Written by Ted Ownby and Becca Walton
Situated at the intersection of necessity and creativity, southern fashion lets us ask questions about place and historical context, power, and identity. Every garment has a designer, maker, wearer, and viewer, and we can study all of them.
We can tell local stories about designers and seamstresses, farmers and factory workers. At the same time, we can see the South’s centuries-long engagement with a global economy through one garment, with cotton harvested by enslaved laborers in Mississippi, milled in Massachusetts or Manchester, designed with influence from Parisian tastemakers, and sold in the South by Jewish immigrant merchants.
It isn’t clear where to start, and that’s exciting. The term “southern fashion” doesn’t seem to be clearly defined by terms or limits, so we may not need to spend energy overturning conventional wisdoms. Do we start with creative reuse, with Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” or with Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress? Do we start with osnaburg, the so-called “negro cloth” of the 19th century, or with farm families wearing garments cut from the same cloth, or with women who did sewing every day but Sunday?
In 2005, photographer Leslie Williamson made a wish list of all the houses that she hoped to visit in her lifetime. The homes belonged mostly to her favorite architects and designers, who had offered her creative inspiration throughout her career as a photographer. She was curious to learn what inspired them in their home and studio environments, and since there was no book containing images of these spaces, she decided to take on the project herself. The result was 2010’s Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Midcentury Designers. Her book’s success surprised Williamson and showed her that she was not alone in her curiosity about environment and inspiration. She then set out to create a “library of these designers and how they lived for future generations”.
Her recent follow up, Modern Originals: At Home with Midcentury European Designers, is another beautifully photographed book featuring the private spaces of European architects and designers. The book—funded in part with a gorgeous Kickstarter film—provides an intimate look into the at-home design choices of notable creative minds, showing not only their design and architecture choices, but also illuminating some aspects of their lives. Williamson writes that she felt she was “meeting these people as human beings through being in their homes and learning about their everyday life.”
Previously, I shared the story of my first encounter with Jill Dumain of Patagonia. Meeting Jill and hearing her speak not only opened my eyes to the good work that company was going; it opened my eyes to what is possible. Years of conversation finally resulted in a collaboration between Alabama Chanin and Patagonia, as part of their Truth to Materials initiative. By repurposing garments that have reached the end of their lives into new products—Reclaimed Down Scarves—we create a new product, with a life cycle of its own. We recently had the chance to speak with Jill Dumain about this project and about Patagonia as a company, and she generously took the time to answer some questions.
AC: Your title at Patagonia is Director of Environmental Analysis. That sounds like a pretty expansive area of oversight. How would you describe your primary responsibilities? What issues that you address are nearest to your heart?
Jill Dumain: Yes, it is certainly an expansive area, and that can be a little daunting at times. I think what also makes it especially daunting is that people look to Patagonia to see what we’ll do next. It’s a challenge and an opportunity to meet that expectation. I, personally, look at what we do from a business standpoint and examine how we can be doing better from an environmental perspective. It runs the gamut from evaluating new carpet to bioswale installations to new products to communication on our website. But for me, it’s really about how I do my job and empower people at the same time. I look for the projects that “teach people to fish” versus just giving people fish. It’s thrilling when I’m able to encourage my colleagues and get them excited about bringing environmental work into their lives. It’s good for the company. It spreads knowledge throughout the ranks and gets the greater Patagonia family involved in the process, not just my team. And they’ve really become experts in their areas. We recently switched our catalogue to be printed on 100% recycled content, and that decision came from within our creative department. It’s a huge win to see it work that way!
Quite a few years ago, I loaded up the car with scissors, needles, and an array of other sewing supplies and took a trip with a group of friends and fellow stitchers to a women’s prison facility (at their invitation, of course). My friend Kyes had organized this meeting in the hopes of developing a program within our Alabama Prison system for training life and job skills. The scissors wound up staying in the car for security reasons, but the experience was life changing. The intent of the day was to show these women—on their way out of prison and back into the “real” world—how to hand stitch and work together. We wanted to help them see that they could make something beautiful with their own two hands and, at the same time, perhaps challenge all of our preconceived notions about our neighbors and the world at large. It’s fair to say that I walked away from that day and the experience a different person. At that point, I’d begun to realize that education was going to be an important element in the life of my company. I wanted to help others understand how essential “living arts” are—and what it would mean if we lost connection to those skills and our shared history.
Slowly, Alabama Chanin added stitching workshops to our traveling trunk shows. We scheduled intimate one-off events that were as much about storytelling as they were stitching (as Blair Hobbs famously exemplified with her “granny panties” story years ago). We were creating a community through making. It was happening. And so we committed to this enterprise of creating communities for makers, of building workshops both here at The Factory and across the globe. Alabama Chanin and our customers have become part of one another’s lives in ways I never imagined; we’ve made lifelong friends, helped create wedding gowns, hosted classrooms of college students, and traveled across the country. I’ve met some of my personal heroes through sharing ideas on making and sustainability.
Eight years ago, and three months after Maggie was born, I stood in the wings on a stage in New York City, waiting to go on and tell the story of Alabama Chanin. I was nervous and jittery, waiting my turn while a woman named Jill Dumain talked about the sustainability work of the company she had worked with for over a decade. It was an unexpected life-changing moment. Instead of thinking and preparing for my own talk, I got carried away by the story of Patagonia and their mission. I had always been a fan, but that day I became a devotee.
My own talk on that massive stage paled in comparison to the sharp wit and factual detail that Jill Dumain offered—the same determination that she brings daily to the job she loves. Jill and I became friends over the course of that weekend, and we stayed in touch over the following years. Two years ago, she emailed me about the possibility of collaborating on a project using Patagonia down jackets that had reached their end-of-life. The “dogs” she called them: jackets that really couldn’t be recycled as usable garments. They were garments with beautiful stories, jackets that may have been down and/or up mountains, weathered many a winter with their wearer, and come to a final resting place in a warehouse. You see, Patagonia takes responsibility for every garment they make—from design to discard method, they are involved.
Any garment you purchase from Patagonia can be returned to Patagonia—at the beginning of its life or at the end of its life. Over the years, the company goal is to extend the life of a garment through good design and great materials, as detailed in their Worn Wear stories. At the same time, Patagonia has implemented buy-back programs for used garments in good condition and have offered initiatives like the Common Threads Partnership that repair garments, extending their lives beyond one user. Their newest initiative, Truth to Materials, is the culmination of this work towards Cradle-to-Cradle design and manufacturing. The ultimate goal is for every product to reflect sustainability from the beginning of life as a raw material, through design, manufacturing, active life, and end-of-life processes. Garments that have reached the end of their lives become an active part of the environment through composting or upcycling into a new form, like our reclaimed down scarves.
Beginning October 13th, 2014 and as part of our ongoing Makeshift conversation, Alabama Chanin will host a series of discussions and lectures about design, art, business, community, and plenty of other topics. Events will be held at the Factory on the second Monday of each month. The format will shift, depending on topic and presenter, but you can look forward to informal talks, multi-media presentations, and hands-on workshops.
Makeshift began over three years ago as a conversation about design, craft, art, fashion, and DIY—how they intersect and how each discipline elevates the others. Since its beginnings, we have expanded the conversation, discussing how making in groups can build relationships and communities, all the while examining what the design community can learn from the slow food movement.
Over the last several years, The Factory has expanded in leaps and bounds and the Alabama Chanin team has grown to keep in-step. Working in a creative industry, it takes a while to find the perfect mix; some people must be true creatives, while other jobs require a tactical mind. It is special when you find someone with both a free-spirited artistic mind and a love of logic, puzzles, and problem solving. Luckily, we found just that someone in Maggie Crisler.
Maggie works as a graphic designer, but also has a hand in managing inventory and works in the dye house. (See: a Jill-of-all-trades.) She came to us, as do many of our team members, through word of mouth. Back in 2012, our Director of Design, Olivia Sherif, mentioned to friends that we were looking for someone with a flexible schedule and some fabric cutting and sewing experience to work part time in our production department. Maggie volunteered herself and began working for us just before Christmas of that year. Her talents for illustrations and graphic design became quickly evident, so she was promoted to a full-time member of our media team.
In December of 2012, songwriter and musician Beck released an “album” called Song Reader that challenged modern recording industry standards and the traditional definition of what an album should be. With Song Reader Beck took a unique approach by releasing 20 songs in sheet music format and asking artists to interpret and record them as they saw fit.
The concept is – at its core – a DIY approach to songwriting and an invitation to other artists to participate in a collective music-making experience. We view the approach as very much aligned with our embrace of open sourcing. All art is interpreted through the lens of the viewer or listener; this takes things a step further by inviting the audience to actively interpret the art.
Beck seemed excited about the possibilities and told McSweeney’s, “I thought a lot about making these songs playable and approachable, but still musically interesting. I think some of the best covers will reimagine the chord structure, take liberties with the melodies, the phrasing, even the lyrics themselves. There are no rules in interpretation.”
Passion. It takes passion to make a difference. When you truly want something, you find a way to make it happen, naysayers be damned. In the moments when it seems your project is doomed for failure, you carry on. You learn to ask for help and to count your blessings. Our organic Alabama cotton is a story of passion.
Our company is built on the concepts of sustainability, ethical production, and using American-made and local resources. Organic materials are an integral part of our mission and our goals. Though sourcing organic materials is easier than when we began working over a decade ago, it is still difficult to obtain American-made organic materials in the quantity that we require.
It’s no secret that we at Alabama Chanin have long been admirers of Heath Ceramics – their work, their approach to responsible manufacturing, and their embrace of beautiful, sustainable design sets them apart from so many companies today. We have also been honored (and excited) to collaborate with them on several projects, including a line of dinnerware, the MAKESHIFT conversations, and most recently, two clocks designed to celebrate the 10 year ownership of the company by friends Cathy Bailey and Robin Petrovic.
Edith Heath originally founded Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, in 1948. She was an accomplished ceramist who cared deeply for the craft and believed in the importance of using quality materials. She grew up in rural Iowa during the Great Depression, which made her a natural conservator. In the late 1930s she worked with Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which influenced her design aesthetic. Heath searched constantly to source the right materials and experimented for years to find the best techniques and glazes; she was once quoted as saying that she wanted to use clay that had “character” and “guts”.
Edith’s attempts to adapt her hand-thrown techniques using industrial production methods were met with controversy. She was told that machine-produced items didn’t qualify as “craft,” which prompted her to respond, “The machine doesn’t decide what the shape is going to be; a human being has to decide that… Just because you make it by hand doesn’t make it good, or a work of art.”