stWhen I first thought about the blog tour for Alabama Studio Style, I did not realize what a great opportunity this was going to be to travel the world, connect with some of my favorite people and experience life from my own beautiful table. Now, half-way through, I am awed by deep, thoughtful questions, the vision of these women and sometimes, simply sitting and sewing. Here are a few of the highlights & THANK YOU to everyone who has had me round. I am looking forward to New York next week and to the rest of the tour. A few of my favorites:
From Heather Ross:
HR: Natalie, Welcome! I met you a few years ago. I walked into your temporary showroom near Union Square, you were launching a new collection in a lovely loft space and had hired a bluegrass band to play and brought your studio chef up to cook. I was fasting at the time,(bad idea overall) but thought I was pretty safe going to a fashion event having not eaten for three days, usually its just lots of skinny people and bad, small, evil hors d’oeuvres. I walked in and saw that amazing long wooden table, stretching half the length of the room, covered with all of that beautiful home-made delicious food! I remember thinking: “With every other designer and celebrity out there trying to leverage and license themselves into becoming “lifestyle brands”, this woman is instead making a way of life. And dinner for fifty.” Then I started crying, went into the coat closet, and called my husband and told him to find somebody else to do the Master Cleanse with, I was out. Then I grazed my way up and down your buffet. Tell me about these launch events, and about how it feels to bring your work, your food, and your vision out of Alabama and into places like New York City. What do you want people to see? To hear? To notice on their own?
NC: That was such a beautiful night and how wonderfully you recreate the mood. I am honored and happy that you saw the work as a way of life. You know, I am a hostess and storyteller at heart. I love to have dinner parties, events brunches and such but it is always wonderful when the dinner or event has a story to tell as well.
And better, when the story can set the stage for people to tell and make new stories. It is wonderful when a guest – like you – really gets it. And I guess that this is the same rush that you can get with design – when someone really appreciates the work that you have done and finds it compelling, beautiful or disturbing – any emotion will do.
These events – like the books – are an extension of me. I want you to feel like you have just sat down at my table, eaten a luscious meal, heard delicious stories, laughed, smiled and are headed home feeling enriched, satisfied and refreshed. This is what I strive for and if it comes across at a party or when you sit down with the books then I feel joy.
HR: Naturally, I was thrilled to see that your new book has recipes. Can you tell me about what food means to your work, and to your workplace?
AC: My world is so connected to food. The Slow Design movement takes its credo from Slow Food International: Good, Clean, Fair. These are good rules for running a company or your home kitchen. i am an avid gardener, cook and am really happiest when I am in the kitchen, music playing and preparing something I just pulled out of my garden plot.
You know, I believe that my industry – the fashion industry that you mention above – could learn a lot from the food industry.
From Amy DuFault @ EcoSalon.com: It’s hard not to come across Natalie Chanin’s name in the sustainable design world. Founder of American couture line Alabama Chanin, the designer is noted for her clothing as much as home décor designs and entrepreneurial joie de vivre. Huge fans, us. What drives inspiration for you? I believe that we all find inspiration in our lives each and every moment of every single day. I once based an entire collection on a scrap of paper that I found lying on a street corner. Inspiration is all around when we open our eyes. I tend to have the opposite problem – sometimes it is hard to turn the distraction of inspiration off and to focus on what is before me. I was reading an article where a writer said, “Foreseeing that the elevated cost of a couture garment could potentially isolate customers, Chanin produced her first book, Alabama Stitch Book, which made her techniques, instructions and patterns available to the public.” Are these books an outreach to those women who can’t afford to buy your clothing? In one way, yes, but the answer to this is more complex and traverses a bit of ground. The only complaint we have ever received as a company is about the cost of our garments. Everything that we make is completely made by hand and within about an hour-and-a-half radius from my studio in Florence, Alabama. So, not only is it made in America but hand-built – each and every stitch, seam and embellishment (and these embellishments can be very rich and detailed). At the same time, early in my journey I realized that sewing traditions (and I would go so far as to say survival traditions – everything around food, clothing and shelter) were dying in my community – and communities all over. Very soon after coming home to begin my work with hand sewing, it became clear that it was important to begin to collect stories and techniques about these traditions and to work towards not only incorporating them in my work but using my work as a means towards cultural preservation. Furthermore, I had just moved home from Europe where – at the time – there was a much greater respect for recycling, taking care of your environment, quality of food and quality of life. I was very surprised to come home to Alabama and find that our food and environmental systems were substantially remiss in looking at the details of our community and our relationship as a community to the greater world. However, the most important revelation was the realization that making something with my own two hands added substantially to the value of that object in my life. It had been so long since I had made – and taken care of – the objects that filled my life. In essence, I re-learned that making brings added meaning. All of these complex factors combined made me embrace this notion of open-sourcing and supported the idea to write the first book (Alabama Stitch Book). As you mention, our garments are hand-sewn in America and are very expensive. In fact, many of our garments wind up in museums and private collections. If people cannot afford to purchase our garments, we offer our best-selling patterns in our books so they can make the garments themselves – or pay someone in their own communities to make them. We openly sell the fabrics and the supplies to make those garments – the same resources that we use for our collections. And if a client wants to shorten the steps, we offer DIY Kits that simplify the process. This philosophy is unheard of in the global fashion industry. I am proud that Alabama Chanin has chosen to take this route. And honestly, it was a very difficult (and scary) decision to make and was not met with positive feedback from my industry colleagues. What is interesting is that after the publication of the two books and embracing this open-source philosophy, many people finally understood why our garments are worth so much. In the end, I am very happy to have trusted my instincts and have made that decision. Of course, since that time (6 years ago) the notion of open-sourcing has become very important and I am proud that Alabama Chanin is a part of that. From Anna Maria Horner: For the third time I asked ” Are you sure I can’t get you anything?… I’m Greek, I have to keep asking.”. Natalie smiled and said “I’m Southern, and I do the same!” The way that she called herself Southern made me think of the South as a nation more than a region.
She had accepted the invitation to come to my home as easily as I had offered. Florence, Alabama is less that 2 hours away from Nashville and she was clearly looking as forward to the journey as she was the visit. I daresay without insulting myself that she may have been looking even more forward to the drive than she was the visit. Which speaks volumes about this beautiful designer. The journey is everything. The process as important as where you arrive to in the end. And the end? One of the most enchanting places I’ve been. The end product that I refer to is the amazing collection of clothing, homegoods, accessories of which Natalie is chief designer.
Its not everyone who can afford to include her couture pieces into their wardrobe-though those that do -can know that the women who made the garment are earning a living for their work. But lucky for all of us Natalie has, for the second time, written a book that opens her studio door, her style and her insight. Alabama Studio Style in a word is a lifestyle book, but she thankfully is just as conscious about the life part of the lifestyle. Furthering her story from the first book, she shares not just sewing projects, but furniture inspiration, and home cooked recipes. It is a joy of a book. If you love to hand sew, as I so do, you will love the book.
For our day together, she brought two kits for us to work on and we wasted no time getting started- the sewing or the chatting.
Chat.Sew.Chat.Sew.Laugh.Sew. In putting together the puzzle of pieces that compose the applique design it really occurred to me that Natalie’s design work isn’t just designed, or sewn. it is actually built.
In designing for her clothing line, it always begins with selecting fabrics (now available to us too) and then the building of the real fabrics begins. Stenciling, cutting, piecing, stitching, beading, dyeing, appliquéing, and then often the same happens several more times to one piece of cloth to become a meticulously patterned swatch. Those swatches then become possibilities to compose the silhouettes. But sometimes they don’t make it past the swatch phase. And it took a lot of work to get them there.
What intrigues me the most when I look at Natalie’s work is that I am reminded of the infinite possibilities of just one pattern. Witnessing how many ways just one motif can be translated by subtle changes in technique and color is not limiting, but rather freeing. Refreshing.
In fact, as much as I enjoy the writing, the photography and the projects, these few gray technical drawings that are included in the book to show how one pattern can be treated 3 ways are the pages that I keep flipping back to. I don’t know if its the drawer, the sewer or the kid in me that loves this so. Such satisfaction. Like a road map getting you to that enchanted place- the fine art of possibility. From The Purl Bee: We’re thrilled to announce Natalie Chanin’s new book, Alabama Studio Style published by our friends at STC Craft|Melanie Falick Books. Natalie Chanin is the designer and creative mind behind a truly unique and innovative company, Alabama Chanin which produces beautiful clothing and home products crafted by artisans in Florence, Alabama. They follow a slow design model, much like the “slow food” movement, and have built the company “on handcraft, commitment to the community, and respect for the environment. Good, clean, fair- that is the motto.” In addition to being socially conscious, Alabama Chanin also produces some absolutely gorgeous pieces. I was recently at Barney’s in New York City and I saw a rack of Alabama Chanin dresses much like the Inked and Quilted Camisole Dress (which is featured on page 118 of Alabama Studio Style) and they were simply stunning; wearable, flattering, and totally special all at the same time. I was so happy when we got in this book and realized that I could make one for myself! There are so many great projects in this book, ranging from large (but worthwhile!) undertakings like the Camisole Dress, to this lovely little Eyelet Doily (p. 138) which I think would make a perfect housewarming present! Best of all, the patterns and techniques are clearly and simply explained. Quilts that tell a story I always make the joke that I am a filmmaker who is posing as a fashion designer – smile. I did work in the film industry for ten years prior to starting my work with Alabama Chanin and in this time, I fell in love with documentary films and films that tell stories. I guess that really I am a storyteller at heart. At the beginning of my career as a designer, I produced a short documentary film, Stitch, which focused on traditional quilt-making in the south. It includes stories told by those who stitched and were warmed by those quilts. Each “character” in the film has a unique story; each quilt told the tale of the joys and hardships, the friendships and family bonds of a specific time and place.
Many of the women interviewed for Stitch were former seamstresses or textile workers left unemployed when Alabama’s textile industry was outsourced. The work of filming Stitch and building my business here along with inspiration from The Southern Foodways Alliance, prompted me to start a collection of Oral Histories based around Textile Workers – this included cotton farmers, farm wives, textile plant employees, owners and a bevy of folks who have been touched by the rise and fall of that industry here in my community.
These stories were collected and today, we use quotes from these histories to embroider on upcycled quilts from the community. I like to think of it as a story, telling a story, telling a story.
At the same time, every quilt that a family possesses has a story that goes along with that family. I LOVE the idea of families collecting their own oral histories, embroidering their histories onto their own quilts and passing them on to the next generation who can then add to the stories.
Thanks again to all of you… xoNatalie
**Map Above From Ernest Dudley Chase, A Pictorial Map of Loveland (1943):
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination