East Fork collaborates with other makers on products that, like our pottery, are meant to stick around. Each is made with great care, in small batches with an aesthetic more timeless than trendy. We find that things with a backstory tend to find a more permanent place in our homes and in our lives. They flat-out mean more.
That’s why we felt like lightning struck in the best way when our art director Nicole Lissenden found Jenni Earle, the Winston-Salem-based maker of bandanas and other goods they think of as personal talismans, to make our new small batch bandana in Taro. Not only did Nicole’s designs come to life with what she called the loved and worn quality she was really hoping for and we got an uncanny match for Taro thanks to meticulous hand-dying, but we also got to know Jenni Earle’s Jenni Hopkins and Kari Foster Allison, in the process.
Let’s start with the products. Jenni Earle sells bandanas and other goods online and in stores across the United States and in a few other countries, too. They are designed by Jenni Hopkins and the textile products are made from cotton grown in the American South, where the pieces are cut, sewn, dyed, screen printed, ironed, folded and packaged. No cut corners here!
At the Jenni Earle studio in Winston-Salem, there are five people who work in the office and three contract workers who do the dyeing and ironing. Jenni also found, through a program that offers English language classes, three women who came to the U.S. from Burma as refugees who fold and package, working from home where they and their housemates care for their children and grow vegetables that they sell at local markets, a small business Jenni helps with advice about things like setting prices and banking.
His Name is Earl
Most of the time when you talk to someone who started a business, in that moment when they draw their breath to tell you how they got the idea in the first place, you anticipate hearing about how they contemplated a solution to a common problem or ruminated on an untapped market. In other words, you probably expect to hear about business school and market research. Not so with Jenni Hopkins, who wanted to find a way to bring to life the experience she had as a child of being loved and encouraged by her grandfather, a sixth-generation coal miner who always had an old, timeworn bandana in his pocket and the patience and encouragement to teach his granddaughters how to use the carpentry equipment he kept in his garage.
Jenni said, “Ten years ago, I went through a serious depression. I was suicidal. But I made a concerted effort to climb out of that dark hole by finding my authentic voice. There have been a few bumps in the road after that, like divorce and things like that, but I returned to: Who am I authentically? What am I on this earth to do? It always took me back to hanging out with my grandpa in the garage. He had this way of hanging out with me and my sister that made us feel like it was okay to make a mistake, it was okay to try things. He was much more concerned about the process of what we were doing than the outcome. He’d let us run the drill press or whatever and he’d be like, sure, let’s give it a go. It was that bravery. He has a sense of adventure and is kind of a larger than life person. And so, I changed my middle name to his name, Earl, so that I could have him with me every day as a talisman, thinking I really want to make a product that would translate to: you are braver than you know. I’m so much braver than I thought I was ten years ago.”
She remembered his bandanas and had the thought that if she created designs emblazoned with mantras that had meaning to her, like “Be Brave” or “Feel the Fear, Do It Anyway” they would resonate with others, too. These simple squares of fabric could become personal talismans, the perfect gift for a loved one going through difficult times or coming out of them on the other side.
Kari noted that incorporating mental wellness messages on products as well as communications in newsletters, Journal posts and on Instagram. “We want to give people concrete things they can do, show them that they’re not alone, especially in these wild times, though it’s always been really important to us.” She mentioned her personal experience with seeing loved ones struggle with mental health issues. “I know that helpless feeling of being on the outside,” she said.
Jenni noted that many bandana purchases are gifts sent directly to the recipients with enclosed messages from the givers. “Sometimes we get to know the story behind the gift and we learn what someone worked for, maybe it’s someone who went back to graduate school at 45 or something like that. And we are just like, yeeeeeees!,” Jenni said. There is also the story that traveled all the way from Thailand to company HQ in Winston-Salem of two travelers in an airport in Thailand, one of whom saw the other’s Jenni Earle “Feel the Fear” bandana tied to her bag and stopped her, pulling her own identical bandana from her bag.
These connections don’t seem like coincidences if you are familiar with the way Jenni Earle has built its community, starting from Jenni’s personal story to the first-person narratives you’ll find on the site’s Journal and the conversational nature of newsletters and Instagram posts. Jenni said that the community-building aspect of the company is just as important as the products they sell. Jenni said, “I just never want anyone to feel alone...and helpless. There’s enough love in this world that nobody has to feel that way. I want to be like that big sister, whispering in someone’s ear, ‘You can do this. Just try, just start. Take that first step.' As much as our product says that with the mantras, I want every interaction with our brand to feel that way as well.”
Three and a half years ago, Jenni started out with the idea that she could make the bandanas from designing them to packing up the finished product herself. She laughs and remembers thinking, “It’s just a square piece of cotton.” After trying to teach herself screen printing, she contracted with Machine Gun Graphics in Winston-Salem, a local business that, like many printers, didn’t have the large piece of screen-printing equipment required for making bandanas. Deciding to invest in their business in order to work with Jenni Earle, today Machine Gun Graphics gets bandana printing orders from around the country.
Jenni also had the dream of a wholly domestic product. The cut and sew house she found has a relationship with a mill whose cotton comes from the Carolinas, Georgia and Texas. Mills generally don’t do small orders for fabric, setting a minimum of around enough fabric to make 5,000 bandanas. However, Jenni was able to work out an agreement to purchase that amount not upfront but over a period of time, something much more manageable for a new business. “It’s scary to take a risk and put dollars out there before you’re sure they’re going to come back but it felt so important,” she said.
So what does Earl say about all of this? At first, he thought Jenni should “just get a job with a pension program” but he’s really excited about what she’s doing and interested in how the products are made. He’s a sixth-generation coal miner from West Virginia and he’s very excited about the American jobs that the company has created. “And he loves the meaning behind it. He doesn’t claim to be as much of an influence on me as he really is. I think he laughs it off. But he’s really proud.”
Jenni also has two teenage sons for whom she’s glad to have Jenni Earle as a model for a life that’s not about climbing onto the hamster wheel of work and settling down. “I joke with them now, like, ‘what is your first career going to be?’” As for Earl, he’s proud to see his grandsons working for the business and experiencing its growth, year by year.
During the pandemic, Jenni Earle added masks to the product mix and shifted its community-building work to an all-online model. Asked about any changes she’s observed during this time, Jenni thought of a moment when she was putting together a giveaway with other local businesses. She felt everyone pulling together, that community, not competition, was driving the efforts. She feels it more universally, too, saying, “There seems to be a leveling up of awareness of one’s personal accountability and people are really taking notice of that. That gets me excited because the more authentic we are, the more we are listening to our own voices, the stronger, happier, more willing to love and understand. It feels like we’re growing together, in the right direction.”