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Our Story | Fiberactive Organics

Our Story

 

Meet Julie Mullin

First, let’s get one thing straight, I’m an artist.  I have a degree in Illustration and Graphic Design.  Therefore, I came into business ownership and management with a completely open, if not blank, mind.  OK, that’s not totally true, I learned common sense business principles from working in my father’s dental office every summer throughout my teen years.

My business model was developed from my ethics and creativity.  If you don’t know how to do something, you do it the way you think it should be done, and that’s what I did.  The funny thing is that my way of conducting business has been so sucessful I’ve been asked to write papers, I’ve been featured in Green Business Quarterly and I even guest lectured at the school of business at Duke University.

I grew up on a small horse ranch on the south side of Kansas City, Missouri.  I received a BFA in Illustration and Graphic Design from the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1980, with minors in biology and psychology due to my foray into pre-med.  In 1983 I began designing and constructing pictorial quilts made from fabric scraps and found items.  Then in 1993, I opened The Fiberactive Quilt Company.

Combining my love for illustration and quilting, I have created a series of continuous line quilting designs entitled Earthlines, which is still being published and sold internationally.

I have taught quilting techniques in shops and symposia all across the country.  My designs and I have been featured in international quilting publications and I’ve appeared on television, both locally and nationally.  Fiberactive’s organic products have been featured on the Today show, in magazines such as Natural Home, Textile Intelligence and QuiltMaker, Vogue Sewing, Better Homes and Gardens Decorating, Sew News and many more.

I’m an artist turned businesswoman, and the standard business suit doesn’t fit me very well.  My philosophy is Business Is Personal.  I don’t think outside the box, in my thinking, there is no box.

Very recently I’ve had some big changes in my life, you could call it middle age crazy, but I prefer to think of it as “what do I want to do now that I’m grown up.”   I find that I want to go beyong Fiberactive and become part of a team in a larger company.  To that end, in January this year, I took a short term position at Elizabeth Bradley Designs, an international needlepoint company headquartered in Raleigh.  My position there was Operations Manager and my task was to bring the product distribution from London to Raleigh.  In response to a large marketing campaigne I organized, staffed and coordinated sales and distribution of  literally hundreds of Elizabeth Bradley’s beautiful needlepoint kits and other products.  I loved the work!  It was fast paced, creative, demanding, enthralling and fun.  Sadly it was only short term.  But it taught me what I’m capable of.  And it convinced me that I want to find a permanent position with another growing company like that.

So, I’ve whittled down Fiberactive to just our most popular and essential elements.  It only keeps me busy  part time, selling my organic cotton sewing notions both wholesale and retail through my Etsy shop.  I’ll always have my relationship with my Montagnard families.  I still coordinate sewing work for the women and we have three babies on the way this year.

I’m in full blown job search mode, looking for a dynamic company that needs someone with a lot of experience and energy.  If you’ve got the right fit, give me a call!

 

Fiberactive’s History

I started my business as the Fiberactive Quilt Company in 1993, designing and making quilts on a 45 year old Elna Supra and a Nolting Pro quilter.  I began having health problems.  And after being told by three separate doctors that I should be wearing a respirator in my studio because of the carcinogenic chemicals on conventional fabric, in 2005 I started the transition to organics.

I wanted beautiful rich colors for my quilts; but in those days organic meant earth tones.  So started dyeing fabrics.  I use fiber reactive dyes and low immersion techniques to minimize the environmental impact.

In summer of 2006 life came to a crashing halt.  Due to long years of tendinitis, I lost the use of my right hand.  I was told that the tendons were dead and I would never regain dexterity in my fingers.  I went into a deep and terrible depression.  After months of therapy I was able to do basic things, but still functioned mostly with my left hand.  It was time to get a life again, but I needed a right hand.

A few years earlier, my church sponsored several Montagnard men, refugees from the mountains of Vietnam.  These men had escaped through the jungle leaving their wives and children behind.  When they were settled here, efforts began to bring out their families.  The first of the wives to arrive was Jum.

Jum making napkins

Jum had spent her whole life gathering food in the jungles of Vietnam, she had her first baby when she was 14.  She worked for the Vietnamese farmers, sometimes felling large trees with a machete, one baby on her back, one in her belly.  To say that she is a strong woman is to put it mildly, and yet she was meek and helpless in our high tech society.  On her first day in my studio it was hard to tell which of us was more needy.  She had never used scissors or threaded a needle, I could hardly show her how.  Suffice to say, somehow, she became my right hand.

We changed Fiberactive’s focus from quilt production to organic cotton table linens because they’re easier to make.  After working a whole day to produce one napkin, Jum was dumbfounded that we had spent that much time and resources on something to wipe your mouth!  Jum taught me how to forage for food in my own yard.  I taught her sewing, English, and important concepts like, lunch.  Jum’s niece H’tonh soon joined us.   Suddenly, life was full again.  My hand has recovered over time.  I have all my fine motor skills back and I know when to take a break and let my muscles rest.

The company grew.  We expanded our line of linens with beautiful fabrics from Harmony Art.  Everything was organic except for the thread, and there was no organic cotton thread on the market anywhere in the world  So, in November of 2007 I entered into a joint venture with South Carolina thread company, YLI Corp. to make and sell certified organic cotton sewing thread.  With the release of our thread, the Fiberactive Quilt Company became Fiberactive Organics, LLC. (the “LLC” stands for “Looks Like a Company”)

Jum had a baby, Natalie, in March of 2008.  By summer it was clear that we had outgrown my home studio.  So in October we moved to 4224 Beryl Drive in Raleigh.  Three times the space, sky lights fill the studio with light, we could walk to restaurants and the post office, on one side is the Arboretum and on the other is NC State’s dairy farm.  More space, more work, more jobs for Montagnard refugees.  Welcome H’nam, Tuat and Klum.  We usually have only two or three women working at a time because the children, too young for school, come to work with their moms.  I get to be everybody’s grandma!

I can’t take the time to teach English any more, the women go to English class on Sunday mornings at St. Paul’s Christian Church where we are all members.  I am learning to speak Plei Grak Jarai, the children, especially, delight in teaching me.  In Jarai, the word for “grandma” is “Ya”; that’s me!

I take everybody to their medical visits to interpret, since they have never been exposed to medical care of any kind, they have no words in their language for most medical concepts and procedures.  I do my best to explain – good thing I’m trained in anatomical drawing.  My biggest thrill is delivering babies!  I have attended seven births so far, Jum’s was the first.  The thing she liked best about the hospital experience was having warm water to bath the baby in.

In the spring of 2009 I founded the Montagnard Community Garden at St Paul’s Christian Church, 3331 Blue Ridge Rd, Raleigh.  Check out the Garden Journal in our blog.   That summer four wonderful interns from the Fashion Design school of NC State Univ. joined us.  They designed children’s clothing and taught the Montagnard women how to make them.

Fabric vessels made a big splash in the holiday season of 2009.  Tuat and Klum wrapped miles of cording and Jum and I made vessels till we couldn’t see straight.  We participated in several holiday fair trade markets in churches around Raleigh and Chapel Hill.  Jum loves to do markets and though she’s not confident about making sales on her own, she does her best to converse with the shoppers – she’s very charming!   We sold so many vessels we sometimes had to go back to the studio after a full day at a market, to make more so we’d have something to sell the next day.

At the urging of my friend Jane Hillhouse, I expanded the line of vessels to include cremation urns.  Jane owns Final Footprint (www.finalfootprint.com), a company that sells bio-degradable caskets for those who want to have a natural burial.  I became so enthusiastic about natural burial that that I began designing organic cotton shrouds, bio-degradable urns, casket quilts and pillows, and even infant/toddler caskets.  I opened a new division of Fiberactive Organics called Earth to Earth Burial.   My burial products now sell across the country.  There’s something really wonderful about making something so prescious as a casket or urn.  As I sew, I try to impress each stitch with love and peace.

2010 was a tough year for everybody and we saw our retailers shutting their doors all over America.  Needless to say our sales slumped miserably.  But even as many were closing their doors, people who had been laid off started up their own businesses and new accounts for us began to roll in.  Some are retail shops that sell eco products and other people took the opportunity to bring to market an idea they’d been toying with for years.  For those creative people Fiberactive Organics became the cut&sew resource they’d been looking for.  We now make everything from silk scarves to organic cat toys under many different labels.  The more products we can take in the more Montagnard women I can put to work.

My dream of bringing to market the world’s first colored organic cotton thread became a reality in 2010.  The thread is spun in Holland and is called Scanfil.  This great multi-purpose thread comes in 34 wonderful colors.  We have it on 300 yard spools for home use and 5000 meter cones for manufacturers.  Now my challenge is getting the word out to all those who might want to sew organic.

In 2011 Fiberactive Organics, LLC became Fiberactive Organics, L3C.  That’s a new business designation that stands for Low Profit Limited Liability Company.  To learn more about it, have a look at my blog post called “A New Name For Doing Good Business”.  In 2011, Fiberactive became the 16th L3C in North Carolina.

At the end of 2012 I made the decision to close down the central studio.  The Montagnard women are fully trained and don’t need me to supervise them.  They have sewing stations in their homes and prefer to work from there so that they can be home for their school age children.  It just made financial sense for me to work from home too.  It was a huge effort to move – it took six Montagnard men to move my 400lb bale of organic cotton.  I’m all set up and working from home now, but I find it’s rather lonely.

Nitty-Gritty

Fiberactive Organics has two missions, one is to increase the market for organic cotton in order to promote organic farming throughout the world, especially in the US, specifically here in North Carolina.  We would like to purchase all of the cotton for our thread and fabrics from US farmers, but there just aren’t enough of them growing organic.  We have been forced to buy cotton from other countries, which is wonderful quality, but I don’t like using the petroleum to transport it to the US.  My ultimate dream is to take my products from the soil to retail-ready within 400 miles of the home studio.

My second mission is to provide work for those who would otherwise be unemployed.  Six Montagnard refugee women now work with me at different times.  We each work from our homes.  Those who can sew have work stations at home, I provide hand tools for those who don’t have sewing stations.  We like to meet in my home studio once every once in a while and let the children play with the dog and chickens while we cut fabrics and organize supplies.  I visit each of the women’s homes as needed to pick up finished work, give them new supplies and make sure they are functioning well.


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