From natural dyes to hands-on manufacturing and marketing, entrepreneur Morgan Kurz is building a hemp-inclusive sustainable business from the ground up.
By Elaine Lipson
In the emerging U.S. hemp industry, some companies have ambitions for big growth and corporate structures. Others are drawn to hemp for different reasons, working on what might be called a micro-business scale. Seam of Life, an apparel company that describes itself as “small batch hemp and merino wool activewear handmade in the Columbia River Gorge,” is just that. Founder, manufacturer, and chief-everything-officer Morgan Kurz operates as a solo entrepreneur from her home in Hood River, Oregon, with a deep commitment to natural and sustainable materials and high-quality, built-to-last apparel that she makes herself.
Kurz’s entrepreneurial and creative journey began just five years ago, when she began learning natural dyeing and garment construction as an apprentice, then employee, of a friend’s business. After tearing her ACL and having surgery in 2018, she started making and selling on her own while sidelined from an active athletic life. “I really started sewing on my own to keep mentally sane throughout my healing process,” she says. “I started with hemp hoodies with upcycled Pendleton [wool].”
Hemp and Wool for Sustainable Activewear
Today, using hemp and merino wool she’s hand-dyed with natural dyes (with just a few colors she purchases pre-dyed), Kurz designs her custom and ready-to-ship garments for durability, sustainability, and style. A mountain biker herself, Kurz makes tanks, tees, pants, gaiters, hoodies, helmet liners, and hats, combining fabrics where needed to ensure that they’ll wear well with hard use. “Merino is so light and quick-dry but hemp has always been my favorite because it’s so durable,” Kurz says. “I’m hard on my garments and my gear and that’s a big reason that I use hemp.” She sources her hemp from California-based Hemp Traders, which calls itself the largest supplier of hemp fiber products in the country.
“Last year was tough sourcing hemp fabric,” Kurz says. “Most of the blends I usually use were hard to get. I’ve been using the merino because I’ve been focusing on activewear. It’s the ultimate technical fiber for quick dry and wicking capabilities, warmth to weight ratio, and works best for high intensity activities like biking.” That said, she hopes the hemp supply will grow, especially for U.S.-grown and milled fabrics. “Hopefully with hemp kind of taking off and becoming more popular, we’ll have more farmers growing hemp and more U.S.-grown fabric available.”
Natural Dyes for the Win
Meanwhile, incorporating merino wool makes sense not just for performance, but for its affinity with the natural dyes that Kurz champions. “I would say my production is about 60 percent merino/40 percent hemp right now,” she says. “The merino takes the natural dyes so much better and bolder than the hemp fabric, and the merino garments have been a higher demand from my customers. I won’t ever stop making hemp garments though!” Kurz also uses recycled polyester fabrics dyed out-of-house, and upcycled Pendleton wool. She designs, cuts, and sews from her home, and handles marketing and sales through the Seam of Life website, local bike shops, and in-person events.
Natural plant dyes are a key differentiator for Kurz’s garments, and she’s passionate about using them and educating people about their environmental upside. “Most of my customers love the fact that I’m using natural fibers and natural dyes,” she says. “The natural dyes really stand out. They turn out one of a kind every time, and people really enjoy having something that’s unique. I also do a lot of custom orders — custom options are enticing to people.” Kurz also offers re-dyeing if colors fade with time.
“I’ve really expanded my natural dye skills,” Kurz adds. “Color is very special, especially natural color — it’s very alive. Clothing and color is an expression of how you’re feeling or how you want others to feel. I’m trying to do a better job about educating my customers and potential customers about natural dyes and natural fibers and how they impact the environment and our lives.” Kurz sources plant dyes from Vancouver-based Maiwa, and has recently been working with local plants that she forages herself, including mushrooms.
Growing the Business
While quality over quantity and high standards are Seam of Life’s benchmarks, Kurz recognizes the limitations of doing everything herself, and growing the business is not out of the question. She envisions someday employing people to help with dyeing and sewing as well as marketing goals, such as further website development and improved photography to support online shopping. “I have two bike shops in Hood River that sell my jerseys, but most of my sales are done through word of mouth and my website. I’m trying to drive business directly to my website.” Kurz did her first in-person vending event in two years, the Sturdy Dirty women’s enduro race in Snoqualmie, Washington, on October 9. “That was really fun and reinvigorating,” she says. She’s not yet at the scale for large B2B shows such as Outdoor Retailer, but keeps that on the horizon for the future.
What about investors? “I would definitely consider it if someone wanted to invest in my business,” Kurz says. “If someone wanted to help my business grow and saw some opportunity, I think that would be very cool. I want to keep it small-scale as far as hand-dyed, handmade, and built to last, but I also want to be able to produce more than what I physically can right now. I would love to expand my operation if the opportunity presented itself.”
Elaine Lipson is a Colorado-based writer and editor. She wrote The International Market for Sustainable Apparel, the first comprehensive market view of the sustainable apparel industry, in 2008, and Slow Cloth: An Alternative to the Politics of Production. Elaine was previously senior programming manager and acquisitions/content editor for Bluprint, an NBCUniversal company, and organic program director for New Hope Natural Media.