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.”
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.
At Alabama Chanin, we’ve spent years working with textiles to find the perfect medium for our techniques and products: 100% organic cotton jersey. We are drawn to artists who utilize what some might call ordinary materials and tools to create extraordinary work. Dana Barnes has done just that; she has taken familiar techniques like crochet and felting and combined them with a common material, merino wool. But, her results are not ordinary. Rather, they are unexpected and exquisite.
Dana Barnes is a renowned fashion designer, having created collections for lines like Elie Tahari, Adrienne Vittadini, and Tommy Hilfiger. Her exploration into wool and textiles sprang from a practical issue – one that many mothers face: as her young daughters ran and played, they made a little too much noise for the neighbors living beneath the family’s expansive loft. At the time, Dana was experimenting with wool and felting and wondered if she could make a rug that was big enough to cover the family’s living space. What resulted was a massive rug sewn together by hand from large crocheted squares of felted, unspun wool.
I have known many storytellers in my life. Some have a natural and unrehearsed style that feels captivating and immediate; some present new or unfamiliar points of view; others are quite deliberate and thoughtful in approach; all of them are enthralling to me. As a storyteller born into a family of storytellers, I find master storyteller Gael Towey both compelling and inspiring. She has a distinct perspective and is skilled at many things: crafting a storyline, discovering and highlighting the unique qualities of her subjects, eliciting a response from the audience, and designing beautiful visual elements. Her work has informed contemporary visual language in a way we can barely imagine.
I was lucky to be among Gael’s subjects as part of her series of short films about artists called “Portraits in Creativity” www.portraitsincreativity.com (and I especially love her piece on friend and heroine Maira Kalman). Each of her portraits uncover the unique qualities of her subjects and reveal Towey’s fascination with the creative process. For over two years, we have been speaking with Gael about her past, her present, and the creative processes, media, and methods she uses to propel her ideas forward.
Gael was raised in New Jersey and was the oldest of six children. She revealed that, as a child, she was mildly dyslexic and almost flunked the second and third grade because she couldn’t spell; she reversed all her consonants and vowel combinations. She was drawn to art and studied it enthusiastically through college. “I loved printmaking and accidentally signed up for a class in typography, and I fell in love with it from the first lecture,” Towey says. “I’d never looked at the design of a letter and had not noticed how beautiful they are.” She switched her major to graphic design and graduated from Boston University, College of Fine Arts. Gael said, “I was extraordinarily lucky. I have met so many young people who don’t know what they want to do, but I always knew. I struggled academically and art was the only thing I was good at… And it’s funny that I wound up working in the publishing business since I had no confidence in my ability to write properly.”
Gael worked on the book, In the Russian Style, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
I met Julien Archer when he was only sixteen, in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I was leading a workshop at the Visual Arts Center there. He was a creative and enterprising sophomore in high school who had already started a screen-printing business (and had designed shirts for the venue where we were holding the event). A few years later, I was reintroduced to Julien at our first Makeshift event in New York City. He was living there at the time and expressed that he was ready for a change. So, I laughingly replied, “Move to Alabama!”
The two of us kept in touch and, several months later, he attended a Studio Weekend workshop at The Factory with his mother (and sometimes Alabama Chanin Trunk Show hostess). During that weekend, I had dinner with the two of them and offered Julien a three-month apprenticeship here in Alabama. Surprisingly, he accepted and – two years later – he is still here. A prolific member of our design team, he also works as a pattern maker and helps manage operations at Building 14.
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.
Maria Popova is the founder of Brain Pickings, a website designed to introduce you to a broad variety of subjects that feed one’s mind and inspire creativity. Since founding Brain Pickings, Maria has spent countless hours researching and writing – hours that have taught her many life lessons. In honor of the website’s 7th birthday last fall, she was generous enough to share 7 things she learned from those 7 years of reading, writing, and living.
The 7 Lessons:
- Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
- Do nothing out of guilt, or for prestige, status, money or approval alone.
- Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words.
- Build pockets of stillness into your life.
- Maya Angelou famously said, ‘When people tell you who they are, believe them’. But even more importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
- Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. As Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
- Debbie Millman captures our modern predicament beautifully: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”
We often speak about our home, our state, and our community that provides an incredible amount of inspiration for our work. We are not alone: friend and occasional collaborator, Billy Reid, also headquarters in the same community. It has been mentioned (and is remarkable) that Alabama has the third largest membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), numbering at two; we rank just behind New York and California. And just as there is a rich history of textile production in our community, there is a somewhat unknown or unrecognized group of designers that have emerged from our home state.
Based on feedback that we have received from some of our DIY customers, we are now offering supplementary instructions in each of our DIY Kits. Each kit will be shipped with an insert that includes basic instructions, including how to “love your thread,” directions on completing basic stitches, simple construction tips, and how to add rib binding to your item. We hope that this will help make completing your DIY project easy and stress-free. As always, complete instructions for projects can be found in the Alabama Studio Book series.
We have recently been highlighting natural dyes and Alabama Chanin’s new dye house, run by our head seamstress, Diane. This project highlights the beautiful new shades of indigo that are emerging from our dye vats, shown here on one of our most popular silhouettes – the Camisole Tank. The tank can be adapted to fit almost any body type and its simple design is well suited for most stencils and embroidery techniques.
The tank is form fitting and features feminine back and necklines. It measures approximately 25” from the shoulder.