Arts & Culture

Meet This Artist: Leather Designer Julia Greenwood

by Rachel Flanagan, Chatham Arts Council

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.

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 was unschooled, but my sisters were more homeschooled. 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’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, my parents owned a print shop and would bring me stacks of chipboard and boxes. I remember just always cutting things out.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked in a few different grocery stores and did some odd jobs before I started nannying. When I was 24, I reached a precipice in my life, and ended up moving back home to decide on my next move. I then moved back to rural North Carolina, and went to Central Carolina Community College for the sustainable agriculture program and loved it.

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. My grandparents taught me how to knit and crochet, so anytime I was watching a movie or something, I would be knitting or crocheting.

For the first several years in my leather business, I was hand-sewing everything. Then it got to the point where it just took too much time, and the cost was too high. I decided to invest in an industrial sewing machine. From there, I was able to streamline my work and reduce the prices.

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. 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.

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. 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. I remembered that I had this box of ugly upholstery leather that I got for cheap about ten years earlier. That day I felt like I should pull it out and see what I could make from it. So I sat down and decided I was going to try making a purse. I started wearing it around Saxapahaw, and before I knew it, I was getting commissions from fellow villagers. There’s something cathartic about working with your hands and creating something that comes from your soul.

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. I decided to devote my energy full-time to my 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.

Now a year later, I am full-time and ready to start hiring.

I saw on your website that a percentage of your sales goes to a different charity each month.

I’ve always wanted my business to make 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.

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