Alabama Chanin as a concept and a company began as a DIY enterprise. I made the first garments by hand, to fit my own body. Our entire business model was created because I couldn’t find manufacturing for the sort of garment I wanted to make—and so, we created our own manufacturing system, one stitch at a time.
Because those first garments were made from recycled t-shirts, many of our customers took the concept and re-imagined it for themselves, making their own patterns and clothing. Others felt that—with just a little help—they could create something similar, something that was their own. Almost accidentally, our garments were stirring in others the desire to make. Slowly, and as the internet became more robust, sewers formed groups on the internet to share their Alabama Chanin-style garments and swap ideas. This was the beginning of a more formal DIY presence in our company.
These things were happening at the same time as I began writing our first Studio Book, Alabama Stitch Book. Writing that book helped me crystallize my thoughts on making, open sourcing, and education. It was, in essence, me putting voice to what was important about sharing ideas and creating a community of makers. Throughout the writing process—and as the company grew and evolved over the years—I returned again and again to the idea of keeping the living arts alive. It’s the belief that survival skills for food, clothing, and shelter, are important arts that we live with every single day. And these arts—often considered secondary arts—are equally (and perhaps more) important as the “primary” arts of painting and sculpture.
As a designer, I try to advance and make these living arts accessible to consumers. But, because the pieces in our collection are made by hand in the USA, by artisans who are paid a fair wage, they can be prohibitively expensive for some people to buy. In my heart, I felt that sharing—open sourcing our patterns, methods, and materials—was the right thing to do. My hope was that doing so would ultimately promote sustainable ideals, advance living arts, and demonstrate what makes our company unique and beautiful. In this case, my instincts proved correct. Alabama Stitch Book opened the company up to an entirely new base of consumers. Though many in the industry told me that sharing Alabama Chanin’s techniques would effectively kill our business, doing so actually exposed the company to more people who wanted to make and to keep those essential living arts alive. Much to our surprise and delight, those makers proved a vocal bunch.
People began to contact us with questions—more details about how our garments were made, how to find the organic fabric and sturdy notions that we used in our collections. And so, we slowly started selling raw materials directly to our individual customers. We began embracing opportunities to teach our methods and explain our processes and materials, as they arose. These first small meetings and sewing circles at trunk shows were our earliest workshops—unpolished, yet earnest.
Our workshop programming was a natural outgrowth of the emerging DIY initiative growing around us. We were increasingly connected to our customers and found that face-to-face and hand-to-hand contact helped our customers better understand the what, why, and how of our making processes and the importance of an organic supply chain. And our business continued to grow. Our DIY offerings expanded, our workshop offerings became more diverse, and our Journal content added additional DIY instruction, stories, and ideas.
Our hand-manufacturing operation grew to include machine manufacturing with the launch of Building 14 in the summer of 2013. And we continued learning. The machine skills, once so prolific in our community, needed to be honed. Our design team needed to develop a new language for stitches and machine parts that had been forgotten since the signing of NAFTA changed the textile industry in our community. We made many mistakes early on. We learned on the fly. Because of our A. Chanin line, we re-dedicated ourselves to our own education. Educational programming is one of the fastest growing and most exciting aspects of our business model. So, as the opportunities to educate our team and our customers began to multiply, we realized that we should create a specific home for this knowledge.
To fully embrace this growing model, we have developed an overseeing body that will direct and innovate learning initiatives and educational programs: The School of Making. All of our current and developing educational and training initiatives will fall under the umbrella of The School of Making. This new arm of the Alabama Chanin Family of Businesses oversees Studio Style DIY, workshop programming, format, and content; it acts as a researching body for new subjects and new ways of disseminating information. Our hope is that The School of Making can be an active voice in our local community, our state, and the making community, at large.