Alabama Chanin has always aimed to make products that will last a lifetime – even multiple lifetimes. We create things that are both beautiful and durable and we embrace the ideas of Slow Design. But, once upon a time, Slow Design did not exist as a theory or a process; rather, it was simply how things were made. Those that were fluent in “The Living Arts” knew how to make things – food, clothing, shelter, etc. – and they didn’t want to make them more than once, unless they had to. Durability was necessity. Craftsmen and women were born out of requirement. But, often those craftsmen became so skilled that their products were, quite simply, art. Their creations that remain behind and are passed along—heirlooms—still hold meaning.
For some, the word “heirloom” brings to mind a valuable painting or, perhaps, an antique necklace. Certainly both of those things qualify; but, as part of a new series on the Journal, we want to highlight some of our own personal heirlooms – things that are valuable to us on a personal level, regardless of their financial value. As always, we want to celebrate the things that last, the things that we choose to keep in our lives, the things that we assign meaning to, on a personal level.
The blanket above rested on an upstairs bed at my Grandmother Perkins’s—called Gram Perkins—house for as long as I can remember. In my mind, it belonged to my uncle, but I’m not absolutely sure. The upstairs of my grandparents’ home was completed when my mother was already in high school (although they had lived in the house for many years, starting in the basement and building up as they could afford). In the upstairs, there were rooms for each of the four children. The older children were already in college by the time it was finished, so my uncle, the youngest sibling, spent the most time in the space and, though all of the bedrooms were filled with things, his room felt the least “empty.”
Shortly after my move from New York to Alabama, I was sitting alone at our local Italian restaurant, reading magazines. After a while, a couple who’d been sitting across the room approached and introduced themselves to me. That couple, Jennifer and Robert Rausch, quickly became fixtures in my life; they’ve remained integral members of my Alabama family since that day.
These days, you can find Jennifer overseeing the day-to-day operations of the new flagship store and café at The Factory. She agreed to work with us at just the right time. The company was growing and I needed someone I could trust to help me make decisions that were thoughtful and confident. Growing a company can make one feel vulnerable; having an old friend there for support (especially one with an incredible work ethic) put me a bit more at ease.
She moves effortlessly between tasks and has a real desire to connect with everyone who walks through our door. This genuine approach, coupled with her wicked, infectious laugh, drew me to her initially and continues to make me smile, calm me, and draw me out of my shell when I become too introspective. She is practical and doesn’t hesitate to offer her opinion, even to play devil’s advocate in tough situations.
My love of books is no secret. I still have a decades-old public library card, probably obtained when I was about 8 or 9, printed on card stock and housed in a small, paper envelope. It was one of my most prized possessions as a child. Today’s library cards can be scanned and swiped, but obtaining one is still an important rite of passage for so many.
In the past, we’ve explored the emotional responses that a love for books and for libraries can elicit from anyone who shares that same admiration. Our local library, the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library, is a wonderful example of how a brick and mortar building can grow into a community of sorts, adapting to meet the needs of the public at-large, and embracing new technologies while reinforcing the importance of learning. This library, like many modern public libraries, has special initiatives geared toward younger children and teens, but also has a strong local history and genealogical research team. They are creating interactive experiences for the community through classes, meet-ups, and year-round programs. I am proud to see what an important part of our community the public library remains.
Looking back at what we have accomplished this year at Alabama Chanin, I feel nothing short of overwhelmed. With the help of many friends, Alabama Chanin has grown in ways I only imagined. Our company is the best it has ever been, and will only get better. Over the summer, and on the heels of Camp Bacon at Zingerman’s, I wrote a 10 year vision for the company—a peek into what I wanted for the future of our family of businesses. Many of the things I envisioned happening years from now were accomplished by this year’s end, with much hard work, dedication, occasional pains of labor, trial and error, and the true grit and determination of our team. All this growth and success doesn’t come from nowhere, after all.
It is hard to believe that so much has happened in the past year. While we are busy wrapping up our year-end Inventory Sale here at The Factory, it is nice to take the time to reflect on all the projects, people, and places we have experienced in just twelve incredible months.
“We are happy when we are growing.”
- William Butler Yeats
The Factory has been home to the Alabama Chanin design and production studio since 2008 and over the years has hosted workshops, events, and dinners. The space is filled with books, music, and the hum of making. Now, we are expanding The Factory to include a full-service café, serve as Workshop headquarters, and house the Alabama Chanin store.
Pumpkin carving has a deep-rooted history in American culture. As a child, my family always used the butcher knife/three-triangles-and-a-mouth method. Today, there are specialized carving tools available from a range of sources. Martha Stewart, a lover of all things Halloween, has brought pumpkin carving to a new level, offering creative designs and techniques. Meanwhile, Maggie’s dad, Butch, looks for the strangest pumpkins available and stacks them in towering sculptures before Halloween, and then plants rows and rows of the leftover seeds in his garden after the holiday.
If you visit our studio here in Alabama, you will arrive to find that we are housed in a sturdy, industrial-style, metal building which we call “The Factory.” Our community was, for generations, home to textile mills that employed an incredible number of area residents. This industrial building where we work and spend hours of our lives has seen thousands of workers pass through the doors over the years; it has heard the hum of machines running and the voices and laughter of employees passing the day away. This building is part of Alabama Chanin’s history, but, more importantly, it is part of our community’s history—a symbol of economic boom, hard times, and community rebuilding.
We frequently talk about the heirloom aspect of our hand-made clothing, the timeless design and lasting quality that allows for an Alabama Chanin garment to be worn for years and, in some cases, passed along to a younger family member. While we know this to be true, we don’t often have the opportunity to witness a specific garment change and evolve over time. Perhaps a perfect example: my daughter, Maggie has been wearing the above dress for five years (and counting).
The dress was made for her, cut from an oliver + s pattern, when she was a curly headed, cherub faced two year old. Made with our organic cotton jersey in Butter and Natural, the dress has been through about a million washes and worn on too many occasions to count. It’s been stained, ripped, appliquéd (to cover the rips), and dyed blue (to cover the stains). No longer a dress but a summer top, she will not give it up.
As the Alabama Chanin team rushes around Manhattan with our new collection during New York Fashion Week, it is impossible not to remember this day twelve years ago. Twelve years of healing is not long enough. For most of us, this day will remain very personal for the rest of our lives. And yet, a dozen years is time enough for a new generation to grow up largely uninformed or dispassionate, if only because our reality has become a story to them, a tale, the way Pearl Harbor has become, to many, a history lesson and a bank holiday.
However, we will always remember those who perished that day, those who lost friends and loved ones, and all of the heroes who saved lives and found the humanity in recovery efforts. We recall the pain, but also the national pride as we joined together in silence and exercised resilience. We take the PeaceBuilders Pledge (again) with the continued hope that there will be an end to war and hate-driven tragedies in America and across the world.
Many of us on the Alabama Chanin team have lived in Manhattan. Some of us watched the towers burn from a few blocks away. Others arrived years later to a changed city skyline. But, no matter where each of us lived on that day, and since, we have watched America change. For so many, New York represents an opportunity for growth and transcendence. This day is a moment to remember compassion, love, and gratitude.
I told someone the other day, “Books saved my life when I was growing up.” And they did. I have spent days/weeks/years with my nose in books and, consequently, in libraries. As a designer, I find inspiration, and sometimes escape, inside of a library; as a business owner, I find critical information that has helped me grow who we are as a business and who I am as an entrepreneur. As Alabama Chanin (and my skill as a designer) has grown, so has my personal library (just ask our accountant). I have stopped dating certain men because of the absence of a library in their life, and my daughter believes the library is part of her own living room.
Ask almost anyone to describe their feelings about libraries and each person you speak to has a vivid memory of their own childhood library. I’m sure part of the reason for this is that, once upon a time, there were fewer ways to occupy yourself as a young person, and you had to actually check out a book to read it. An actual book – something that had weight, and pages you could turn, and needed bookmarks to hold your place. Ask someone about their smart phone or their Kindle and they will probably tell you how much they love it, how convenient it is, or how many features it has. Ask someone about a book, about a library, and people will tell you their memories.