They come in handy when sweat, tears, or rain puddles on the bleacher seats warrant attention.
Rocky, the Karate Kid, ’80s punks, ‘90s pop stars, cowboys, mechanics and Rosie the Riveter favored them.
They’re seen wrapped around wrists or folded into triangles, obscuring the lower half of a bandit’s face or the forehead and scalp of a radiation patient. They’re styled as neckwear like an ascot, or used to hold back hair while painting or weeding the fields. The breadth of generational and class connotations is overwhelming.
Yep, we’re talking about bandannas, and so is Jenni Earle Hopkins of Winston-Salem.
“It’s always been the people on the edge that don’t conform who are the people who gravitate to this cultural icon,” Hopkins said. “There’s always a bandanna around in someone’s house. We’re putting intention and a story behind it so it becomes a talisman and holds the power that we subconsciously associate with it.”
She began experimenting 18 months ago, but participating in a business accelerator called Creative Startups last summer spurred momentum that led to a runner-up award for Jenni Earle in Garden & Gun’s Made in the South Award’s style category.
A group in Greenville, SC cuts and sews the all-cotton fabric squares, which then migrate to Winston-Salem, where Hopkins personally hand-dyes and screen-prints them with original drawings that reflect both her minimalist aesthetic and the “back-to-basics” sensibility of the flourishing maker’s movement. Her canvas aids in that endeavor; her engineer father kept graph paper around the house, and Hopkins still uses the tidy grids for doodling and toying with new design concepts.
The process unfurls in Electric Pyramid Studios, comprised of a group of 10 makers and artists in the Camel City who rent a small brick building from the Patterson Avenue funeral home next door. The Jenni Earle studio occupies the old barbershop.
Hopkins’ business partner Jan Allison adorns her purse with the bandannas but remembers the days when she sported them on her body.
“I was in high school in the early ’80s and I remember it made you different to wear one,” Allison said. “It made you a badass, it made you stand out and that was what I was all about in that moment.”
“It’s this iconic thing that we associate with trailblazers and rulebreakers, whether it’s the outlaw or motorcycle rider,” Hopkins said. “So, to bring that to daily life, ‘What part of your badass are you holding back?’ Let’s bring that to the forefront.”
Hopkins, who said she learned courage from her grandfather “Big” Earl, took Earl as her middle name, adding the “e” for a personal twist, after she reclaimed her maiden name following divorce.
“When I would ask to do something, he would be like, ‘Yeah, run the drill press,’” Hopkins said. “It was never, ‘You’re too little or you’re a girl.’ I always felt like I could try anything in his presence.”
When not tucked into a pocket, Earl used his bandanna to wipe sawdust from furniture projects or car engine oil from his hands.
Her designs take influence from her grandmother Chloe’s Southern-sweet phrases like, “Oh hunny, hush,” and “Oh, my stars!”
You’ll need to dig past pocket change to purchase a Jenni Earle bandanna, but business is beginning to boom as people are more willing to pay a little more for locally made goods. Sustainability is cool in a way it wasn’t even a decade ago, but most Jenni Earle customers won’t use the artful bandannas and handkerchiefs for wiping away sawdust or motor oil. The stories are already rolling in: a mother in Texas who sent one to each of her children following their father’s sudden death as a reminder of him; the dusty, red-orange “Explore More” bandanna sent to a friend soon departing for southwest Asia; the local fashionistas.
“People are seeking out these kinds of objects that will stand the test of time,” Hopkins said. “We don’t want to lose the craft and handwork that makes things really beautiful and unique, so I have loved seeing this big shift towards the maker whether it’s leather or candles.”
“The ‘Be Brave’ [pattern] is the north star of this business and our best seller,” Hopkins said. “’Blaze a Trail’ is number two for me personally because that’s the message I need most often.”
And that’s the point — Hopkins wants people to view her handiwork as a symbol of their personal power and wear them “any damn way you want.”
“They’re for anyone,” she said. “They’re made from the viewpoint of women’s empowerment, but anything you’re drawn to that makes you feel good, you should put in on.”
“This is not about her art even though it’s an expression of her art just as if it was on a painting that you would put on a wall,” Allison said. “But it’s so much deeper than that. I don’t mean to sound cliché but it is the connections, it’s the inspiration, the courage, the bravery. That’s what this is about.”