Julie Jarvis of REALthings Meditation Cushions Explains Why Handmade Production Makes Good Business Sense

To celebrate the launch of the Health and Wellness category this week on Hubba, we are shining a special spotlight on remarkable contributors to the industry. This includes the talented owner of esteemed Hubba brand, REALthings, Julie Jarvis. She nurtured the seed of an idea to help people meditate more easily and has grown it into an incredibly successful and meaningful business producing the highest quality yoga and meditation cushions on the market. Though she creates everything from her studio in Toronto, sourcing the materials takes her on incredible journeys around the world to partner fairly with a wide network of artisans. Nourishing health and creativity never looked so beautiful. Read on >>

H – Your story is pretty incredible – can you share more about how REALthings began?

JJ: My background is diverse. After university I started to work in social justice with First Nations peoples. The elders were my first teachers and they were very wise. I learned about the value of being authentic and learning from my experience. In the mid-1990s I moved to the Esalen Institute for human potential in Big Sur California. I studied and worked there as an educator and artist. I learned how to create safe inspiring and beautiful spaces for children and adults to explore and express their creativity. This is where I began to meditate. Esalen is a leading centre for exploring and realizing human potential through experience, education, and research. For the last 50+ years, Esalen has been a thought leader and shapeshifter of the culture, generating and promoting new ideas, methods, and connections that have transformed our world.

When I returned to Canada, I began working as a social change artist – pioneering outdoor art programs for children and adults. I worked with very diverse communities as an artistic director and educator to launch multi-disciplinary arts programs in Canada and South America. One of these is The Walls of Hope project, which I created with Argentine Artist Claudia Bernardi and a team of Toronto youth. And this is where I met Samantha Vite who is the Community Skip at REALthings.

It was in 2011 that I began to recognize that people were needing places of quiet and stillness as much as or even more than places to create and make art. So I began thinking of ways I could facilitate this. How we could create a company that inspired/supported people to find moments of stillness in a busy world – the kind of quiet that nourishes people’s health and creativity?

Over the years I have sat with many people, who find it difficult to sit comfortably on the floor. Both older people who are long-term meditators and younger people who are new to the practice and are having difficulty finding the right posture and cushions for their body. I watch as people make piles of cushions and little nests of cushions to try and get comfortable.

I was at a spiritual retreat one day (a spiritual retreat where people gather to meditate, work and practice together) and someone saw the silk triangle cushions I had invented for myself and said “you should make those for other people”. This is when I realized that I could make beautiful, comfortable cushions for people like my own that would support their bodies and inspire their own practice. I took the idea to my brother Daniel Jarvis and REALthings was born. Dan is my partner and vital business advisor, aka our SW (Secret Weapon), and just a fabulous human being.

What was the most important thing to build into your company as you began:

3 things:

  1. Creating a local, values-driven company – where everyone is respected equally. A triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) social purpose company that embraces social change and tradition.
  2. Sourcing the textiles equitably and creating functional, beautiful designs for modern bodies using traditional craftsmanship
  3. Finding exceptionally talented, creative and kind people to build the company.

To get started with making beautiful cushions that were truly supportive, functional and durable for different body types and ages / levels of flexibility, etc… I worked with Jan Mackie (Toronto social change and textile artist) to develop our first prototypes. Then I spent the next six months sitting with people and adjusting the designs until they met our vision to support modern bodies, lifestyles and tastes.

What things did you consider when you started sourcing the materials for your products?

I am an artist and I love textiles and colours. From the beginning I knew I wanted our cushions to create an oasis – beautiful spaces to practice. Monks have beautiful temples, so I wanted to be able to create a sense of that in the corners of people’s homes. I also wanted to give our customers the experience of the care, generosity and skill of the artist and the rare beauty of this practical gift. Exquisite silks crafted into an elegant design – a meditation cushion ancient in its feel and touch.

I wanted our customers to experience natural, handmade products in exquisite colours and designs. I was able to source some of our organic fabrics from local retailers in Toronto. We knew from experience that we would have to search out hand-woven silks, ikats and shot cottons in Asia, so I asked Jan Mackie to go on this journey with me. It was important for us to find weavers and weaving collectives that were working to build sustainable communities. We visited five countries: India, Thailand, Cambodia, Bali and Japan, and had many wild adventures. We were fortunate to find remarkable weavers and source our zabuton fabrics from them. What we discovered though is that traditional hand weaving is becoming increasingly rare all over the world. So what we found are little treasures.

What was the hardest part about scaling up your production runs without reducing quality?

This is an ongoing challenge we face everyday and we have more to do. Fabric and material prices change constantly, both locally and abroad. Things like flooding in Asia have quadrupled the price of silk. Also, local buyers/retailers are often challenged to restock fabrics. It is our goal to work locally and make remarkable products by hand that support and inspire people everyday, but this ideal continues to be a challenge as the manufacturing industry disappears in Canada.

That said, we just love working locally because we find people who help us meet these challenges everyday! And it is pretty amazing that in our City we source new sewing machines and fabrics just blocks away from our downtown corporate clients. The world suddenly becomes small and everyone feels connected. And we are continually grateful for our fortune in finding Dolma Tsering who has become our lead artisan and heart of REALthings. Originally from Ladakh, India, Dolma is Tibetan Canadian. She has spent a lifetime hand sewing sacred objects/Tangkas.

REALthings is a small operation, which means wearing lots of different hats, what has running your own business taught you?

How do you build a company where love is the bottom line? Follow-your heart and be open, and go to experts to get advice whenever you can. Family and friends are most important – they make it possible for us to do what we do – and to build a business on great relationships. You need to feel good about what you are doing and work with really great people who inspire you and make you feel good. Wearing so many hats is exhausting but also helps you understand every element of the business. It also keeps you humble. There is always something unexpected happening. My brother and partner has a funny line he always says to me whenever I phone him and tell him the ‘disaster’ of the day. He laughs warmly and says “Oh, you must run a small business”.

We are small now, but our goal is to grow and build a great circle of individuals who hold different parts of the company. The key is learning how to keep opening up and embracing new people and ideas as remarkable new people come and join us. Most recently, Jen Grant, The Right Hand at REALthings, has joined us and she is amazing, bringing her experience in marketing and sales and meditating. It is so important to be able to play at work – with ideas and people and celebrate success and learn to trust that everything will be okay! It is also important to sit quietly together and meditate and create space for meaningful exchange.

Where do you hope you can go with your product lines and what kinds of retail partners are you looking for?

Product Lines: We look to our customers for guidance when it comes to our product offerings. We spend a lot of time sitting with customers to find out what works for them and what new products they’d like to see. Our Runa cushion, a REALthings original design, was created because more and more of our customers wanted to meditate while sitting on chairs. And it has since become one of our most versatile travel cushions. And our original Dolma cushions were inspired by modern urban living in smaller spaces, and time-crunched, ambitious (and often overwhelmed) customers who need cushions that are easy-to-store and take with them while on the go. The corporate community also inspires and guides our designs as more and more companies introduce in-house meditation programs to support their people.

As for Retail Partners, we are always speaking about finding remarkable retail partners who love the look and feel of our products and want their customers to experience the joy of REALthings made by hand. They are retailers who believe in and want to support our social purpose story. And they want to provide the very best products and experiences to their customers. We also look for partners who are interested in educating their customers about the importance of finding the right posture and cushion because meditating is much easier if you can find the right comfort for your body. For one, we’ve found such a partner with Muse. We produce Muse’s meditation cushions to enhance their customer’s experience with meditation.