Determination and a spirit of adventure inspire custom jumpsuits by Julia Ray.
Written by Ginny McCarley | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Julia Ray had been talking about going skydiving with friends for years, but they’d never actually gone through with it. A few days before her 40th birthday, she decided to take the leap alone.
“I thought, ‘I’m not gonna wait. I’m just going to go ahead and do it,’” Ray said.
On a crisp, clear day in February, Ray drove herself to West Tennessee Skydiving in Whiteville, Tennessee. She had stopped her daily jog half way through to shower, dress, jump in the car and head to the place before she lost her nerve. The closer she got to the air field, the more she began to doubt whether she could do it.
“Honestly, it’s so nerve-wracking because it’s so unknown,” Ray said. “If you haven’t skydived before then you’ve never really done anything like it. You just don’t have a clue as to what to feel or what to think. Looking back, I can remember driving using my GPS into the middle of nowhere, and when I got close, I looked into the sky and could see people coming down in front of me. I remember almost getting sick. I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Despite her nerves, Ray drove on. The rest of the process was so quick she didn’t have time to back out: in less than an hour, she was freefalling at about 120 miles per hour.
First-time jumpers are fitted with a parachute harness that attaches to the harness of an experienced instructor, all of whom have more than 1,000 jumps and have completed special training programs. Following the minute-long, exhilarating tandem freefall, the instructor opens the main parachute at 4,000 feet for a canopy ride to the ground.
After her first jump, Ray was hooked: the exhilarating feeling of flying through the air with total concentration was addicting. Her tandem jump instructor, Christian Young, casually suggested that she should consider being a solo skydiver, a remark that Ray couldn’t get out of her head for the next few days.
“I came back home, and I just started thinking about it,” Ray said. “I thought, ‘I work all the time, and I don’t really have an outlet. I’m just going to do it.’”
A week and a half later, Ray was in the Accelerated Freefall program, learning how to skydive solo.
Throughout the process, Ray has been a stand-out student. Most people come with a group or a friend for their first jump. Very few people immediately join the Accelerated Freefall program after only one skydiving experience. And almost no one sews their own jumpsuits.
Ray, who runs a successful studio in Oxford, has been designing and altering clothes for years for a wide-range of clients, including Oxford Bridal and World Championship Wrestling. Almost immediately after her first jump, Ray decided to combine her work and her new-found hobby.
“I really put myself through bootcamp on learning to design skydiving outfits,” Ray said. “After I taught myself the process of it, I designed my first outfit and so many people saw it and loved it that I’ve had a huge request for more.”
The colorful jumpsuits were so popular, she has tentatively begun making more. Though Ray has years of experience as a seamstress, she is still learning the complicated process of creating clothes suitable for skydiving.
Since skydivers fly at more than 100 miles an hour, normal cotton fabric can tear in the air — a lesson Ray learned the hard way when one of her suits ripped. Instead, she sources a spandex polyester that is water-resistant, similar to the material used for sails on boats, with reinforced seams. Physics plays a role in her designs as well: Different fabrics and styles create different fall rates. If you want a slower fall, the suit can be looser, while tighter designs create a faster fall.
Elizabeth Young, an instructor on most of Ray’s jumps, was the lucky first recipient of a custom-made Julia Ray jumpsuit. Her suit is a deep purple with pops of turquoise, hot pink and navy paisley, and her name stitched on the front.
“(Ray) is very creative and has super-cute patterns for her jumpsuits,” Young said.. “She is amazing. Before she had even finished the Accelerated Freefall program, she had already made her own jumpsuit.”
For Ray, one of the best parts of skydiving is the community she’s become a part of and the people she gets to meet. On Memorial Day, Ray happened to be on the plane before a jump with a group of veterans. One of them, a World War II POW, was 95 and jumping for the first time since an emergency evacuation from his B-24 in Austria. Meeting the men, who ranged in age from about 70 to 95, Ray felt her own journey mirrored.
“It was amazing (meeting the veterans),” Ray said. “It really is just the fear of the unknown that keeps us stuck in life.”
Ray still remembers that day in February, when she was so afraid she almost didn’t go through with it. But she pushed through the fear and hasn’t looked back. Now, after 55 jumps and a lifetime to go, Ray looks forward to traveling the world, visiting different skydiving drop zones and showcasing her work.
“Throughout this process, I’ve learned that I’m a lot stronger mentally than I thought,” Ray said. “There are so many factors in our lives that (hold us back), but I’m learning to really live. I was a workaholic and I still am, but I’m learning to close my door at home and just take some time out for myself.”