If you visit our studio here in Alabama, you will arrive to find that we are housed in a sturdy, industrial-style, metal building which we call “The Factory.” Our community was, for generations, home to textile mills that employed an incredible number of area residents. This industrial building where we work and spend hours of our lives has seen thousands of workers pass through the doors over the years; it has heard the hum of machines running and the voices and laughter of employees passing the day away. This building is part of Alabama Chanin’s history, but, more importantly, it is part of our community’s history—a symbol of economic boom, hard times, and community rebuilding.
Tennessee River Mills, a local textile company, built the building that we call The Factory in 1986. In 1996, the Wylie family and Tee Jays Manufacturing acquired the building and all of its equipment, located in Florence’s industrial park, to use as a t-shirt manufacturing facility. Tee Jays started primarily as a screen printing facility, but grew into a comprehensive operation, creating textiles from yarn, then sewing, dyeing, and screen printing the final products. In this building alone, there were 54 circular knitting machines and six large dye machines, each having a capacity of 600 to1000 pounds of fabric per cycle. Approximately 300,000 pounds of fabric were knit and dyed in this building every week. Around 450 sewers were employed in this space, sewing basic t-shirts, raglan-sleeve garments, sweatshirts, and a range of other products. The facility housed about 650 people, just a fraction of the people employed by Tee Jays.
Though Tee Jays and many other local manufacturers closed shop after the passage of NAFTA legislation, Terry Wylie retained ownership of the building. This facility, known to the Tee Jays staff as Building 14, was largely empty after 2001. The massive space measures about 105,000 square feet in total. Knowing how difficult it might be to find a tenant who required that much room, the Wylie family decided to recruit smaller companies and break up the building into more manageable spaces. The former Building 14 has housed Alabama Chanin since 2007 and we are neighbored by several other office and storage spaces. Alabama Chanin and the developing A. Chanin line utilize a total of 20,000 square feet of the building: 5,000 for the studio and Alabama Chanin production, 10,000 for the new machine-sewn textile facility, and 5,000 for our new event space.
As we’ve mentioned, our production manager, Steven Smith, once worked in this very building. He worked for Tee Jays for many years in about seven different buildings, two of those years in our current Alabama Chanin space. Steven was a floor person, a unit supervisor, and worked in the dye house. Toward the end of the textile boom, Steven was one of the last two Tee Jays workers in this building, one of the last to leave the dye house before the company closed the doors one final time. He admits that coming back to this space with Alabama Chanin was surreal. His current office was once the Tee Jays plant manager’s office. Seeing the massive space subdivided was initially jolting; sometimes he still sees the building as it once was. Where he once saw shirts cut and sewn dozens at a time, he now oversees garments cut piece-by-piece, by hand. And he will be here to, once again, hear the hum of sewing machines. It is a true, full-circle moment.
Faye Davis, a former Tennessee River Mills employee who has also worked for Alabama Chanin, told us: “I graduated from high school on Saturday and went to work in the plant on Monday. The man in charge asked me ‘Does your mama know you’re here?’” She replied that her mother was, in fact, working and sewing in the plant. Faye went on to describe how the people, the workers, at the plant were her family. “We shared lunches, and family, and raised our kids.” Faye has also returned to this building. She once operated an automatic hemming machine and a back-tacker (a machine that closed t-shirt sleeve seams) in Building 14’s sewing room. She went on to work 11 years for Tee Jays, though in another building. Today, you will find her in the Alabama Chanin Factory sitting, again, at a sewing machine, although producing garments in much smaller quantities.
Steven says that, after the devastating mill closures of the 1990’s, he never imagined working with textiles again, let alone in the same building where he stood so long ago. Working here with Alabama Chanin gives him a fresh perspective on where the textile and garment industry can go and how it might grow. We find a strength and a safety working in a place with such a storied history. Sometimes it seems that the building has a bit of wisdom to pass on, that it is invested in us and wants us to succeed. We at Alabama Chanin want to remain in the former Building 14, now The Factory, for years to come. We want to be a part of revitalizing the textile industry here in The Shoals and we want to honor those who worked here – the Fayes, Stevens, and their contemporaries – and helped build our community.
The Factory, part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.