an alternative to wearing leather clothing and footwear. Humans were also able to consume its seeds and make ropes and paper from the same harvest.

Roughly 7,000 years ago hemp and its secrets were speculated to have been traded down the long silk road stretching between Europe and Asia. China became the largest hemp producer in the world during this time and has kept that stance ever since. Pottery from Yangshao culture (7,000 years ago) can be found with hemp fiber imprints, close to where the plant was and still is largely cultivated along the Yellow river in northern China; which is the largest hemp producing area in the world.

There is evidence of the Scythians inhaling smoke from hemp seeds as part of their rituals for recreation, and 3,000 years ago hemp was widely popular because you could smoke some varieties of Cannabis Sativa that originally grew in Southeast Asia.

2,000 years ago Jews in Palestine wrote about how to use hemp, and 1,000 years ago Europeans regularly ate hemp in pies and soups. 500 years ago Christopher Columbus fitted the Santa Maria with hemp ropes and sailed to the Americas, where the Spanish immediately began planting hemp.

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When the Europeans first arrived on the shores of North America, they were greeted by the local natives wearing hemp clothes. It turns out hemp has been a part of human culture for millenia, and the plant itself spread across the free world rapidly; its origins can be traced back to the Altai Mountain range that exists in Central and East Asia where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together. From this harsh high altitude climate, cannabis spread across the globe, heading northward into Europe and China, where it was used as a fiber for clothing and rope along with food and medicine.

A common characteristic of plants that have had a long-standing relationship with humans is in their diverse range of uses. Some of our oldest cultivated plants have many purposes from food to fiber to medicine. Across Eurasia, hemp is self-sown, this is especially evident across river valleys where early humans settled and began changing native environments.

When US colonies were first getting established, colonial farmers were ordered to grow hemp for use in shipping sails, ropes and use in trade ships. In 1619 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed an act requiring all farmers to grow it. Hemp was a common source of clothing and paper; in fact, the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. One view, is that hemp was a major backbone in the uprising of America and its founding fathers. Puritans grew the plant, and even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington touted its superiority as a crop, both farming hemp on their land. Many famous artists such as Van Gogh also painted some of their greatest works on hemp canvas.

Today hemp’s uses range from textiles, rope, timber-replacements like paper and building materials, to apparel, furnishings, paint, plastics, biofuel, animal bedding, food, cosmetics and medicine. If there was one plant made to “rule them all” hemp would be it.

Shop Hemp Apparel

Hemp fiber is extremely strong, absorbent, and lightweight; with over three times the tensile density of cotton. It makes the perfect clothing fabric for men, women, and children.

Once spun, hemp fiber can be used to make rope, jackets, t-shirts, tops, shorts, shoes, jeans, pants, dresses, skirts, hats, bags, belts, beanies, towels, scarfes, tights, socks, accessories, and much more. Anything you can make with cotton, you can make with hemp. Except with hemp, the clothing will last a lot longer due to its longer fibers, producing a stronger product. Hemp accesories or clothing make the perfect gift for any occassion.

Hemp can be blended with other fibers such as silk, organic cotton and elastin to further improve comfort and wearability, pending the garment. Hemp apparel is excellent for outdoor use as it is both UV and mold resistant.

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Growing hemp in New Zealand is less expensive to farm than cotton with it’s small land area (roughly one acre minimum) needed and producing a whopping 5-10 tons of cellulose fiber pulp per acre in four months. Hemp also restores and nourishes the soil in which it is grown on, including soil that has been contaminated (such as by the intensive farming practices employed nationwide that have been destroying our rivers and clean drinking water - we are paying a heavy price). Growing hemp in NZ is significantly better for the environment; needing half the water of cotton and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. New Zealand also possesses ideal hemp growing conditions in many parts of the country.

Before the ban on hemp in 1930, hemp clothing was the main fabric of choice worn by westerners and many people living in Asia. If the garment wasn’t 100 percent hemp, it still retained around 80 percent hemp in its fabric. Hemp clothing is very soft, but over time it actually becomes softer and more comfortable. Compared to bamboo, which is similar in fiber strength, hemp wins for softness and comfort. It’s hard to say exactly why hemp was banned in 1930, but what we do know is that hemp threatened big business at the time, such as big pharma, big oil and gas, plastic, paper, and nylon; as it was faster to grow, more cost effective, and significantly better on the environment.

As we mentioned previously, hemp grows quickly, where it can be ready for harvesting at just three to four months, and the entire plant can be used in some countries that allow the whole plant to be used. In 2001, New Zealand finally legalized the growing of hemp for food and fiber once again, which has created opportunities for young Kiwi small businesses to bring hemp to the people once again.

Original Canvas are on a mission to change New Zealand's future for the better, with sustainable NZ hemp textiles. Original Canvas creates and designs their own natural clothing in NZ, with their aim being to bring classic and natural hemp clothing to kiwi’s that is sustainable and environmentally friendly while spreading the growth of the hemp plant across Aotearoa.

Hemp House owners from Christchurch are passionate about sustainability, ethical sourcing and leaving a minimal environmental footprint. They believe hemp is the fabric of the future, and the switch to making it a mainstream fabric is vital to the future of the textile industry. Hemp clothing is a win-win for consumers and the environment.

Cosmic believes everyone needs to do their bit to protect the planet we live on. That’s why they’re proud of their very own range of organic hemp clothing called Cosmic Hemp. The aim is to provide Kiwis with an eco friendly choice, while promoting the use of this amazing yet misunderstood plant.

Hemp Has Many Uses

Hemp animal bedding and litter can be used for many creatures including cats, chickens and horses. Another feature for us environmentally folks, is that hemp bedding composts twice as fast as other forms of bedding and animal litter.

Hemp paint is made from hempseed oil and can be made into the same variety of colors you’ll find with more traditional paint options including metallic looking shades. Hemp paint, like many hemp products, is safe and ethical along with being naturally water resistant.

Hemp uses reach into plastic, too, with the door panels of some european cars being made from hemp plastic. One of our favorite things about hemp plastic, is that it’s biodegradable, unlike most other plastics out there. Hemp plastic is made from the stems of the plant, which once removed, leaves 77% of cellulose. Cellulose is what makes up the building blocks of plants and trees. Cellulose derived plastic sources are biodegradable and lightweight, allowing it to replace other plastics; most of these are made from petrochemicals (which are not kind to our environment). Bonus: hemp plastic and hemp products also assist us with climate change due to the fact hemp sponges up CO2, essentially “locking in” the carbon.

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Hemp oil skincare has been of great interest to the cosmetic industry since oil made from hempseeds was discovered to contain omega 3, 6 and 9 along with many other highly beneficial compounds.

Hemp as a food has a long history especially when it comes to hemp hearts and hemp seeds due to their rich profile of essential fatty acids, complete proteins and healthy fibre content. Hemp products such as hemp milk, seeds, oil, flour, protein powder, cheese, burgers, snack bars, balls, and much more can all be found on New Zealand supermarket shelves.

Hemp can be used to build homes made of hempcrete. Which is a product made from three simple ingredients that are safe on the environment, they are water, lime-binder and hemp-aggregate. For more information, see our article on Hemp’s Many Uses.

It is our view that hemp’s history has only just re-started. Innovations for using this plant have been bringing hemp back to the central and important place it has held throughout human civilization; through what we wear, what we eat, and how we can live in better balance with nature.

In the same way that we’ve used hemp to help us fight our collective challenges throughout history, we are now using this incredible plant to fight climate change and create a more sustainable future.

What’s in store for the future of hemp? We can utilize it to consume huge amounts of carbon dioxide, regenerate our soil and waterways, reduce water consumption, replace oil, gas, plastic, paint, and concrete… the list goes on.

Join us and other kiwi hemp businesses, so together we can build tomorrow’s “hemp history” and restore our Aotearoa.

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