We have a lot to look forward to this fall at Alabama Chanin. Newsletter #20 announces our upcoming Denim collection, launching on September 9th. It will feature permanent and one-of-a-kind indigo dyed items. On October 10th, we invite Nick Pihakis and Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que to The Factory; the café will also feature a monthly menu with recipes from Jim ‘N Nick’s. Visit our Careers page for job opportunities and check our our new calendar of events.
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xoNatalie and all of us @ Alabama Chanin
One Saturday morning in the mid-1930s, Mancey Massengill, a wife and mother of two, saw people having their pictures made in a dime store photo booth in Batesville, Arkansas. According to her son Lance, “she watched close, and got the name off the camera, then wrote to the company and ordered the lens. She got the money for that by taking about two dozen pullets in for sale.” Her husband, Jim, built a box to house the lens and outfitted a trailer to create a mobile photo studio. On weekends, they would set up in little towns across the state and make pictures, three for a dime.
Jim and Mancey Massengill started this family side-business to make ends meet. The country was in the throes of depression and on the verge of entering the Second World War. Work was scarce in rural Arkansas, but the Massengills understood that even in rough times, life continues. Babies are born, children play, couples meet, and we all grow older. Someone needed to be there to capture those moments and that person could perhaps make a living doing it.
A few years later, the Massengill’s sons, Lance and Lawrence, and their wives, Evelyn and Thelma, worked their way into the business. They outfitted their own trailers and made their own pictures, traveling across the state in search of clients. The surviving family diaries and notes from this period attest to a very strong and entrepreneurial work ethic, with little mention of aesthetics or technique. The men and women of both generations describe where they went, what they did, and how much they made with only fleeting mention of life’s details. With few exceptions, the stories are left to be told by the pictures they made.
One of the great joys of my job is the fact that we sometimes get to review books for other authors. Sometimes we order the books from a catalog of new titles and sometimes, the books just arrive like magic in the mail. This was the case last year, when we received a book called Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford. The coloring book—intended for children and adults—was published by Lawrence King and immediately found its way to my pile of books I love. On the inside cover is a quote that reads, “Tumble down the rabbit hole & find yourself in my inky wonderland…” And that is exactly how I felt after browsing just a few pages. Although we have played with permanent markers for years in writing on quilts and garments, looking at page after page of beautiful detailed illustrations, I was overwhelmed by inspiration.
Through some experimentation, we found out that black and white photocopies will transfer onto white and/or natural colored fabric with a hot iron. This made it possible for us to transfer the pattern one-to-one from this or any coloring book, stencil, or black and white design. There are arrays of fabric coloring tools available at local craft stores and more arrive on the market each year. We found that the pastel dye sticks and fabric markers (designed for children) work very well.
From time-to-time, we write about the business of running a business: about how we make decisions, about how many times decisions just make themselves from lack of decision-making, and about how those decisions sometimes work—and often don’t. The truth of the matter is that running a business (or a life, or a family) is about thinking about something—and then rethinking it again—and then rethinking it again. So it is with our menu at The Factory Café.
In some ways, it’s hard to believe that The Factory—including the store and the café— has only been open since November of 2013. The Factory space feels like such an important part of our studio; in reality, we’ve celebrated our connection to our community over and around our farm tables for less than a year.
In the kitchen, we’ve developed new recipes, presented delicious dishes from award-winning chefs, and celebrated those chefs (and an array of worthy organizations) through our Friends of the Café Dinner Series.
We’ve selected our favorite wardrobe essentials, ranging from basic layering staples to fully-embellished statement pieces.
These items are easily integrated into any wardrobe—perfect for transitioning to cooler weather.
Shop Alabama Chanin Essentials here.
Thank you to the Southern Foodways Alliance for allowing us to share “I Fell Hard for Buford Highway” by John T. Edge.
From Gravy #52:
I grew up in the country. On fourteen acres of red Georgia clay, cut by gullies and skirted by cedars. I grew up fishtailing down gravel roads in pick-up trucks. And running barefoot through honeysuckle patches. Out in those boonies, I developed an urban crush. After a fitful college run through Athens, I hightailed it for Atlanta and made a life in a neighborhood near the city core.
I could walk to two Indian restaurants, a bookstore, and a co-op grocery. I pinch-hit on the softball team of my neighborhood bar. I became the worst sort of city snob: an arriviste. I was quick to dismiss my country birth and even quicker to declaim life in the white-flight suburbs, which I considered a homogenous wasteland, absent of sentient folk and sidewalks.
Last year, I was introduced to Inez Holden over a glass of dry white wine at a fundraising event in our community. Mrs. Holden’s story, told with humor and passion, reminded me that the fashion industry runs deep here in our community. Before Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid, there was Bubbles Ltd.
As Alabama Chanin continues to explore the world of machine-made fashion with our new line and manufacturing division, A. Chanin and Building 14, respectively, Mrs. Holden reminded me that we humbly follow in a line of companies that completely designed and manufactured a fashion line in The Shoals and the surrounding area.
We’ve previously spoken about the rich history of textile production in our community and some of the local manufacturers who led the nation in textile and t-shirt production, but we were excited to discover Bubbles Ltd.
Around 1983, Mrs. Holden got her start as a designer quite by accident. She bought an oversized top and banded bottom pant that she loved the style and fit of, but the material was very rough and scratchy. So, she asked a friend of hers to help her make more sets in a similar style, but out of jersey fabric. She had about five sets of these pantsuits made in different colors, but kept giving them away because so many of her friends and family wanted them.
I am just going to say it: Ashley Christensen is a badass. (And there are many who would agree with this sentiment.) I could say plenty of nice, lovely things about her and they would all be true. But, if I’m being honest, that’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of her: badass. How else could she open and operate five successful restaurants (with more on the way) AND walk away with the 2014 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Southeast award – all while still in her thirties. You have to wonder if Ashley operates at any speeds slower than an all-out sprint.
In today’s food-obsessed culture, five restaurants equates to a virtual culinary kingdom. And yet, somehow, Ashley still manages to seem real and relatable. Perhaps more importantly, the food is approachable and delicious. She is an actual presence in each of her North Carolina-based restaurants: Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s, Fox Liquor Bar, Joule Coffee, and the soon-to-be-opened Death and Taxes. Crowds have been known to line up around the block at Poole’s, a former pie shop turned diner, where the egalitarian approach does not allow for reservations; it’s first come, first served. I once heard the story of Ashley driving her car to the front of Poole’s and serving drinks from her opened trunk on a busy night with an especially long wait time. That’s what I mean: badass.
We at Alabama Chanin have long been obsessed with and inspired by Maira Kalman. She has a rich and singular voice – as a visual artist, author, illustrator, and storyteller – that imbues people, objects, and words with knowing wit and humanity.
Maira has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, all of which have been popular nighttime reading with my daughter Maggie. Maira’s illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style resides, beautiful and dog-eared, on my desk each day—as it has become part of our company style guide. And for years, I have traded and passed on copies of and links to her columns from the New York Times, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness (both of which are now published exquisitely in book form).
About four years ago (to my dismay), Diane Hall, our head seamstress and studio directress, turned in her five-year notice. However, as her retirement grows closer, it has become evident to all of us at the studio that we will continue to see her around The Factory after her “official” retirement.
Diane has developed a passion for natural dyeing—in addition to sewing, pattern making, etc. She first encountered natural dyeing with indigo during our workshop at Shakerag in 2012. Her experience there with the renowned dyer Michel Garcia left a lasting impression. Last summer, while our entire company was writing a 10 year vision, Diane wrote that she envisioned a natural dye house here at The Factory and volunteered herself as the head dye master after her retirement.
After that simple act of writing our vision, the dye house miraculously began to take shape.