Category Archives: SUSTAINABLE LIFE + DESIGN

MIND OVER MATTER

After a bit of reflection this week, I am able to answer a question that has evaded me for a decade:
What inspired you to start this work? I was inspired and taken by the beautiful decay of an archipelago and how everything was used – everything.    It inspired me to begin collecting scraps of paper, taking photographs, finding discarded stories and trying to build them back together – a technique I used with t-shirts (and my life) once I arrived and settled in New York.   I never really moved back to Vienna.

PATTERNS

Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.Richard P. Feynman

My life tends to run in patterns.  Sometimes I dream of patterns. My favorite subject in design school was the study of pattern & repeat. One semester I spent a week just discussing the word repeat (and an entire semester trying to define the word). I have certainly spent the greater part of the last decade working with patterns. I look for patterns everywhere I go and in everyone I meet.

Find a selection of my favorite pattern books organized here.
and pattern making (stenciling) tools from our online store.

FISH SOUP

In 1999, at the tail end of the last decade, I chose to leave my life in Vienna, Austria, to spend what I deemed a “sabbatical” on an island off the northern coast of Venezuela called Los Roques. How I got there is a story for another day. What had drawn me there was a woman – Nelly – and “El Canto de la Ballena.” Little did I know that my entire life was about to change.

I credit the beginnings of the work I have done the last ten years with a few months spent on that island. It was a time when hurricanes and storms wreaked havoc and destruction to the coast of Venezuela. I was on this tiny island – due north – as the weather passed through for weeks on end.

I wrote this story in February of 2000 when I had landed in cold New York but still had the stories of Los Roques fresh on my mind… I hope that my translation of Nelly’s words from the original Spanish do her justice.

Fish Soup

The point of the whole thing is food,” she said. “Good food. Real good food. A lot of people have forgotten,” she continued. “Three meals a day, sit down, take your time and eat warm food that is prepared with good ingredients and love. That’s the key,” she stresses, “love. It’s the way it’s washed, it’s the way it’s cut, it is the way one touches and it is the way one thinks as one touches. That,” she said, “is food and food is love.”
–Nelly Camargo, December 1999, Los Roques

Nelly made fish soup that day. I remember that is was one of those first days when the waves began to crash onto the porch. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I know that by that day, the beach was already gone, taken by the hurricane. And, I definitely remember that it seemed on that day like the waves were coming back for the porch. Soon after this day, we made sandbags because shortly after, the house next door fell into the sea.

The soup took hours. As the weather had been acting up again, everyone had the feeling of being wet and cold. Saying nothing, Nelly just went into the kitchen and started to work. In went the fish, the heads, the bones and just about everything else that could be found in the kitchen and on the island.

I guess that everyone who passed Nelly’s house that day could smell what was going on. So the soup cooked and the word spread, “Nelly is up to something.” And before I knew it, we were five people in the kitchen. Everyone was washing and cutting and chopping and rolling and laughing and talking. I know that I had never seen anything like it before that day. Music blared from the stereo and some were even dancing in the tiny, warm space.

In Nelly’s kitchen there is a window which looks down the hall and out to the sea. When you stand there and see the wooden spoons and the open window and the green-green sea in the background, you cannot help but stand still for a moment and breathe deeply. But that day, no one even looked to the window until about one in the afternoon, when the first faces began to appear.

The islanders were greeted with a big, warm smile and the question, “Are you hungry?” We went on that day to feed what seemed to be the whole island. Many faces and stories and laughter passed through my life that day. Nelly asked everyone, “Have you met Alabama?”

The feast went on into the night and here are a few of the recipes that were made. The fish soup was the best I have ever tasted in my life, but it remains Nelly’s secret. All I can remember is to put in everything you can find (plus coriander – the “spice of life”) and to do it with lots of love and laughter.

Fish in the Pan

Crush 5 cloves of garlic and salt in mortar. Add juice of two limes and a splash of soy sauce Pour over fish fillets and let stand for awhile. Cook the fish on hot skillet with  the marinade.  

Zucchini Carpaccio

Grate zucchini with skins into thin rounds. Lay flat on a big plate. Cover with juice of lime, salt, pepper and a little vinegar. Finish by grating parmesan cheese to cover.

Serve.

Red Cabbage

Cut cabbage into very thin strips. (The cutting is very important!) Crush garlic and salt in mortar; add roasted sesame seeds and crush a little bit more. Add vinegar, a little sugar, a little sesame oil and more roasted sesame seeds. Pour over cut cabbage and serve.  

Nelly’s Arepa

Mix salt (about one-half teaspoon) and warm water (about three cups) in a big bowl with a tablespoon of oil. To this mixture, add ”P.A.N” or Arepa Flour until dough is of a consistency to roll in your hand. Shape into 1/2” thick rounds and fry in hot oil. Cook until brown. When they are finished, you have to “thump” them. If they are really done, they make a kind of hollow sound.

This is just the basic recipe. You may choose to add white cheese, sesame seeds or just about anything you want to add.


Nelly moved El Canto de la Ballena in January of 2000, just after the storms had stopped. The new building is a bit further from the beach and behind the fishing pier.

I left Los Roques a few weeks after the Y2K panic was over and our world continued to spin; however, I don’t think that we would really have noticed any computer meltdown on that island. I have not laid eyes on Nelly since that time and have not spoken to her for much too long. I hope that she remembers me and will be proud when I say that the seeds for my work with the former Project Alabama and now Alabama Chanin were watered in her kitchen.

SIT

In the next decade, I will sit at my table more often and think.

In the next decade, I will sit at my table more often.

In the next decade, I will sit…

SIT : obs. 3d pers. sing. pres. of Sit, for sitteth.

To rest upon the haunches, or the lower extremity of the trunk of the body; — said of human beings, and sometimes of other animals; as, to sit on a sofa, on a chair, or on the ground.

To perch; to rest with the feet drawn up, as birds do on a branch, pole, etc.

To remain in a state of repose; to rest; to abide; to rest in any position or condition.

To lie, rest, or bear; to press or weigh; — with on; as, a weight or burden sits lightly upon him.

To be adjusted; to fit; as, a coat sits well.

To suit one well or ill, as an act; to become; to befit; — used impersonally.

To cover and warm eggs for hatching, as a fowl; to brood; to incubate.

To have position, as at the point blown from; to hold a relative position; to have direction.

To occupy a place or seat as a member of an official body.

To hold a session; to be in session for official business; — said of legislative assemblies, courts, etc.; as, the court sits in January; the aldermen sit to-night.

To take a position for the purpose of having some artistic representation of one’s self made, as a picture or a bust; as, to sit to a painter.

To sit upon; to keep one’s seat upon; as, he sits a horse well.

To cause to be seated or in a sitting posture; to furnish a seat to; — used reflexively.

To suit (well / ill); to become. To sit with a child.
Definitions of sit (sort of) from www.brainyquote.com , instructions for my Farm Table – pictured above – in Alabama Studio Style, inspiration to sit from a poem once given to me by a dear friend:

SPEAK ALL THE GOOD

I have been thinking a lot these last weeks about Maira Kalman.

First off, I am reading The Elements of Style, which is illustrated by Maira. While Maggie is now addicted to What Pete Ate – which means daily readings. You see, I have been sitting with Maira now day and night for weeks.

Secondly, I found this quote last week – which made me happy – and was reminded of Maira’s post “Can Do.”

“Speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody”
–Benjamin Franklin

“And the Pursuit of Happiness” has been a light in my life this last year – along with many of my friends.

And, in true Maira Kalman style, this quote from Ben Franklin took me a step further and brought to mind my Grandfather “Perk.” At the mention of his name – and long after his death – people who knew him give an audible sigh and settle in their skin. “Yes, Perk,” they say. My daughter is named after his sister – who evokes the same response.

Perk was just the kind of person that made people feel happy, and good about themselves, and happy with the world. I have many a story to share about him – and will one day soon!

He would always repeat this old wives tale: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” He was ready with a guitar and a song, peanut brittle and a sly little smile. He was always tinkering with something and just trying to make this world a better place in general. Perhaps just a bit like Ben Franklin…

I guess that I just want to remind myself (and those of you still reading) that there is beauty in life every day. And while all the media wants to remind us that this was The Decade from Hell and The Decade of Fake (which I actually enjoyed reading), I would like to remember that some really lovely things – like Maira Kalman – enriched our lives this last year (and the nine years before). Perhaps we could start spending a bit of time each day “speaking all the good” we know of everybody.

Happy Holidays.
From our home to yours…

REFLECT, REJOICE, RENEW

2009 White House Christmas Tree - Associated Press Photo
After lofty plans to post each day about the last decade – and the next, my computer slipped from my hands last Tuesday morning and crashed (literally) to the floor and shattered. Later that afternoon, my Blackberry decided to follow suit.  My deduction was that it was time to take a much needed sabbatical from all things electronic. A week later, everything and everyone seems to have survived without me. The world is still spinning, I am no further behind than I was last Tuesday, and I have had a week to “Reflect, Rejoice and Renew.” So, here we are, a few days later and making a fresh start. Thank you to Kathy Kemp and al.com for this lovely article. And, thank you again to everyone who makes this a wonderful project each and every day…  

Florence-based designer’s skirt creation completes Obamas’ Christmas tree, By Kathy Kemp — The Birmingham News December 22, 2009, 5:30AM

Alabama Chanin, the Florence-based couture fashion design house, has sewn another bead into its weighty crown.

The company created the stenciled, beaded blue and white tree skirt that completes the official White House Christmas tree, on display in the Blue Room through December. Alabama Chanin founder Natalie Chanin attended the recent unveiling — her latest stop in a series of high-profile appearances.

“We were honored to be asked to do this,” says Chanin, who was a Top-10 finalist for the coveted DFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize, presented last month in New York City. Vogue magazine featured her in a full-page color spread in November, and she was also the subject of a Birmingham News profile. In The News’ story, Chanin couldn’t talk about the tree skirt because the White House had yet to unveil the tree. But now the entire world can see it — in pictures, at least, or in a tour of the nation’s home.

Twenty-two Alabama Chanin artisans, mostly local northwest Alabama seamstresses, spent three weeks sewing and constructing the tree skirt, which measures 14 feet in diameter and weighs about 28 pounds. The skirt features 13 large panels representing the original 13 colonies, and holds about two kilos of Chanin’s white satin bugle beads, all sewn by hand. It is made of Chanin’s signature fabric, 100 percent organic cotton jersey, in the colors, as requested by the White House, of white, peacock blue, Navy blue and storm blue piping. “We painted the entire piece with our Maggie stencil, then used quilting, reverse applique and reverse applique with beading on different sections,” Chanin explains. (She teaches her techniques in her “Alabama Stitch Book,” available at www.alabamachanin.com.)
Chanin, like other artists the White House invited to create decorative pieces for the tree, paid for the materials, labor and shipping of her own work. Chanin is already taking orders for custom tree skirts for the 2010 holiday season (contact steven@alabamachanin.com for details).

The 2009 White House tree, a Douglas fir from Shepherdstown, W.V., stands 18.5 feet tall, reaching all the way to the ceiling. Each year, the Blue Room tree is the same height, because the power source is on the ceiling.

“Reflect, Rejoice, Renew” is the theme for President Obama and his family’s first White House Christmas. Reflecting the national desire to conserve and recycle, the tree is lit with environmentally sound LED lights and decorated with bows and more than 650 ornaments from previous generations.
Chanin’s work fits nicely with this year’s theme. She uses local artisans, rather than shipping production overseas. She’s long been known for using organic products and recycling materials. Every scrap left over from her clothing creations is used for something else. In fact, she had piles of jersey strips baled and used them to make a sofa for the Alabama Chanin office.
At the White House this month, more than 50,000 people are expected to see the tree — and its skirt — while attending parties and other functions. When the tree comes down, Chanin’s skirt, along with the tree ornaments, will be archived with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
© 2009 al.com. All rights reserved.

WASTE NOT WANT NOT

For me, this past decade was about learning to use the resources that I had readily available. My goal for the next decade will be about digging deeper to fully understand all of the resources that I have and then to use those resources wisely and wildly.

It is my wish that we will use all of our gifts to enrich our lives this & every season of the year and upcoming decade:

Make the fabric above – “Waste Not Want Not” – by printing your left-over bubble wrap using a textile airbrush paint.

Simply lay out your fabric on a clean work table and apply paint lightly to the bubbly side of bubble wrap with any sort of sponge or brush.  Print onto fabric by pressing the painted side of the bubble wrap gently to your fabric. Repeat as desired.

We used a taupe color paint (mixing white with tiny amounts of yellow and black) on a white fabric; however any color will work.

Let your printed fabric dry thoroughly and do not wash for at least three weeks to allow curing. This resource can be used for paper, wood or any other surface that you might choose to decorate.

Wash bubble wrap after use and store for using over and over and over again.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END (OR GIFTS + GIVING)

As the year slides towards its close, I know that it is the time of year that we all get tired of Gift Guides.

This year, we are seeing not only the end of the year but of the decade. This has been a really BIG year for all of us here at Alabama Chanin – and an even BIGGER decade. (My Ten Year Anniversary of living, working and loving Alabama will be coming up next year.)

For whatever reason, it seems that the “changing-of-the-decades” have always brought important and beautiful changes into my life. So, I would like to take these last days before the holidays (and the last weeks of the year) to look back – and a little forward.

Bear with me over the next weeks…

Back to Gifts & Giving (this one last time – well, maybe):

If you just can’t figure out what to do for a special person in your life this holiday season, consider a donation to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.

As some of you will remember, my father was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma last year. He is, gratefully, in remission now – thanks to great medicine and research – and amazingly recovered from his stroke as a side effect to the chemotherapy. Thank you again to everyone who has been there with us… thank you to those who brought strength, understanding, kindness, patience and, sometimes, just cookies.

This could be the best gift of the year:

Leukemia Lymphoma Society

Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Make a Wish Foundation

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Update of two more great organizations (thanks Sara):

Cure Search

American Cancer Society

*Photo of Ms. Jessie’s Vegetable Soup – also a great gift.   Recipe can be found on page 95 of Alabama Stitch Book.  This picture was originally taken for “The Kitchen Project” – perhaps  coming to our archives section one day.

HALF BROKE

HALF BROKE HORSES - JEANNETTE WALLSI just finished Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls and am awed.

It has – rightfully – been compared to Out of Africa and West with the Night. While I respect her first book – The Glass Castle – this new book will become an American classic. Kudos to Jeannette. Enjoy while looking at photos from In The American West by Richard Avedon