#18: SPIRIT NATURAL CLOTHING
From a concept conceived twenty years ago and passed down a generation comes Spirit Natural Clothing, a project by Snowy Mountains local Tom Osborne. Made from hemp, produced in a Fair Wear Foundation-approved factory in China and launched through a community-focused travelling pop-up store, there's not an element of the Spirit journey that has gone without careful consideration. Focusing on unisex jeans and tees, Spirit fills a gap in the market in the best way possible.
We caught up with Tom in the midst of his East Coast pop-up tour, to hear about the ideas behind the label, the qualities of hemp and the process of getting the project off the ground.
Tell us about the idea behind spirit natural clothing.
Spirit was actually my Mum Gini’s idea back in the 90s. When I was a kid she used to embroider jeans and make these crazy hemp shirts with spirals and dolphins and heart shaped - hand made belt buckles. It was pretty wild. Many years later I realised the value of hemp and picked up the hemp clothing idea and ran with it.
Once you start checking it out, hemp is really an amazing material. Extremely versatile, you can make literally hundreds of products out of it - from clothing to houses to bio-plastic, it’s very nutritious to eat and because it is a “weed” it requires no pesticides or herbicides to grow as it out competes all the plants around it. It’s also amazing for the soil and can clean and regenerate contaminated soils instead of draining it of nutrients like most of our conventional round up resistant crops. It’s a tough plant.
I essentially started Spirit Natural Clothing as a project to reflect what I want to see happen in the fashion industry. I’m pretty nostalgic at heart and really not into buying poorly made clothing out of synthetic blended fabrics that won’t biodegrade and wear out quickly. I value buying something that you wear for a long time, that wears in with you, that you repair along the way so it becomes personalised. Even experimenting with plants from your local area so you can re-dye your garments yourself and give them new life. I like utilitarian, multi-purpose clothes that aren’t too bright and shiny and that feel natural and breathable against your skin. With the launch of Spirit I’m backing that there’s other people around who value these things too.
What's your background, and why did you decide to get into the textile industry?
I studied business at uni, and have always been interested in how business and design can affect or provide avenue for social & environmental change. I’ve been a keen follower of companies like Patagonia, Tesla, Freitag and Keep Cup - their successes have been totally based on people caring about the world around them, and making purchasing decisions based on that. I think that for a long time corporations have not expected the public to act in a socially conscious way and I’m stoked that things are finally changing. I feel we’re in the midst of a bit of a revolution where a company won’t be able to get off the ground if they don’t give back and represent the best interests of their human and ecological community.
I’m based on a biodynamic veggie farm in the Snowy Mountains south of Canberra, where my Mum and Step-dad also live. My girlfriend Sammy and I moved into a cottage that came up for rent there about a year ago from Sydney. It’s been awesome to slow down, reduce rent pressure, and have way more time to work on what we’re passionate about. The farm has become the physical home of Spirit Natural Clothing, where I can experiment and constantly learn from the people around me who are so in touch with the earth and it’s cycles.
What has the process been like from concept to finished garments?
Having studied business, not fashion design - means I had a long learning curve in how to get my ideas from concept to garment. I had some brief experience running a small tee shirt business with a mate while we were at uni - we used to pick up interesting used fabrics from Reverse Garbage like old curtains etc and sew them as pockets on tee shirts from AS Colour. I think it was around this time that I first thought it would be cool to make jeans - such a staple in everyone’s wardrobe - from hemp, which the first pair of Levi’s were actually made from! It definitely didn’t happen straight away. I remember interning at a sustainability consultancy and having this kind of pivotal conversation with one of the heads of the consultancy there, who told me that the best thing I could do was create more sustainable products and business, instead of telling the old guard what they were doing wrong. He asked if I had any ideas and I told him about the hemp jeans and he told me to run with it.
I then did a year or so of research while also working full time for Deus Ex Machina in Sydney supporting their International Sales Manager. I was just mucking around checking out swatches and making samples with fabrics supplied by a distributor in LA on my weekends and evenings - before I decided to get more serious. So I quit my job and found a supplier in China, which was where all the distributors I was talking to were getting their hemp fabric from anyway. I found Hemp Fortex through the Fair Wear Foundation, then saw they were a supplier for Patagonia so knew I’d found the right people. I got in touch and from there it was months of sampling, refining my design and eventually heading over to visit the makers in Qingdao, China.
You went to China to visit the factory - can you tell us a little about this experience?
It was such a godsend to find Hemp Fortex, I’d been unable to find anyone really who was promoting themselves as ethical or environmentally conscious in my research. Suddenly I had this Fair Wear Foundation registered factory (the second ever to be certified with the FF), who wanted to work with small operators like me and who ran on solar power! But I still had to see it with my own eyes so my Mum (Gini), Sammy and I flew over in March 2017 to meet the team and film some content throughout their facilities.
We got to check out the weaving, dyeing, washing, cutting and sewing areas of the factory and had a friend from China who came with us to act as a translator so we could talk to the workers and hear about their experiences. Everything was clean and tidy (I good sign I have heard), with automated cutting machines from Italy, a company bus for the staff to commute from the local town, communal lunches together put on for them and a couple of group exercise times throughout the day. Mr Ding - the head of Hemp Fortex told us his story how he started the company in the 90’s before anyone was really interested in hemp, and how his success has been built on supplying small businesses all over the world. He’d also gotten very sick of the traditional Chinese business deal situation with endless toasting of strong alcohol, which we were very happy about. So we drank a lot of tea together and got to know each other.
Why hemp? Why were you drawn to this fibre? I've never seen hemp jeans before!
I think it might have been films like Hemp For Victory that first alerted me to the potential benefits of hemp. I’d seen it around in stores and heard all the info about it’s benefits in clothing and to the environment - such as it’s increased breathability, anti-microbial qualities, and durability due to its long fibre structure - plus reduced water usage, less land, and no pesticides when compared to conventional cotton. I just thought it had a PR problem and was being presented to the market poorly. Like I didn’t want to buy the daggy, poorly fitting hemp clothes with a weed leaf on the label I was seeing, so it was a short leap of imagination to think of using hemp for a more contemporary brand. This has been a problem for environmentally friendly products for a long time, and I’m glad we’re finally seeing so many more awesome brands in the mainstream using more sustainable materials & ethical manufacturing with no sacrifice on quality or style.
You can watch and read conspiracy theories about why Hemp was made illegal to grow and sell in the US in the 20th century and begin to believe the self preserving interests of big chemical companies like Monsanto had something to do with it. But it doesn’t really matter, the damage is done and the world is seeing the enormous impact that plastics, microfibres from synthetic clothing, chemical runoff and water and soil degradation from the vast cotton fields are having. Things have got to change and alternative materials need to be found and used, in the same way that new energy sources are blossoming. We can kick our dependence for petrochemicals and continue to innovate so our natural resources such as sun, wind and natural (non-chemical dependent) fibres can become society's staples again.
That being said, Hemp is still a rougher fabric than cotton, and does need to be blended with organic cotton to achieve the softness that we’re accustomed to for some types of garments. So our first two styles - the S01 Unisex Jeans and S11 Heavyweight Tee are made from a 55% Hemp 45% GOTS certified organic cotton blend. It’s a start, and I’d really like to work with more 100% Hemp fabrics for future styles.
Where can we find you?
Spirit will be initially available online and via our 1950s sales caravan we’re using to tour up and down the east coast to connect with people and shops face-to-face. You can follow our journeys along on Instagram. We are currently seeking out stores with a similar ethos, so if you can recommend any shops in your local area, please get in touch!