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Discovering and following your artistic passion isn’t always a linear path. Sometimes inspiration can strike out of the blue, at an unexpected time. For leather designer and owner of Milestone Bags Julia Greenwood, discovering her passion for working with leather came out of a need to be creative and work with her hands while grieving the loss of her father. I encourage you to read about this talented designer, and go check out her work at The Alliance in Siler City!
Tell me about yourself.
I am a North Carolina native, and the middle child of three girls. I grew up in a very strict Christian household in the middle of nowhere. We also moved a lot. I say I grew up in the middle of nowhere because our houses were usually tucked into the woods and we spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm. Then in my teenage years, we truly lived in the middle of nowhere, in a super rural town with lots of tobacco fields. We lived in a really old farm house, with horses and chickens. I was unschooled, but my sisters were more homeschooled. I was more unschooled because I’ve always done better when I’m self-taught and can go at my own pace. I feel like my sisters always did better with structure. We all eventually got our GEDs at 16. I tried doing the college thing at different community colleges, hoping to transfer to universities, but nothing felt right. Nothing stuck. I found myself in and out of different courses, never getting quite to the degree level. But I’ve always been crafty and tactile with my hands. When I was a kid, I would build huge houses out of cardboard boxes for all of my Troll dolls. When I was really young, we lived in Greensboro, and my parents owned a print shop. They would bring me stacks of chipboard and boxes. I remember just always cutting things out. I loved Trolls and Barbies but I never got into making clothing for any of them. I was more drawn to building the house, making the furniture, and decorating the rooms.
When I was in my early 20s, I worked in a few different grocery stores and did some odd jobs before I started nannying. In my early twenties, I lived in downtown Raleigh — I call those my wild years. I was very reckless with money, with myself, and with my body, just doing a little too much partying and not sleeping. When I was 24, I reached a precipice in my life, and ended up moving back home to reevaluate and decide on my next move. I then moved back to rural North Carolina, and eventually decided that I wanted to try school again. I went to Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) in Pittsboro for the sustainable agriculture program and loved it. I wasn’t a great student by any means, but I loved everything I was learning. I was living in Saxapahaw at the time because I didn’t want to live near any of my classmates. I was still worried about getting distracted and getting back into partying.
How did you learn how to sew?
I’m mostly self-taught. When I was a kid, my mom taught me the basics on a Singer sewing machine, and I would make pillow cases. My grandma and grandpa taught me how to knit and crochet, so anytime I was watching a movie or something, I would be knitting or crocheting, or I’d be in the kitchen baking. I’ve never known how to sit still and not do something with my hands. I can’t go to a movie theater and make it through a movie unless I’m fidgeting with something.
For the first several years in my leather business, I was hand-sewing everything. I would just pre-punch the holes and hand-sew everything. Then it got to the point where it just took too much time, and the cost was too high. I had to charge a lot for the bags, so they weren’t as accessible as I wanted them to be. So I decided to invest in an industrial sewing machine. That was a learning process because that’s a completely different kind of machine. I watched a lot of YouTube videos and just kind of played around. From there, I was able to streamline my work and reduce the prices. It’s definitely made my life a lot easier.
Tell me about working with leather. How do you get your supplies? Does it tie in with your experience with sustainable farming?
I have one supplier, which is a huge warehouse called Zack White in Ramseur. It’s a family-owned business that’s been around for decades. It has every kind of hide you could possibly want, and bins upon bins of all the hardware that you can buy in bulk, plus all the tools you could ever need. I can actually pick exactly what region I want to get my leather from, and find out how sustainable it is, which is very important to me and my business. I pick out my leather strictly from Brazil and Italy. They don’t use barbed wires, so the hides are perfect. Most of those tanneries and farms are family-owned and have been around for generations. The leather I use for my bags is upholstery leather because it’s very soft but still thick enough to be durable. My wallet and belt leather is thicker and has more structure to it.
How did your business get started?
About a year into the sustainable agriculture program at CCCC, my dad passed away suddenly, right as we were beginning to make some healthy strides in our rocky relationship. It completely devastated me. I remember I was halfway through a fall semester when his close friend, who’s an art teacher, suggested that I should try channeling my grief into something creative. So one day, about a couple of weeks after he passed, I was alone at home and having a really hard time, really heavily grieving. I remembered that I had this box of really crappy and kind of ugly upholstery leather that I got for cheap about ten years earlier that had just been moving around with me from apartment to apartment. That day I felt like I should pull it out and see what I could make from it, remembering what that friend of my dad’s suggested. So I sat down and decided I was going to try making a purse. I got a cutting board and some kitchen scissors from the kitchen, cut out a purse, and hand-sewed it together with some leather lacing. I started wearing it around Saxapahaw, and before I knew it, I was getting commissions from fellow villagers. It really helped me with the grieving process; I felt like it was something that I could do instead of sitting on the couch feeling sad and crying. There’s something cathartic about working with your hands and creating something that comes from your soul. It helps with grief and healing. I decided to finish out my semester, but I didn’t get the degree, even though I was only one class short of getting it.
So I continued working my odd jobs, and every moment I had to myself, I was creating different purses, getting commissions, and loving every part of the creative process. I quickly realized that this was my calling because for the first time in my life, I wasn’t bored with something. With everything I made, I felt very fulfilled. There are so many different things you can do with leather and so many different types of leather techniques. It’s just impossible to get bored.
I’d love to hear about some of the early commissions.
The first one I ever got was for a man who wanted a purse for his six-year-old daughter.The only material I worked with at the time was deer skin, so he wanted me to make a deer skin purse for his daughter. He wanted her to have a special purse that she could grow up with, kind of like an heirloom bag. She’s a teenager now, and the last time I saw them, she was still using it, which is pretty cool. Then I got commissions for an arrow quiver, a knife holster, and a lot of random little things like that, which is kind of true to the people in Saxapahaw. There are a lot of people there who are into living off the grid and homesteading, so I was making stuff that fit into their lifestyle. But after awhile, most of my commissions became purses.
The first real purse design that I made was done about four months after I made that first practice purse. I came up with that first design and started selling it, and I ended up making probably a few hundred of those bags because they were really popular. Then I decided that I really liked the design process and then the gratification of seeing people buy it and love my designs.
People still ask me to do commissions, but I’m at the point now where I have to turn them down. Right now I’m focusing on streamlining my business. My business in the past year, since the beginning of COVID, has grown exponentially. Commissions are a lot of fun, but they take a lot of time because I have to come up with a new pattern for each commission, and it’s a lot of work.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic?
At the beginning of COVID, I decided to try my hand at making some clothes. I have a sewing machine that my dad gave me when I was 16, but I’d never done anything with it. I pulled it out, oiled it up, and practiced with it by turning some of my clothes inside out and tracing it onto some fabric. That led to tweaking some designs and making some new designs from scratch. Then I moved on to creating my own patterns. At that point, I felt ready to add a collection of clothing to my website. I used to be very intimidated and thought I would never be able to make clothes. But then when I decided to do it, I realized that I already knew so much just from my bag making, so a lot of my experience transferred over. Even though I’ve really enjoyed making clothes, I’ve decided that my passion is still with leather, so I’ve discontinued selling clothing through my brand, mainly because it takes so much longer to make each outfit. Also, sizing is tricky, so there’s always exchanges. I need to stick with my strengths and my passion, which is the leather bags.
To what do you attribute your growth over the past year?
I actually decided to quit my nannying job at probably the worst possible time for most, but the best time for me, which was at the beginning of the pandemic, in May. After I had my son and I needed to bring him to work with me, it became quite difficult. So I decided in May last year to devote my energy full-time to my business. Because I no longer had the excuse of saying my business was a part-time side gig, I was able to finally put in the work to grow the business. I now had the time to reach out to different wholesalers, make new collections, do more marketing on my website, and attend markets. With COVID, all the markets moved outdoors, which I loved. I started going to markets all the time, which I had never had the time to do before.
Now a year later, I am full-time and ready to start hiring because some weeks I’m pushing 100 hours and I’m exhausted. I realized that I had two choices: I can either close my business because I can’t do it at all, or I can hire help and keep growing my business. I decided that I’m ready to hire help.
Where can people find your work besides your website?
I’m at my studio space Monday through Friday, and then I’m at markets generally every Saturday and Sunday all over North Carolina — I announce where I’ll be on Facebook and Instagram. I try to keep regular hours at my studio in downtown Siler City so that people can just walk in. It’s not a boutique, though — it’s an actual studio space. A lot of my sales come from word of mouth about the studio space I’m in called The Alliance. It’s the old Farmers Alliance building, and Lisa Fidele, the owner, has gotten a lot of press for the building, which has been great for getting the local word out. I also try to visit all of the other local galleries and artists in downtown Siler City, just to mingle with everyone.
I saw on your website that a percentage of your sales goes to a different charity each month. Can you tell me about that?
I’ve always felt like I wanted my business to make some sort of a difference in my community and in the world. I picked twelve organizations for this year, and at the end of each month, I donate ten percent of my monthly sales to whichever organization I have slated for that month. May is the Haw River Assembly and June is Benevolence Farm. I want to feel like the income that my business is bringing in is also being spread out into the community.
Is your son artistic?
We’re still figuring that out — he’s only four. I think he’s very much like me. He wants to take things apart to see how they work and then put them back together. He’s also a performer. He’s not shy, and he loves to act. He performs in front of the mirror, re-enacting scenes from movies. He loves to come to the studio with me when he’s not in school. He has his own little corner with shelves full of toys but most of the time he just wants to hang out in my studio space, playing with my tools or watching me work. He just wants to be a part of what I’m doing, which is cool.
He also seems to be pretty good at sales. A door-to-door insurance agent came in last week, on a day that I was making wallets. As she was trying to leave, he said to her, “Do you have a wallet?” After she says that she does, he quickly says, “But where is it?” When she tells him that it’s in her car, he says, “Well, you need two wallets, then. My mom makes wallets. You should buy one.” I was amazed. I think he needs to come to the markets with me.
What does the future hold for you?
My dream is to be able to grow my business to the point where I can step back and just focus on the design process. I’d like to get into as many stores as possible nationwide and expand my retail reach. I also want to be able to hire women who are in the transitional process, including domestic abuse survivors and previously incarcerated women who are trying to transition back into society.
I’ve always had big dreams and big goals, and I feel like I’m right on the edge of achieving those goals.