By Meda Kessler
Photos by Ron Jenkins
We confess to knowing Julie Hatch Fairley as a hard-working public relations dynamo. She answers email and phone calls promptly and cheerfully. But it’s a demanding profession, one that steals away a lot of personal time and requires a fully charged cellphone.
Fairley, who turns 51 this month, has now — for personal and professional reasons — pulled back from the business she’s been in for 20-plus years. She works with a few favorite clients when needed but has realized she has other dreams to pursue. When we meet up over cups of hot tea at a neighborhood shop, she’s smiling. And she’s holding a big bag of yarn. It’s clear that colorful fibers and knitting needles are her keys to happiness.
Julie was a shy girl who moved frequently because her dad was in the Air Force. Although she calls Oklahoma home, she lived there only five years. Taught by a grandmother to knit at age 8, she found needlework to be the perfect transportable hobby. Yarn continues to be the lifeline she needs during dark moments in her life. It also ties her to her community in unexpected ways.
Fairley lived in one of downtown Fort Worth’s first high-rises in 1996 — an early urban pioneer. Her best friend and confidante was a gay man. “I was single and happy, but then my world collapsed.” In 1998, her mom was diagnosed with cancer and died 18 weeks later. Julie was 30 and says she felt “broken.”
Friend Javan helped her dig out of a very black hole and fulfill her mom’s dream of Julie owning her own home. He led her to a little-known neighborhood popular with the gay community called Fairmount. She purchased a 1916 fixer-upper despite her lack of home improvement skills.
Still, her mother’s death weighed on her. A counselor suggested she immerse herself in a hobby, and so she returned to knitting. She remembers taking a sock class and finding it to be a thoroughly healing experience. “I knitted and knitted and knitted. Something clicked, and I began to feel better,” says Fairley. And yes, imperfect as they may be, those socks are still around.
Julie continued to experience loss and love. Her best friend died of AIDS. He had disappeared from her life, and Julie found him in hospice. She still has a blanket she knitted or him.
But she also found her soulmate, a man she had met 15 years earlier at a fundraiser. She and Bill Fairley married in November 2012. “Here I was in my mid-40s and starting a new life,” says Julie. They bought an old home together, still in Fairmount, and have been content to garden, work puzzles and, for Julie, knit.
As she started to pull back from her communications business, she was spending more time with needles and yarn. A young girl gave her the nickname “JuJu,” which she began putting on labels of things she makes. During Bill’s travels, whether he was with Julie or not, he sought out local yarn stores so he could bring something back to her. Today, she has a scarf made of yarn woven from Alaskan musk ox. “I’m grateful that he has embraced my hobby,” says Julie.
But pain, her lifelong nemesis, found her again when her father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma last May. He lives on the East Coast, making it a challenge for her to be a thorough caregiver. “I waver between wanting him to be here with me and not wanting to uproot him from his community.”
And so she would take up her needles and yarn at home and knit. But Bill knew she needed more; he could see that even when tears clouded her vision for the future.
“One day last year he took me for a drive around the neighborhood. I had always wanted to open a yarn shop, and Bill decided to give me a push to make that happen.”
Julie fell in love with a quirky building near their home that needed extensive work. It was brick with pink accents. She tracked down the owner and shared with him her dream of opening a yarn shop that would be called JuJu Knits and would be so much more than a retail store. It would be a gathering place for the community.
Now it’s a go, and while renovation work on the building is going slowly, Julie continues to move forward. She has hosted socials drawing full houses of knitters and crocheters at local businesses. She has raised money for Cancer Care Services. And she has figured out that doing something she loves is the best way to be present and decompress.
In January, she and Bill bought a ’60s-era Roadmaster camper trailer to use as a pop-up shop. She calls it Purl and, yes, it’s pink. She hopes to have it ready for the Near Southside Open Streets event April 7.
“I want to find my people; those who enjoy the social aspect just as much as they do making a perfect stitch. I’m not the best or fastest knitter, and I don’t want others to find it intimidating,” says Julie. “I want them to realize that doing something they love will heal them like it healed me.”