Music has always been an integral part of The Shoals. We are placed along the banks of what the native people have long called, “the river that sings.” W.C. Handy, The Father of the Blues, was born here; legendary producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, is also from The Shoals. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the influential style of music known as the Muscle Shoals Sound emerged from this same musically rich place.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we had an abstract idea of the big sounds being produced all around us—but no one ever made a fuss about it. Sure, our neighbors made music for a living, but those neighbors certainly weren’t famous, were they? (Were they?) And so it wasn’t until years later that many in our community began to understand exactly what was happening around us while we were growing up.
“It is scientifically impossible to leave here unsatisfied.”
–Staggs’s Customer Taylor Smith
Less than five short miles from The Factory is a diner so well known in the Shoals community, locals simply call is “Staggs”—no elaboration is necessary. It is a place where social and economic barriers are ignored or discarded; everyone eats at Staggs, from mayor to millworker.
Staggs Grocery is located in East Florence, Alabama, an area that was once proud home to a booming textile district. The same family has run the market for generations. Taylor Wylie established the business as a meat market over a century ago, but the building was destroyed by fire. It was taken over by Wylie’s son in law, Lester D. Staggs, Sr., and his brother Webb Staggs and revamped into a meat market and grocery catering to families and workers in the textile district. Lynn Staggs, who currently owns and operates Staggs with his wife Pat, took over management after the passing of his father, L.D. Staggs, Sr.
At almost any workplace, you can hear employees talk about their co-workers with a closeness and familiarity; after years of working alongside one another, your officemates can (in some cases) begin to feel like family. In the past, that has actually been the case here at Alabama Chanin. Studio and dye house directress Diane Hall has worked alongside her daughter—who has also been one of our artisan stitchers. Some of our other artisans have been sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, cousins, and almost any other combination of relations. And all these years, it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to work with my son, Zachariah, known by everyone here as “Zach.”
The company that has become Alabama Chanin started in New York City, first in Brooklyn Heights and then at the Hotel Chelsea on 23rd street, in a borrowed apartment that was my first hand-sewing studio. The apartment was three rooms and a tiny kitchen. The front room, looking out over 23rd street, housed my bed, ironing board, and sewing center; the middle room was Zach’s. In those early days, he was enlisted to carry wet fabrics to the laundromat around the corner, keep me company on jaunts to the 26th Street Flea Market, and generally assist where needed.
I guess I should have known that he would eventually come to assist me in my design efforts. In fact, at my graduation from the School of Design at North Carolina State University, they asked Zach to stand, as he had completed most of my college education with me. He stood to a round of applause as the youngest “designer” to graduate from the program. (He is blushing as I write this…)
I’d wager that every native, and recent guest, to The Shoals would urge future visitors to set aside time for lunch at Trowbridge’s Ice Cream Parlor and Sandwich Shop. The universally beloved local eatery is a backdrop for so many of our memories, and it has managed to serve up simple, delicious food for decades, while keeping its unpretentious charm. The green awning and the window advertising “Sandwiches, Ice Cream, Sundaes” are as iconic to residents as any official logo or state seal.
The little shop was opened in 1918 by Paul Trowbridge and is still run by his grandson. The story (as it was told to me) says that in 1917, Mr. Trowbridge was traveling to North Carolina for a dairy convention and stopped in Florence on the way. He loved the lush area and the town enough to move his family from Texas to Florence and opened Trowbridge’s shortly thereafter.
As our new travel series expands, we realized that we have never laid the groundwork by adequately defining and describing the community that we call “The Shoals.” Since Alabama Chanin’s inception, love of community has been the cornerstone of our inspiration, design philosophies, and production practices. Shared stories of our region’s history, our neighbors, and our food, have inspired our work and brought visitors from afar. Reflecting on how much we talk about our home—The Shoals—I thought we should (finally) explain exactly what that term means.
“The Shoals” is a reference to the low-lying shoals of the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama, at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, along which the cities of Florence (where The Factory is located), Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Tuscumbia are situated. The name “The Shoals” is also a shorter way of saying the Florence-Muscle Shoals Metropolitan Area—also known as the “Quad Cities”—which spans two counties and is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 people. Before each city was named, the region was called the “Muscle Shoals District”; it was supposedly named such by Native Americans who found that navigating the strong current of the Tennessee River in this area almost impossible—and paddling upstream required a great deal of “muscle.”
It is believed that prehistoric Native American tribes crossed into North America during the Ice Age and followed herds of buffalo into the Northern Alabama region. This area was settled by what became the Woodland Indians (1000 BC – 900 AD) who built several ceremonial and burial mounds in the area. The largest in the area—tucked away between the local farmers co-op and the scrap metal yard—holds artifacts dating back over 10,000 years. I’ve been told that this holy site is believed by many to be part of a chain of important spiritual points in North America and has been visited by holy people of many different tribes across North and South America. Our friend Tom Hendrix’ wall is a living testament to the spiritual nature of our ancient Indian community.
Do you remember your first day of school? I don’t remember the actual day, but I do have photos of myself, standing outside my first grade classroom, smiling, wearing a plaid dress and knee socks. I do remember my children’s first school days—the nervous excitement they showed and the bittersweet pride I felt at witnessing this important milestone. While I don’t take those moments for granted, there was never a doubt that those moments would come. It’s common now to see Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram light up with school photos that document every moment of our children’s educational lives. A few months ago, I received an email from an old friend that provided some much-needed perspective.
The email offered a link to a Ted Talk by a woman named Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of SOLA—Afghanistan’s first all-girl boarding school. The word “sola” means “peace” in the Pashto language, but it is also an acronym for School of Leadership, Afghanistan. Shabana was 6 years old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and made it illegal for girls to go to school. So, for five years, her family dressed her as a boy and sent her to a secret school to learn. Even at this young age, she understood the risks that she—and her parents—were undertaking. She would walk for 30 minutes, even an hour, to schools. The locations would move, and she would walk different paths each day; sometimes class would take place in the morning and other times in the afternoon.
This post is the first of our new travel series; look for side trips (and side bars) on your way to and from The Factory—and from here to there. With this series, you’ll find some history, a bit of folk art, good diners, great bars and splendid adventures. Pack your bag, plan your road trip, and come for a visit.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller
The South loves to claim people as our own. Just as many northern and coastal cities proudly label every barn and bedroom where George Washington supposedly slept, we are equally proud of our musicians’, artists’, and politicians’ southern roots. In fact, Mississippi-born Elvis Presley has no fewer than 5 “homes” across the region. Many visitors are surprised to learn that The Shoals houses the birthplace and childhood home of blind and deaf activist, thinker, writer, lecturer, and philanthropist, Helen Keller.
The Keller home, known as Ivy Green, sits on a quiet lot on North Commons street in West Tuscumbia. Initially, the 1820 Virginia-cottage style house sat on a 640-acre parcel next to a small bridal cottage, also known as the birthplace cottage and school house. The property, now only 10 acres, enshrines the life of the extraordinary woman who broke through the restraints of her physical limitations to become one of the most astonishing women of the early twentieth century.
The entire estate has such presence. The moment you step foot on the property, you immediately want to sense the place the way Helen Keller did. You close your eyes; you hear the wind through the giant trees, the sticky dew evaporating in the morning sun, the smell of early autumn and a tingle in the nose give hints at the way she may have known Ivy Green. It’s hard not to touch everything knowing it was all touched by Helen Keller.
Through our Journal’s Heirloom series, we’ve been exploring the things we value and why we hold them dear. Each story reveals the value of tradition and honors possessions that were made to last. While these items may not be valuable to the world-at-large, to the owner they are priceless.
This week, Kasey, our Production Coordinator for the Alabama Chanin collection shares memories of the clock she inherited from her grandmother.
My grandmother, Peggy Louise, was a mother of 6, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of 17 – and she somehow knew how to make each of us feel special. The time we spent together was filled with food, stories, and – above all – laughter.
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.
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.