I’d like to share with you how I started my company, Blue Canoe. In all honesty I’ve always felt a bit like it started me, but I’ve heard that same sentiment from other founders of homegrown companies like mine.
40 Acres in the Woods
Back in the 80’s I was living on an off-grid 40-acre homestead with my family. We had a half-acre organic veggie garden and 50 organic fruit trees. We canned 60 quarts of applesauce every fall, as well as pickled green beans, tomato sauce and quince jam. We ground homegrown corn for corn bread, cleared the water lines after a rain, and dusted the solar panels in the summer. It was a full-time job, but I discovered another passion along the way that eventually led to creating Blue Canoe.
I found myself stopping by a small sewing shop on my way back from dropping the kids at the local community school. Two friends were running a small swimwear company there. One day, a pamphlet at their shop caught my attention. It presented facts and figures on the extensive pollution caused by conventionally grown cotton – herbicides and pesticides used to control weeds and insects - and the massive amount of precious topsoil lost in the process. This really hit home for me. Our few acres up the hill were organic, but I could imagine the positive impact on the planet if hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton worldwide switched to non-toxic growing methods. It was an inspiring thought, and I wanted to be part of the solution. I decided then and there to design and sew organic cotton clothes for myself and, just maybe, someone else would want them also.
From Inspiration to Action
Once the inspiration to make organic cotton clothing had taken hold, I needed to put my idea into action. After some begging and cajoling I convinced a fabric mill in Los Angeles to make a roll of organically grown cotton fabric with a bit of spandex for me. The fabric was soft with just enough stretch for the yoga wear I intended to make. It cost $200 plus shipping, and from that small beginning my business was born. One of my first products is still in the line today - our comfort Jane's Bra named after a friend who inspired the design.
A Community of Women Entrepreneurs
My first workspace was a small cottage with a steep roof beneath a redwood grove in Northern California. The place burst with the energy of four industrious women all starting their own clothing businesses from hemp hats, to hand painted kimonos.
The main room was dominated by a large worktable. The walls were lined with industrial sewing machines and shelves overflowing with fabrics, and we stacked colorful cones of thread on top of the low ceiling beams. Two talented seamstresses cut and sewed one day a week for each of us. A small area was set aside to display and sell our goods to anyone who wandered in. It was a noisy, friendly place where the four of us brainstormed ideas, traded resources and information, helped walk-in customers and hammered out ways to build our businesses. I did all the designing and pattern making, some of the sewing, and all of the bookkeeping, garment dyeing and purchasing for my start-up. My marketing plan was simple: travel to craft fairs and persuade newly appearing ‘eco stores’ to carry my products.
Eventually we all outgrew our shared workspace and scattered to various locations in the small town we lived in. We each fashioned a business that reflected our individual passions, and I’ll never forget the seminal time we spent together.
Striking out on my own
I moved my budding business to a building beside a small lake. The view from my office was of forested mountains and the lake shimmering through the trees. During my first summer there I would often notice a handmade wooden canoe, painted blue, sitting on the water. It stood out among the more common green fiberglass boats. That was when I decided to name my company Blue Canoe.
From the beginning I focused not just on organics, but also on quality, softness and fashion. Even back then Blue Canoe was known for "un-granola" styles and fabrics. One magazine called us "the pioneer of stylish organic clothing."
Here we are today
When I started Blue Canoe back in 1994, most people didn’t even know what organically grown cotton was. As an innovator in sustainable fashion, I’ve watched the industry from its infancy. It’s been wonderful to see organic fashion become more popular and widespread and to watch some big clothing brands integrate environmental features into their lines and processes.
Today Blue Canoe remains the longest running organic cotton clothing company there is. From fabric to finish all our clothing is made in the USA. We offer a full line of high-quality organic cotton comfort bras, loungewear, active apparel and travel/casual wear. Our lifestyle looks are as at home in urban San Francisco, where we’re now located, as they are in the comfort-oriented rural town where we started.
Many years ago, I followed my dream. Thousands of customers later, I’m glad that I did. I hope women love wearing Blue Canoe as much as I love creating it!