Commitment to Sustainability, Passion for the Process Inspire Alumni-Founded Business
By Sarah Stone
Of course, Caroline Cockerham and Laura Tripp want CICIL’s rugs to make a good first impression. They want you to notice the unique shapes, braided design and zigzag stitching details. What’s far more important to them, however, is something you can’t see – how the rug was made.
“There’s a real beauty in understanding the process,” Tripp says. “I feel like it’s the framework that feeds and defines our business.”
She and Cockerham launched the sustainable-centric rug business in November 2021. Their partnership began years before, though, due in part to their shared alma mater: the Wilson College of Textiles. Cockerham has a bachelor’s in fashion and textile management and a Master of Science in Textiles; Tripp has a bachelor’s in textile technology from the college, as well as a bachelor’s of art and design from the College of Design.
“I reached out to my former advisor from NC State, Associate Professor Lisa Chapman, to ask about any graduating College of Textiles seniors that would be a good hire for our lab at Patagonia. Dr. Chapman recommended Laura, and we ended up hiring her.”
A few years later, they moved to New York City around the same time to further their careers in material and product development; the pair’s resumes boast stops at Kate Spade, Casper and Gap, as well as a number of startups and consultancies. Living down the street from one another, the former colleagues became friends, and dinner conversation often turned to the progress they’d like to see toward sustainability in their field. They decided that starting a business was the best way to affect this change, and CICIL was born.
“After working at a lot of different places,” Tripp says, “I just felt like I had a lot of ideas for how I’d like to try to do things.”
Then, Tripp and Cockerham worked backwards, using a set of what they call “supply chain guardrails” to determine what CICIL would make, rather than the other way around. That focus on ethical and sustainable manufacturing is something both founders attribute to their time in college.
“It definitely sparked a curiosity in me to understand manufacturing and a love for manufacturing,” Cockerham remembers. “I think you’ll see that in our products and processes.”
It definitely feels very personal to make something that’s centered at home.
For Laura Tripp, that passion for manufacturing began with an internship at Cotton Incorporated. For Caroline Cockerham, it was the experience of interning at two textile mills – one in Reidsville, North Carolina, and the other in Peru – that opened her eyes to the innovation and creativity behind the scenes. While in Peru, she worked for Klaud, a consultancy that helps connect big brands with artisans for production.
“We traveled all over Peru, and I realized that where the real magic happens is in the mill. And it’s truly hands-on. When you get to make things at that level and you get to see things being made and connect to how things are made, it’s a joyous experience,” Cockerham says. “In many big businesses, you’re so detached from the people who make things. They’re a world away, and you have no idea what’s happening in their factory. You have no idea what inputs are going into the products that you’re making. I think you’re much more cognizant of what you’re doing in a supply chain when it’s closer to you.”
Based on those experiences, both founders knew that a small, East Coast-based supply chain was non-negotiable in order to reduce their footprint and to maintain close relationships with everyone who contributes to their end-product. Wool rugs were the best market-ready product for CICIL, but still presented some challenges.
“Our lives would be a lot easier probably if we had just allowed ourselves to source wool from Australia, which is where most of it comes from, instead of Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania,” Cockerham says.
They prioritized sustainability at each point in the product development process. That meant incorporating oft-discarded black wool into their designs, finding alternative scouring – or wool cleaning – solutions and offering the product made-to-order in order to eliminate inventory waste.
Ultimately, Cockerham and Tripp charted a production path for CICIL that stretches fewer than 1,000 miles and takes place primarily in the Carolinas.
“If you’re going to attempt to make a supply chain small and localize it, this is the place to do it,” Cockerham explains.
For the two born-and-raised North Carolinians, this choice is inspired by more than just sound business logic. CICIL honors the legacy of an industry that has played such a significant role in both their lives and their state. It’s also an opportunity to advance that industry.
“I wanted to come home,” Cockerham says. “And I think when you move around the world and you’re following jobs to all these different places building something here has a different significance.”
“It definitely feels very personal to make something that’s centered at home,” Tripp adds.
Despite the sentimentality, they emphasize that this endeavor is anything but a passion project. CICIL is here to make an impact, not a statement.
“We don’t really have an impact if we’re just making five rugs,” Cockerham says. “One of my biggest hopes is that we actually really do scale.”
“I want to show that we can set up these guidelines for ourselves and work within them and make something that’s really successful and sustainable,” Tripp says. “Both in the environmental sense and in the business sense.”