By Chelsea Miya
Photography l David Bebee
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what it’s like to be caught in a “pillow storm,” just ask Jim and Judy Blondin.
On an average morning in an average Kitchener neighbourhood, they suddenly found their lives changing for the fluffier.
A 16-metre truck pulled up and dropped several completely “un-average” bags of white stuffing the size of small elephants onto their lawn.
The Blondins’ company, Align-Right, had just got an order for 1,000 pillows.
“When you’re making that many pillows out of your house, it’s a bit of a funny situation,” Jim says with a chuckle. “We were running upstairs with giant bags of fluff and storing them in the kitchen and bathrooms. Our house was full of it. We had pillows coming out the windows!”
The couple never dreamed they would become the future king and queen of a small pillow-making empire. It all started with a common problem: trouble sleeping.
“I used to dread mornings,” Judy says. Born with two fused vertebrae, she would wake up in “horrific” pain from pinched nerves, her whole upper body shooting with agony.
The only thing that eased the pain was ibuprofen and a towel of ice. “I would sit there for half an hour, waiting for the painkillers to take effect before I could go to work,” she says. “This was my life for 15 years.”
Luckily, Judy worked as an assistant for a Kitchener chiropractor. Frequent massages and “spine twists” helped her through the day. But travelling became impossible. “We couldn’t even go to Owen Sound without stopping at a chiropractor,” Jim says.
When the Blondins begged their family doctor for help, he suggested Judy’s sleeping pillows might be aggravating her condition. After that, they tried every cushion going. “Foam, grain-filled, doughnut-shaped, none of them worked,” Judy says. “They all put too much pressure on my neck.”
An amusement park ride was the turning point. “I went on the Gravitron with my niece,” Judy says.
“When it started spinning around, I just wanted it to stop. My whole neck went into a spasm that night.”
She’d had enough. With a knack for sewing she’d picked up from her mom, Judy decided it was time to fashion her own fluffy sleeper.
“I’d already had a few tries at different shapes,” Judy says. “That night, in frustration, I picked up the bolster I was working on and pulled out some of the stuffing on the kitchen table. I sewed it back up and suddenly it was perfect.”
For the first time in years, she had a good night’s sleep.
When her friends and co-workers heard about her cozy new creation, they wanted pillows, too. Soon her husband, Jim, got in on the act. From two or three pillows a week, they started selling car-fulls at the Kitchener market.
Then the Blondins landed a spot on the Shopping Channel and suddenly it was “raining pillows.”
Eventually, they took the cushions to the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto for a clinical study on pain relief. “They found that 95 percent of people had a reduction in pain,” Judy says.
Soon after launching their fully fledged company, the supportive cushions were certified as a registered medical device by Health Canada.
In 1997, came another surprise. “I got a call from the Inventors’ Alliance of Canada,” Judy says. “My heart was beating so fast. They told me I’d won the Most Promising Inventor award.”
So what’s the secret to the perfect pillow? Jim says that after “years of experimenting,” they realized the key to a good night’s sleep was all about tailoring the pillow to the individual.
“Even a bodybuilder can require a small- sized pillow,” explains Judy. “It’s not so much body structure as the length of your neck and the width of your shoulders.” These measurements make up the “sleep
triangle chart.” The Blondins’ own discovery, the “triangle” refers to the area that needs to be supported while you sleep.
Choosing the perfect-sized sleeping companion, from XS to XL, also depends on the firmness of the mattress and whether you are a back or a side sleeper.
Shape is also important. The Blondins urge restless sleepers to “forget square pillows.” A curved, sausage-shaped design cradles the spine, straightening it and opening up the space between your vertebrae. Not only that, specially engineered synthetic stuffing holds together the pillow’s firm shape, while giving it a “soft, down feel.”
“It can help with all sorts of ailments,” says Jim, “from snoring and headaches to more serious neck and shoulder pain. It even helped a lady with dystonia. She came in one day and said the pillow had stopped her tremblings.”
Today, the Blondins have moved their workstation from the living room to a full- sized factory, with two or three part-time workers, depending on the size of orders.
From their signature sleeping pillow (about $75), Align-Right has also expanded to travel rolls for driving ($15) and camping pillows ($65). Products are available in pharmacies and health clinics across Canada as well as at the factory on Guelph Street in Kitchener.
In total, they ship more than 4,000 pillows a year and the numbers keep growing. “We’ve even begun trial runs for two companies in China,” Jim says, pointing out an Align-Right flyer in Mandarin.
But he emphasizes the pillows will always be Canadian-made.
The stuffing comes from companies in Montreal and Toronto, while the cases are special-ordered from a sewing company near Guelph. In the end, everything is put together in the Align-Right factory in Kitch- ener, with Jim overseeing as manager.
“It costs more to make it ourselves,” he says, “but we take the time to make the product quality.”
As for Judy, she continues to work as a chiropractor’s assistant, but comes in sometimes to “help with large orders.” Her trusty sewing machine still sits at the back of the factory for inventing new designs.
From hobbyist to prize-winning inventor, Judy says the best reward is the relief she provides customers.
“People fall in love with these pillows,” says Judy. “We get handwritten notes and cards all the time.”
She recalls the story of one woman who forgot her pillow while on vacation in Florida, and made her husband drive all the way back to the last hotel to look for it. “They drove eight hours!” Judy says in disbelief. “She must’ve really loved that pillow. Luckily, the cleaning maid found it.”
As Judy knows first-hand, sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than a good night’s sleep.
“There’s a sense of well-being that moves right through your body. From your hips to your neck, it’s just… ah!” she sighs. “Total relief.”