Hemp: The Sustainable fabric choice.

There are many reasons to love hemp fabric. For 20 years or more, I have been using and enjoying this fabric on my table at home. You will notice a difference the minute you lay the cloth on the table. Because of its weight, it sits nice and straight and does not slide around like many other tablecloths on the market.

Hemp is strong and resistant to stains, heat, insects, mould, and mildew. Hemp is a highly renewable resource that may be produced into a sustainable textile without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Its strength and longevity, as well as the fact that it does not fade or discolour are other attributes I've noticed.

The fabric of life

Hemp has been used as a textile by humans for thousands of years. By choosing this as our preferred fabric, Ali Davies Home forgoes the use of synthetic and inexpensive commercial substitutes in favour of a fabric with a history from earlier times. In contrast to textiles made from plant and animal fibres, synthetic fibres are a relatively new innovation.

Nylon was introduced in the late 1930s by DuPont, and by 1968, more man-made fibres were consumed than natural fibres in the United States(1). It is horrifying to consider just how quick and intense the environmental consequences have been, thanks to our insatiable appetite for low-cost alternatives. The relationship between synthetic and natural is complicated, with both having negative connotations and positive advantages. For example, some synthetic textiles have safety and health benefits essential in certain industries, and cotton, a natural product, comes from an industry rife with the exploitation of humans and the environment.

Bundles of hemp plants waiting to be loaded onto a tractor.

The cultivation of hemp fibre dates back as far as 2800 BC in Central Asia; however, there are sources of earlier use dating back as far as 8000 BC(2). It’s an ancient cloth with benefits we are still discovering today. One of the reasons I love fabrics is that the history of textiles tells us a lot about ourselves. Alongside the development of humans is cloth. Cloth-making was a women-owned and managed industry with signs of plant-based innovations as early as 20,000 years ago(3).

Although textile innovation was mostly driven by purpose, textiles have been decorated for as long as humanity has been making them. Often, taking the extra time and effort to produce something that has more value than merely serving as a covering or a means of warmth.

If the very act of making something takes days and weeks, why take even longer for the sake of decoration? Decoration is a form of communication; it is a transfer of meaning, a recognition of an event, the passage of time, a shared memory, or a stage of life. All fundamental aspects of the human experience need understanding and communication. Early evidence of this is the cave drawings of the Stone Age depicting hands and animals and our interaction with them and our experience of them, and later the invention of plant fibres made into a twisted string and laid out in a decorative way on a pre-historic skirt, which was the prerequisite to cloth making and much later, fashion.

An old fashioned sewing machine with a piece of hemp fabric draped over the top of the machine.

The relationship we have with textiles is now more distant; most of us are not involved in the making of textiles, and design is replaced with the concept of ‘market share’ and the need for a quick sale. My goal is to reconnect, through my textiles, the anthropological viewpoint of human ingenuity and the narrative of the past with our present-day lives. I want to express what it is about our experience as humans that remain timeless. 

The more conscious we become about where our textiles come from, the better choices we will make in our purchases. Until a few hundred years ago, textiles were used as currency and were the most valuable item in a woman’s dowry and family estate.

For me, the act of decorating this modern made but ancient phenomenon with old technology such as a screen print is not dissimilar to what has been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Although I am aware of the technology at my disposal as a designer, I have purposefully chosen to employ just a straightforward hand-controlled application for this specific fabric. Hemp gives me the opportunity to create something that is both integrally related to the past and timely for the present. Screen printing is done in stages, one colour at a time, and is controlled by a skilled printer who understands the application and layering processes. This means I use a craft-based manufacturing process for each tablecloth.

Design beyond today.

My patterns are created to work with the fabric and the end user, leaving no harm behind. Ascetically, I consider space, colour, repetition, and scale. The hemp texture has a certain weight and feel, it also has its own Wairua (the spirit or the soul), which connects the past and the future as well as the present.

Wairua contains many aspects, such as origin and intent. "Intent" in this context to me relates to a cleansing of the spirit; knowing what is in my heart during the creation of a design or product. Many years ago, at the beginning of my textile journey, I began practising Buddhism, and so naturally, I started expressing what I was discovering about Buddhism in my work, and I made a piece for an exhibition titled "State of the Heart," which was held at the Aotea Centre in Auckland. This was a textile piece made with hand painting and applique, and it had words on it that said, "What is the feeling that lies in the depths of our hearts?" To me, that is still the most important question and is woven into everything I do and make.

Making memories last

A printed tablecloth with a geometric line drawing of a flower. The pohutukawa flower of New Zealand with bold shape leaves and stamen that looks like a starburst.

A design must have an openness to it when used as the setting for your own story. It needs to invite you in, not slap you in the face. It may provoke and stimulate, but only in a suggestive manner; the rest is up to you. I want to allow space for contemplation and reflection. But also a place of togetherness and gathering. In the same way that a design is a backdrop to stories, a tablecloth is a backdrop to community and shared memories.

I create my fabrics as a means of pursuing happiness, and since pursuing happiness entails considering the happiness of others, each choice I make must be advantageous to everyone involved—my employees, my makers, my customers and the people they share their lives with. And those who accept an invitation to dinner with an Ali Davies tablecloth.



      1. https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/synthetic-threads#:~:text=The%20introduction%20of%20new%20synthetic,people's%20wardrobes%20and%20their%20lifestyles.&text=On%20October%2027%2C%201938%2C%2011,first%20fully%20man%2Dmade%20fiber.
      2. https://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/5016/hemp-fiber-eco-friendly-fabric
      3. The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. Elizabeth Wayland Barber.
  1. Te tinana, te hinengaro, me te wairuaēnei e toru, te mea nui o ēnei ko te wairua. Te tinana: he anga kau nō te wairua. Te hinengaro: he kaiwhakaatu ki te ao he pēnei nā te wairua kei roto i te tangata (TTT 1/12/1930:2215). / Of these three things, the body, the mind and the spirit, the most important is the spirit. The body is the vehicle for the spirit. The mind shows the world what the spirit of the person is like.
  2. https://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?&keywords=wairua

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