Category Archives: THE SCHOOL OF MAKING

A ROUND BUSINESS MODEL

While working on some press and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pages this last month, I came across some texts that date back across the decade of Alabama Chanin. In reading and going over some of these texts, I thought it would be a good series to share on our Sustainable Design Tuesdays. Here is one of those texts about building a round company:

My goal with building designs – as I have built my company – is to make a sphere.  I strive to create a well-rounded, (w)holistic company that revolves around a central theme: sustainability of culture, environment, and community.

It has been over a decade since I started working on the company that Alabama Chanin has become today and I am often asked how I had the foresight to start a company based on the principles of sustainability and Slow Design. To this comment, I laughingly reply that I never intended to start a sustainable design company; I simply stumbled into it like the fool falling off the cliff. When I cut up those first t-shirts, I was doing something that I felt driven to do. I didn’t think of those garments as the basis of a business; they were simply pieces of clothing I wanted to wear and, perhaps more importantly, make. However, when I look back today, it all feels like a seamless and directed adventure into the realms of becoming a sustainable designer and manufacturer.

I am often invited to speak about this process and our resulting business model, as it has developed into an unusual one. However, truth be told, I have simply taken inspiration for our model from farmers and strive to build a zero waste company where the results of one production process become the fuel for another.

Our primary work is the business of designing and making clothing. And whether a dress calls for recycled t-shirts or locally grown, certified organic cotton, the designing and making of that product spurs our model. It was developed not by intention, but through process.

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THE COLLECTION

The Alabama Chanin collection is a luxury line. Hand-selected fabric is sourced, dyed, re-dyed, and sometimes dyed again to achieve the perfect shade. Our team has hand-mixed thousands of paint colors, looking for the perfect complement to a certain hue. Giant rolls of fabric have been returned, donated, or recycled because a run, tear, or other minor defect was spotted. Designs are sketched and often re-sketched. Then come the patterns, more patterns, and finally dozens of samples (all hand-sewn), alterations, editing, more patterns, more samples. Repeat.

Our embellishments are next. We add the glass beads, the intricate decorative stitching, the sturdy straight stitch, endless crocheted snaps, and once again, repeat. Southern couture is expensive, lovely, and nothing less than a passion for those artisans who initial the tags in each one-of-a-kind Alabama Chanin garment.

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WE (HEART) ANNA SUI

We all encounter bumps in the road, but with encouragement and tenacity, we persevere.

Back in 2001, I faced one in my life. I returned to New York to continue developing my life’s work into what is now Alabama Chanin. At the time, I was living in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street while I was developing the line, working with partners, and sorting out production issues. One Sunday morning, I woke up feeling extremely frustrated. Continue reading

DESIGN PROCESS + MANUFACTURING

On the 18th of November last year, Natalie held a Facebook Chat about Design Process + Manufacturing as part of her EcoSalon Post titled: From Field to Fashion. Here is a synopsis of the conversation that unfolded.  Keep the conversation going in the comments section of this post and come back each week to read our post for Sustainable Design Tuesdays. Thank you to everyone who joined us that Friday afternoon.

Tammy Abramovitz: Well, I would like to take this opportunity to voice my adoration of you and your company! Love all things Alabama Chanin!!!!

AC: Thank you Tammy!

Doc Waller: Same here, The Layman Group and I are fans as well!

Amy DuFault: Natalie, what was the first piece of clothing/design you ever created?

AC: I started sewing with my grandmothers… so, I would have to say that the first piece was way back then. But, the first piece I sewed “Alabama Style” was a t-shirt – of course.

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ECOSALON FRIDAY: SEWING FOR HUMANKIND

Check out our post today @ EcoSalon:

Sewing for Humankind

There was a time – not so long ago on humanity’s calendar – that sewing was not considered “women’s work,” but rather a tool for survival.

Hunter/gatherers looking for food on a cold winter’s day, some miles from their camp, might have a shoe wear through and break – and their ability to sew that shoe back together in a simple repair stitch might have meant the difference between safe return to the camp, the loss of a foot to frostbite – or an even worse fate, death.

It is thought that healers began to sew human wounds back together in ancient Egypt – formed as a unified state around 3150 BC – and most likely before.  Over 5000 years ago, sewing was taught, not as craft, but as a survival skill necessary to human life. In fact, a heavy-duty needle and thread for repairing clothing and equipment (and sewing one’s own flesh) is still included in first aid and survival kits today.

Sewing was an invention that greatly aided our advancement as a people and it is believed that needle and thread existed as early as 15,000 years ago.

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SARA’S LIVING ARTS

When I began work at Alabama Chanin almost 10 years ago, I had no concept of what the company did or what it would eventually mean to me. I walked into my interview in my only suit, having answered an advertisement in the paper. As soon as I found out what the company did, I broke into a cold sweat.

Luckily for me, they hired me. As I worked each day at my computer, I would glance over at the beautiful garments being produced with a jealous eye. I wanted to know how to make things as amazing as these. But I didn’t know how.

Natalie has often talked about the importance of preserving the “living arts,” those things that are essential to our survival – things that we as a society have forgotten or simply chosen not to learn. I was a perfect example of the person who never learned these skills.

My mother cooked family dinners, but she worked hard all day and it sometimes seemed a joyless task for her. She could make delicious meals, but after a day’s work it was often a chore. I was always fascinated to watch my paternal grandmother – a former cafeteria cook – craft large, luscious meals. I would watch pots bubble on the stove all day, their contents creating amazing smells. She was happy as she stirred those sauces or rolled out her biscuits; there was real joy and pride there. I wanted to understand it.

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CHAT WITH A PIRATE

In follow-up to our EcoSalon post last Friday on Punks + Pirates, Alabama Chanin (AC) held a Facebook chat with Richard McCarthy (RM) of Market Umbrella to explore his interesting perspective on cultural assets, punks, pirates and the Spanish Armada.  I was first made aware of Richard’s work at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last October. You can watch the entirety of Richard’s very engaging talk here, read my post at EcoSalon here, and join the conversation in the comments section of this post.

The text below recaps the questions and answers that surfaced during our hour-long chat. Like our Facebook page and join our mailing list to take part in future conversations.

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I HAVE A DREAM

My daughter Maggie has been watching this speech over and over again these last few days. In reflection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I take a minute this morning to remember. I believe that to create a sustainable world, to live in the beloved community, and to ultimately create peace in our lives, we all need to walk together. xoNatalie

ECO SALON FRIDAY: PIRATES + PUNKS

Check out my post this week for EcoSalon and join in the conversation about Pirates, Punks, Fashion and Cultural Assets today on our Facebook Page @ 1 pm CST.
xoNatalie

I never really thought much about what punks, pirates, and the Spanish Armada had to do with farmers markets or sustainable life until I saw Richard McCarthy – a pirate of the very best order – speak. He has quite an amazing story to tell, made palatable by his charming humor, an easy-to-understand presentation, and, more importantly, good works.

I have thought so much about Richard, his work in the farmers markets – and the Spanish Armada – since hearing him speak at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. We will have to trust Richard’s accounts of naval history to be true. But, correct or not, I have thought about this presentation countless times and wrote to Richard on New Year’s Day.

I told him that working to change a fast-fashion industry feels like swimming upstream backwards –on a good day. His talk, with its simple illustrations, some good punk analogies, and the account of the sinking of the Spanish Armada give me hope and make my swim seem a little easier.

Watch his talk here and follow my rough summary of his talk and illustrations below. The illustrations pasted in here don’t have the wit, charm, and power of the man himself, so take the time to watch when you can.

I have pulled out the core that relates to all cultural assets (food, clothing, shelter) but please watch the entire presentation for more literal workings of punks and pirates.

Richard begins his presentation: “I want to start where, I am sure all SFA talks begin, obscure 16th Century Naval Military History.”

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ZERO WASTE (+ A BOX OF SCRAPS)

Finding ways to use fabric scraps could easily be a full time job at Alabama Chanin. Hopefully, our company will one day be large enough to facilitate an entire scrap development team; however, right now we are moonlighters and dabblers in the art of manipulating scraps of our organic cotton jersey into a variety of projects, products, and playthings.

Our goal of becoming a zero waste company means that every scrap of fabric we cut is taken seriously.  We are constantly looking for new ways to mold, shape, and incorporate these fabric cuttings into our everyday work – lest they overtake us like the roadside kudzu that swallows entire towns in the South. Continue reading