Mindy Johnson: Bamboosa!

By

Twenty miles west of Georgetown, on the outskirts of the once thriving village of Andrews, a small miracle is taking place. In an abandoned knitting mill, twenty talented and experienced sewing machine operators are working again, doing what they love to do in an uncanny reversal of fate. These workers, whose jobs were outsourced to the cheap labor of foreign mills, are now producing exciting products from fibers of bamboo! It’s a wonderful story, and a visionary leap of faith for the three partners who five years ago created Bamboosa, an earth-friendly manufacturer of organic bamboo baby and adult clothing items.

Mindy Johnson, the company’s creative director, and one of the three partners, is a living example of courage and creativity in the face of crisis. The Greenville native and Furman graduate worked for fifteen years as art director at Silkworm, a Mount Pleasant screen printing firm with national corporate clients such as Timberland, John Deere, Harley-Davidson, Adidas and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as many local companies. Mindy loved the job which daily utilized all her artistic and creative talents. However, in 2003, like many other textile-based companies, Silkworm went bankrupt due to foreign outsourcing. The single mom and cancer survivor was given four days notice. Though offered another art director position, Mindy made the bold decision to take a big risk and quite literally go for broke, becoming one of three owners of a new manufacturing company with an entirely innovative concept. Partners Michael Moore (an Andrews native who has owned knitting mills for 34 years), Morris Saintsing (who has comparable experience in apparel manufacturing and sales) and Johnson created Bamboosa with two important goals: to produce environmentally friendly, high quality products and to provide renewed work opportunities to the struggling Andrews community.

Mindy says, “It was a huge risk for me. I had recently sold my house to buy another one and had what, for me, was a huge chunk of money that I probably should have invested in something besides a new business. However, being a cancer survivor somehow oddly makes me more of a risk-taker. I sky-dived within a few months of finishing my chemo! Cancer is an in-your-face reminder that life is so precious. You need to do the things you want to do and not wait for a ‘better’ time.”

Despite current economic challenges, Johnson has no regrets, believing clearly in the importance of Bamboosa’s mission, particularly in preserving the craft and livelihood of commercial sewing machine operation. So many skilled workers have lost their jobs. Many others will soon reach retirement age. Understandably, few young people are entering this career field, and Mindy worries that it could become a lost art. With this in mind, Bamboosa recently obtained an Economic Development Grant through Williamsburg County which it will use to train new sewing machine operators, increasing both job opportunities and productivity.

The story of how the group happened upon bamboo as its niche is fascinating and a bit serendipitous. The partners knew they wanted a knit fabric that was organic, eco-friendly and uniquely soft. One of them Googled “softest tee-shirt ever” and located a California company which sells natural bamboo clothing. After ordering one of the shirts, they knew where they wanted to go! Though the bamboo plant is hard and durable enough to be used in furniture and flooring, the fabric made from its fiber is easily dyed and so soft it feels like a mix of silk and cashmere. Anyone who has worn apparel made from it will immediately become a repeat customer. Mindy herself says, “I never imagined I’d be wearing bamboo almost every day!”

Of course, there was still quite a journey ahead for the three pioneers as they learned all about the process of converting stalks of bamboo into fiber for knit fabric. They also learned that the Chinese have a patent on this process, so, at least for the time being, they must purchase the processed fiber from a firm in China. The unbleached fiber is spun into fabric at a plant in Clover S.C. before being shipped to Andrews for cutting, sewing, packaging and marketing by the 28 talented employees at Bamboosa. Interestingly, there are several large groves of bamboo within two miles of the Andrews facility, planted long ago by paper companies looking for faster alternatives to tree groves. Johnson says, “We can’t use that bamboo for our products because it is the wrong variety, and we don’t know the converting process, but it is pretty ironic that right here in Andrews are 30 and 40 foot bamboo culms growing in large wild groves.” Perhaps in the future a usable bamboo species can be grown, processed and manufactured locally – a boon to the area’s distressed agricultural community as well. Currently, there are several American manufacturers producing bamboo products, but Bamboosa was the first one in the country.

The company started out manufacturing mostly adult clothing which has remained its mainstay. The short and long-sleeved tees, hoodies and scarves are popular, often layered in complimentary colors. These tees are particularly popular with men who like the softness of bamboo fabric under heavier, harsher clothing like uniforms, protective vests, and hunting garb. One of the most popular Bamboosa products is the woman’s garment called a sleep slip. Mindy fashioned this piece by creating a comfortable fine jersey camisole top then extending the bottom to the length of a short slip. It is so soft and comfortable that Johnson says she and many other customers won’t sleep in anything else. However, the top-selling adult clothing item is Bamboosa’s socks, which are soft, durable, and best of all, absolutely do not hold odor! Bamboo naturally resists picking up any hint of stench, a fact first reported by happy customers then tested and proven by Bamboosa partner Morris Saintsing who wore the same pair four days straight on a crabbing excursion!

Interestingly, the products which have really taken off recently are from the company’s line of baby items, Bamboo Baby, featuring soft-as-butter bodysuits, beanies, blankets, bath items and bibs that are naturally anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, thermal regulating and odor-free. The line also features popular baby gift sets which, like all Bamboosa products, can be ordered on-line, attractively packaged, and shipped directly to the recipient.

This fledgling company is clearly a win-win venture on so many levels. It is eco-friendly, utilizing a renewable and organic fiber. Bamboo grows naturally without pesticides, chemicals or irrigation. It grows rapidly and can be harvested in 3-5 years even without re-planting. Equally important, the company is reversing the trend of outsourcing by American companies. Because Mindy Johnson and her partners have gone through that painful experience themselves, they feel strongly about this important commitment. Mindy says, “We really get a lot of support for being American-made, and we feel very good about it.” Third, and equally as important, through Bamboosa Johnson and her partners are providing sweatshop-free, fair-wage work opportunities for talented, skilled employees, and in doing so, they are bringing a new glimmer of hope to the economically blighted area once known as “The Tee Shirt Capital of the U.S.”

Bamboosa has been featured in a number of national and regional publications and television shows and currently handles over 200 wholesale accounts. Area shops carrying its products include the Original Hammock Shop at Pawleys Island and Dwell Smart in Mount Pleasant. Readers may get a full list of products available and order directly on-line at www.bamboosa.com.

About this writer

  • Twenty miles west of Georgetown, on the outskirts of the once thriving village of Andrews, a small miracle is taking place. In an abandoned knitting mill, twenty talented and experienced sewing machine operators are working again, doing what they love to do in an uncanny reversal of fate. These workers, whose jobs were outsourced to the cheap labor of foreign mills, are now producing exciting products from fibers of bamboo! It’s a wonderful story, and a visionary leap of faith for the three partners who five years ago created Bamboosa, an earth-friendly manufacturer of organic bamboo baby and adult clothing items.

    Mindy Johnson, the company’s creative director, and one of the three partners, is a living example of courage and creativity in the face of crisis. The Greenville native and Furman graduate worked for fifteen years as art director at Silkworm, a Mount Pleasant screen printing firm with national corporate clients such as Timberland, John Deere, Harley-Davidson, Adidas and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as many local companies. Mindy loved the job which daily utilized all her artistic and creative talents. However, in 2003, like many other textile-based companies, Silkworm went bankrupt due to foreign outsourcing. The single mom and cancer survivor was given four days notice. Though offered another art director position, Mindy made the bold decision to take a big risk and quite literally go for broke, becoming one of three owners of a new manufacturing company with an entirely innovative concept. Partners Michael Moore (an Andrews native who has owned knitting mills for 34 years), Morris Saintsing (who has comparable experience in apparel manufacturing and sales) and Johnson created Bamboosa with two important goals: to produce environmentally friendly, high quality products and to provide renewed work opportunities to the struggling Andrews community.

    Mindy says, “It was a huge risk for me. I had recently sold my house to buy another one and had what, for me, was a huge chunk of money that I probably should have invested in something besides a new business. However, being a cancer survivor somehow oddly makes me more of a risk-taker. I sky-dived within a few months of finishing my chemo! Cancer is an in-your-face reminder that life is so precious. You need to do the things you want to do and not wait for a ‘better’ time.”

    Despite current economic challenges, Johnson has no regrets, believing clearly in the importance of Bamboosa’s mission, particularly in preserving the craft and livelihood of commercial sewing machine operation. So many skilled workers have lost their jobs. Many others will soon reach retirement age. Understandably, few young people are entering this career field, and Mindy worries that it could become a lost art. With this in mind, Bamboosa recently obtained an Economic Development Grant through Williamsburg County which it will use to train new sewing machine operators, increasing both job opportunities and productivity.

    The story of how the group happened upon bamboo as its niche is fascinating and a bit serendipitous. The partners knew they wanted a knit fabric that was organic, eco-friendly and uniquely soft. One of them Googled “softest tee-shirt ever” and located a California company which sells natural bamboo clothing. After ordering one of the shirts, they knew where they wanted to go! Though the bamboo plant is hard and durable enough to be used in furniture and flooring, the fabric made from its fiber is easily dyed and so soft it feels like a mix of silk and cashmere. Anyone who has worn apparel made from it will immediately become a repeat customer. Mindy herself says, “I never imagined I’d be wearing bamboo almost every day!”

    Of course, there was still quite a journey ahead for the three pioneers as they learned all about the process of converting stalks of bamboo into fiber for knit fabric. They also learned that the Chinese have a patent on this process, so, at least for the time being, they must purchase the processed fiber from a firm in China. The unbleached fiber is spun into fabric at a plant in Clover S.C. before being shipped to Andrews for cutting, sewing, packaging and marketing by the 28 talented employees at Bamboosa. Interestingly, there are several large groves of bamboo within two miles of the Andrews facility, planted long ago by paper companies looking for faster alternatives to tree groves. Johnson says, “We can’t use that bamboo for our products because it is the wrong variety, and we don’t know the converting process, but it is pretty ironic that right here in Andrews are 30 and 40 foot bamboo culms growing in large wild groves.” Perhaps in the future a usable bamboo species can be grown, processed and manufactured locally – a boon to the area’s distressed agricultural community as well. Currently, there are several American manufacturers producing bamboo products, but Bamboosa was the first one in the country.

    The company started out manufacturing mostly adult clothing which has remained its mainstay. The short and long-sleeved tees, hoodies and scarves are popular, often layered in complimentary colors. These tees are particularly popular with men who like the softness of bamboo fabric under heavier, harsher clothing like uniforms, protective vests, and hunting garb. One of the most popular Bamboosa products is the woman’s garment called a sleep slip. Mindy fashioned this piece by creating a comfortable fine jersey camisole top then extending the bottom to the length of a short slip. It is so soft and comfortable that Johnson says she and many other customers won’t sleep in anything else. However, the top-selling adult clothing item is Bamboosa’s socks, which are soft, durable, and best of all, absolutely do not hold odor! Bamboo naturally resists picking up any hint of stench, a fact first reported by happy customers then tested and proven by Bamboosa partner Morris Saintsing who wore the same pair four days straight on a crabbing excursion!

    Interestingly, the products which have really taken off recently are from the company’s line of baby items, Bamboo Baby, featuring soft-as-butter bodysuits, beanies, blankets, bath items and bibs that are naturally anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, thermal regulating and odor-free. The line also features popular baby gift sets which, like all Bamboosa products, can be ordered on-line, attractively packaged, and shipped directly to the recipient.

    This fledgling company is clearly a win-win venture on so many levels. It is eco-friendly, utilizing a renewable and organic fiber. Bamboo grows naturally without pesticides, chemicals or irrigation. It grows rapidly and can be harvested in 3-5 years even without re-planting. Equally important, the company is reversing the trend of outsourcing by American companies. Because Mindy Johnson and her partners have gone through that painful experience themselves, they feel strongly about this important commitment. Mindy says, “We really get a lot of support for being American-made, and we feel very good about it.” Third, and equally as important, through Bamboosa Johnson and her partners are providing sweatshop-free, fair-wage work opportunities for talented, skilled employees, and in doing so, they are bringing a new glimmer of hope to the economically blighted area once known as “The Tee Shirt Capital of the U.S.”

    Bamboosa has been featured in a number of national and regional publications and television shows and currently handles over 200 wholesale accounts. Area shops carrying its products include the Original Hammock Shop at Pawleys Island and Dwell Smart in Mount Pleasant. Readers may get a full list of products available and order directly on-line at www.bamboosa.com.

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