Natalie Chanin’s life-changing epiphany struck while standing on a New York City street corner.
For days, she had traversed throughout the city with a trash bag of her deconstructed T-shirts, seeking a manufacturer to help her make them. None of them, however, understood what kind of stitching she wanted on her creations, which had become popular in New York fashion circles after she made one on a whim and wore it to a party. Chanin was frustrated.
But then, she remembered a group of women who constructed hand-made quilts with bold stitching passed down through the generations. Chanin envisioned those stitches on her deconstructed T-shirts, She believed that those women could help her fuse the past with the present.
So, like a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara, Chanin knew where her immediate future lay, and it was back home in Florence, Ala. When Chanin returned to Florence in 2000, it was a much different place than when she left it in the 1980s. Then, the historic quaint town was the T-shirt capitol of the world, thanks to a thriving textile industry that employed thousands.
But a decade later, that industry had nearly vanished. People were unemployed in the town of 40,000 and warehouses were closed. The cotton once used for T-shirts was now shipped aboard. Chanin squarely blames NAFTA for these changes.
Public Citizen, a non-profit grassroots organization, cites that Alabama lost 118,125 manufacturing jobs from 1994 to 2012. The Bureau of Labor Statistics stated in a 1995 report that while the textile industry was seeing employment decline in the 1980s because of technology and overseas jobs, but it noted, “Future employment levels will be affected by the North America Free Trade Agreement” and that job loss would be “incremental” over the years.
NAFTA was touted as a good thing by many people because it would ease trade regulations and increased investment between the United States, Canada and Mexico. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the legislation, saying at the time: “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying American jobs. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't support this agreement.”
Chanin doesn’t proclaim to be an expert on NAFTA, but the trade agreement angers her, and she blames Clinton for it.
“I often wonder if he regrets NAFTA,” Chanin says. “NAFTA helped to put a nail in the coffin of manufacturers in America. It created fear and anger, and we didn’t get the open commerce we wanted.”
The unemployment and the textile industry’s death in Florence haunted Chanin. She says she did what she knew how to do – sew – and never had a plan to become an eco-friendly fashion leader, a cheerleader for artisan seamstresses or a poster girl for Made in the USA. But that’s exactly what happened.
Chanin’s handcrafted, organic couture line – Alabama Chanin – has become emblematic of what’s possible when someone focuses on community commitment, sustainability and local traditions.
“I believe in ‘Made in America’ where at all possible,” Chanin says. “I see it almost as a matter of national security. It’s disturbing when you see that there are no steel mills in the South anymore. Food, clothing, shelter, right? Those are essential to sustaining life. Sewing was once a vital necessity for men and women.”
Photo: Alabama Chanin
Chanin, 50, has certainly stitched her own path with a needle and thread.
On this January day, Chanin wears a black skirt, white boots and a white long-sleeve shirt with a black overlay T-shirt. Her trademark white hair frames her ageless face. Sitting at a long white table, she weaves her story like any good Southern storyteller. To fully grasp Chanin’s role in the Slow Fashion movement that promotes quality over quantity, you have to absorb Florence’s history and Chanin’s connection to it.
In the 1800s, Florence, a river town, had an abundance of water and streams that made it geographically suited as a cotton mill town. Villages soon cropped up where men, women and even children made underwear, union suits and undershirts for paltry wages. It was a rough life, dependent on soil, water and the seasons. Cotton was king, and it supported generations through the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II.
Chanin’s Alabama roots cross many decades, and her family tree goes back seven generations in the area. Her great-grandmother knitted socks in east Florence’s Sweetwater Mill. Both of her grandmothers were avid quilters. Her parents still live around Florence and her 30-year-old son, Zachariah, moved to the town five years ago. Six years ago, Chanin’s daughter, Maggie, was born, and five months ago, her son became a father to Chanin’s first grandchild, Stella Ruth.
“There are five generations of my family alive and living here now,” she says. “It’s home, and that’s why I came back. It’s home.”
Sweet Home Alabama
When Chanin returned to Alabama, she set up shop in a three-bedroom brick house “10 miles as the crow flies” from Florence in a community known as Lovelace Crossing. “We say it like ‘loveless’,” Chanin says.
There, she began what she considered “just an art project” with the recycled, reworked T-shirts. She visited the quilting circle, and the women still met weekly, sold their completed quilts and reinvested the money into the community center – just as Chanin remembered. She told the women that she wanted to hire them for her project. But she hit a deadend.
“They said, ‘This is something we do for the community, we don’t want a job,” Chanin recalls. “They had gardens, grandchildren and they didn’t want the responsibility.”
She placed an ad in the local newspaper seeking part-time seamstresses. Sixty people responded; she locked in 20 of them as independent contractors, creating a cottage industry that allowed women to work on their own terms and time. Many of these women lived in rural areas, had limited, if no, transportation and children to care for during the day.
The idea worked and evolved into the company Project Alabama. Eventually a few hundred stitchers sewed for her Project Alabama line. But, then the U.S. Department of Labor entered the picture in 2003 and investigated the independent contractor methods.
“We lost 90 percent of our workforce from one day to the next,” she says. “We refined the system because the Department of Labor was instrumental in showing us how the independent contractor system could work.”
The Birth of Alabama Chanin
“There are no rules; that is how art is born.” That’s the greeting on a lighted sign inside the front door of the Alabama Chanin spacious office and work space. Another handmade fabric sign states, “Waste Not Want Not.” On the back of two chairs, the words “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify” are carved into the natural wood. All of these sum up Chanin’s ethos.
Chanin left Project Alabama in 2006 amid differences about the company’s future regarding retaining jobs in her home town.
She soon started Alabama Chanin, leaving the house in Loveless and renting a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Florence with a long history in the textile industry. The space was once part of a larger 100,000-square-feet complex that housed wall-to-wall sewing machines and workers who dyed fabric and made T-shirts.
Now a rack of Chanin’s designs – beautiful white coats with red stitching, appliqué skirts, stenciled T-shirts – has replaced the machines. Wire shelves hold Chanin’s white swatch books with hundreds of appliqué designs. Southern books, including the three she wrote, are displayed along with her examples of her jewelry and ceramic lines. Vintage Alabama quilts, which Chanin has “stabilized” with remnant fabrics and embroidery that tells stories, hang on one wall.
Photo: Rinne Allen/Alabama Chanin
Unlike most clothing companies, Alabama Chanin doesn’t mass produce hundreds of items for retail, in an effort to maintain a policy of zero waste. Instead, each piece is a work-of-art, an item to be treasured, and like art, an Alabama Chanin garment is expensive – some range upwards of $5,000 and beyond. Fans often save for two or three years to own one.
Chanin uses only 100 percent organic cotton grown in Texas. It is spun into yarn in North Carolina, knitted into fabric in South Carolina and dyed in Tennessee and North Carolina. In the best case scenario, Chanin says, she attempts to use 100 percent American products, but occasionally organic domestic cotton is not available.
She no longer shows her designs at New York City Fashion Week, instead developing her brand through trunk shows, word-of-mouth and the Internet. While many designers keep their designs secret, Chanin does not. She is a zealous believer in the DIY and open-source movement. A significant part of her business is now centered on teaching workshops, writing books and her blog and selling custom sewing kits that allow others to create their own clothing and accessories.
It’s the operation of her business, however, that is most innovative.
Chanin employs only eleven people at the warehouse, but 30 seamstresses work as independent contractors. Over the years, Chanin estimates that more than 500 seamstresses in the Florence area have contributed to her design business. Her system is now similar to a cottage industry.
The concept hearkens to the Industrial Revolution when workers couldn’t travel from rural areas to urban ones. It allowed workers to have employment and also flexibility, something that is still needed in the 21st century.
“I’m just as proud of the system [we’ve developed] as for the designs that have been in Vogue,” she says. “Women are the primary caregivers whether it is a sick child or a caregiver for an elderly parent. They can work when they want, where they want and it empowers them to set their own schedule.”
A product isn’t made until a customer places an order. A bidding sheet for projects is sent to the 30 seamstresses via email and is also available at the warehouse. Seamstresses bid on projects, quoting Chanin a price that they think is fair depending on the project’s complexity with design, beading and appliqué. The bid may be in the thousands of dollars and take several months to complete as every piece is hand-sewn with not one stitch made on a machine.
Photo: Rinne Allen/Alabama Chanin
The seamstress then invests her money into the project by purchasing the unassembled raw materials (fabric panels, thread, an Alabama Chanin label and other supplies) in person at the warehouse.
“When everyone is invested, you have a better ratio for success,” Chanin says. “They work by the project not by the time,” she explains. “We don’t ask. That’s their business. It’s totally up to them how they want to do it.”
When the project is finished, the seamstress initials the label and sells the creation back for the value she thinks it is worth. Rarely does an item fail to meet standards or a deadline. Ever conscious, Chanin tries to ensure everyone has a project during slow periods.
“We are always looking for ways to keep our artisans busy, and if we don’t, they will try to find other jobs because they have to feed their families,” she says. “These people are like our families. We care about them. We know their kids. We know who they are. We have become grandmothers together. We have broken bread together. We have prayed together. Keeping them in work is one of the responsibilities I have as a business owner.”
The Future Is Bright
Along back roads of the South, cotton fields extend for miles. The fluffy white bolls remain an integral part of the Southern economy and culture. No one knows this better than Southerners like Chanin and Florence fashion designer, Billy Reid, and his staff.
“This whole conversation sprang up about two years ago because there is an organization interested in bringing manufacturing back to the South,” Chanin says. “We were saying that it would be amazing if we could have vertical manufacturing here from growing the cotton to cutting and sewing it.”
Chanin gives credit to K.P. McNeill, who works for Billy Reid, for finding the six-acre untouched and unfarmed spot for the organic cotton experiment. From there, Chanin calls the farming adventure “a miraculous journey.”
“We found two sacks of seeds after we couldn’t find any,” she says. “We didn’t have a tractor and suddenly we had a tractor. We didn’t have a planter and then we had a planter.”
A severe drought threatened to kill the cotton crop, but amazingly, the cotton grew. Last October, Chanin closed her warehouse for the day and headed to the cotton patch to attend Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid Cotton Picking Party and Field Day. Family, friends and the community were invited to join Chanin. She hoped that people would learn about organic farming and the future possibilities that exist for Florence textile industry. While the acreage only produced a bale and half of cotton, it offered hope for the next season.
For Chanin, growing jobs was once her primary concern, but she has expanded her mission to include cultivating DIY ingenuity and, now, tackling the land. Her latest farming project should not surprise those who know and admire Chanin. After all, she believes that other businesses and designers should simply follow their heart.
“It’s about making the right decisions which aren’t always the easiest decisions,” Chanin says. “But every time I’ve made the right decision, I’ve been rewarded.”
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com