In the autumn of last year, I was contacted by a New York University professor from the Liberal Studies department named Jessamyn Hatcher. She had gotten my email address from our mutual friend Sally Singer and wanted to know if we would be willing to discuss a field trip that she was planning with her 30+ students from the Dean’s Circle, a University Scholars program.
Her email explained that the “theme for the 2010-2011 Dean’s Circle and Colloquium is ‘The Price of Fashion: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Global Garment Trade.’ The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred on March 25, 1911, in what is now the Brown building. 146 people, most of who were between the ages of 16 and 21, died while manufacturing women’s blouses. Next year will mark its 100th anniversary, and we will use the anniversary as an occasion to explore issues surrounding the world garment trade, from mass production in sweatshops to the runways of the world’s fashion capitols to the ‘slow design’ movement.”
While I was fascinated by Jessamyn’s inquiry, in the first moment I wondered how a workshop could function with 30+ students in our studio. My fears were unfounded.
Several weeks ago, the group arrived and the experience was one of wonder, exploration and pleasure. Following a two day workshop in our studio, the students moved on to Rural Studio in Greensboro, Alabama, to continue their journey.
Jessamyn joked at one point how many of her colleagues had asked, “Why aren’t you going to Paris?”
The lovely thank you notes from the (18 – 20 year-old) students below explains it all. I hope that the students don’t mind that I have shared their observations about our world. I am appreciative to look at our work, our staff and our world through fresh eyes.
(And to have found a new friend in Jessamyn!)
Dear Natalie, Diane, Steven, Stacy, Olivia, and June,
Natalie’s studio and Alabama Chanin as a whole can be summed up for me in these words: eucalyptus, lavender, (her studio and my shirt really smelled like those things!) tranquility, patience, community, love, inspiration, innovation, and design. Natalie seems utterly devoted to her work and her community from her business principles to her design concepts. Her work is her community, her love is her community, and her community is her work. The pieces that she creates remind me of treasures that trend towards economic and social progression. What she does is beyond inspiring.
Sewing became one of the most meditative and calming activities that I have ever engaged in. The only things that were important during the sessions were my hands and what was before them. My concentration transpired with the undulation of the needle and thread. The shirt I made after all of those hours in those two days embodies Alabama’s meditative effect on me. Being in the south, all we really had were ourselves and each other around us.
The entire time we were in Alabama I felt an extreme sense of letting go -I really did not have to and was not worrying about anything. Everything was planned for us, everything was welcoming for us, and the rest of the world (New York) seemed light years away. What was relevant was what was around me -the people I was with, our activities, and the community. And although we remained secluded in rural nothingness, with limited access to internet and phones, a shared feeling of an immense freedom and escape was, I think, felt by us all.
Everyone we met, in the towns, Alabama Chanin, and the Rural Studio, were so gracious towards us. Southern stereotypes of hospitality were accurate, but so accurate that it felt strange in the best way possible. The communities welcomed us with open arms and open plates.
The instruction at Alabama Chanin was great! Everybody was so patient, welcoming, and friendly. I loved hearing about how their business ran and about the history of the garment industry in the town. It was especially cool to have Steven there who had experience in both worlds. Both the experience of hands on sewing and to see all of the creativity happening within the bounds of Natalie Chanin’s studio (the scrap couch, random pieces of artwork laying about, and even the insulators they sewed for our drink jars) inspired me to step up my own creativity in terms of recycling the things around me to create objects for myself instead of always purchasing them.
My experience in Alabama, on the whole, has really gotten me thinking about hyper-localization (if that’s even a word? maybe not… but I’ll roll with it.) Here at NYU, we’re always looking for the next place to expand/conquer, but both Alabama Chanin and the Rural Studio are two great examples of people looking to stay within their communities and make a local impact as opposed to leaving a global stamp, which I find not only really fascinating, but also really worthwhile.
Natalie is so concerned with making her company run like a family –especially given the fact that her factory feels more like a living room space than a factory warehouse. The unique antique-y looking chairs all seated around tables that make you feel like you’re sitting at a sewing club rather than a factory speaks volumes about the type of company Natalie is running. I really loved getting to know my fellow DC-ers while sitting around a table stitching.
Both sewing and thoughtful architecture are dying arts. More and more as time goes on, manual labor is being replaced by machines. The art of painting your own fence, as we did in rural studio becomes a rare and novel experience. Activities like sewing your own scarf or chopping your own wood to construct a neighborhood church are dwindling under the threat of urbanization. But what makes rural Alabama a small (and perhaps utopian?) oasis in the midst of modernity is that it gave us the opportunity to ressurect these vital arts and learn about them. I loved learning how to sew and getting the chance to hear Natalie Chanin’s life experiences. She impressed me so much with her life story. From her, I not only learned how to string my needle and “love” my thread,” but the important elements of running a successful business.
It’s a frigid night in New Jersey. I’m doing laundry and typing this. It snowed last night and the streets are slightly glazed with ice. I’ve spent the whole day reflecting on everything that went down in Alabama and here are the thoughts that immediately come to mind.
1. Southerners are nice
I haven’t exactly traveled the world, but out of all the places I’ve been, the citizens of Alabama have to be some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. Their warmth and generosity is constantly overflowing and they made me feel comfortable in a place that was completely foreign to me. I find that where I live, Southern people are often stereotyped as being distant, judgmental and suspicious of anyone isn’t from the South, but that’s absurdly untrue. Everyone from Danny’s friend Caroline, to Natalie and all the employees at Alabama Chanin, to Davis, John, and Cameron at the Rural Studio, to Chris the bus driver, was absolutely wonderful and I consider myself so fortunate to have met them, gotten a chance to speak with them and learn so much from them.
2. I might attempt to make a shirt
After spending two days under the tutelage of Natalie and the sewers at Alabama Chanin I have gotten an idea to make a shirt out of all my old clothes that I never wear anymore. I’m planning to start cutting them up and sewing my favorite parts of all of them into one awesome shirt that I would model after an existing shirt I own. It would probably look kind of weird, but I’m thinking that the awesomeness would outweigh the weirdness.
3. The South is beautiful
The view from the top of the bird watch tower at Perry Lakes was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It gave me a sense of the power of nature that I had never experienced before coming to Alabama and the hour we spent in that park filled me with an overwhelming sense of peace. That was one of my favorite moments from the trip, I tried to pick a definitive favorite but I can’t.
One of the most priceless aspects of our workshop with Natalie was being able to see where she works and where her creations begin. Although Natalie hesitates to call herself an artist, I think any artist’s surroundings are very telling of their creative processes and walking into her factory gave me an excellent idea of who she is as a designer without ever having spoken to her. From the mismatched, stained wooden chairs to the walls and walls of muted cotton-jersey fabric, the Alabama Chanin factory was an experience in itself. I was fascinated by the books she collects and was impressed by how well read and thereby well-rounded Natalie is as a person and a designer. I found myself jotting down the book titles she mentioned concerning the global garment economy and the issue of outsourcing garment construction. She was a breath of Southern fresh air and I will think of everything she stands for every time I wear my one of a kind scarf.
It is really rare to find a place where everything is beautiful, but Natalie Chanin’s studio was one such place. Every single detail had obviously been considered, and everything played into the overall aesthetic of her designs as well as that of the company ethic. Despite being more carefully orchestrated and better kept than any store or designer space I have been in, there was nothing “retail” about it. I felt instantly at home there, and it felt much more like a place to live and work than a place built to house the unattainable luxury most couture brands strive for. I loved seeing the studio, I loved working on a sewing project there, I loved the people and the town that hosted us, but most of all I loved listening to Natalie. She is a person who has led a truly fascinating life, and it was enlightening to hear how she runs an ethical company in a world of sweatshops and outsourcing. Since so much of our course before the trip had focused on the negative aspects of fashion and production it was a relief to meet and talk with someone who is doing it right. It is also an inspiration to know “doing it right” is even a possibility. Not only was Natalie willing to discuss her business and personal life with a strange group of students, but also she did so with such an openness and earnestness. It would really be difficult to thank her enough for her great generosity in sharing her products, her studio, and herself with our little group.
It was immensely refreshing to work with a group of people so dedicated to their work and so willing to share their experiences, knowledge, and talents. I was very impressed by Natalie and her story. She was so well read and just overall a pleasure to be around. Her drive and determination were inspiring to me. It’s so easy nowadays to feel helpless and useless -to feel unable to change society in a meaningful and progressive way. Natalie serves as a living example of how this is indeed possible, and how important it is to stick to one’s beliefs.
If someone told me that one day I will be wearing a t-shirt that I sew myself, it would be a good joke, but the two days that I spent at the Alabama Chanin made it true. In the two days that I spent at Alabama Chanin, I did not only learn how to saw, but also listened to a life story of a business owner, ate great food, met with one of the most influential fashion designers in the world, learnt how one can listen to his/her heart rather than the sounds of money and still be very happy as Natalie was.
Kathleen Cahill: To Natalie, our visit to your studio was an incredible experience. Not only was it a pleasure to observe the various aspects of your business, but also a privilege to get to know you. You have a beautiful point of view that comes across in your clothing, your business and the way you give back to your community. It was inspiring to see someone who truly cares about her work and is determined to stick to the high standards she sets for herself and her company. I wish you and the rest of your team the best of luck.
Walking into Natalie’s studio I was immediately struck by the coziness of it. She clearly spent time creating a comfortable and enchanting environment that puts her visitors at ease. I was worried that I would be intimidated when entering her studio, but it was just the opposite. I adore her designs and I couldn’t wait to get started on my scarf (which turned out so cute!) I had done very little sewing prior to this trip, but I picked it up quickly thanks to the help of Diane, who was so friendly and patient with all of us. After I mastered those pesky knots, I found myself lost in a rhythm of sewing. Every stitch became better and slowly I progressed. What was most beautiful to me is how much we can accomplish with our hands and how unique each product is. Clothes just aren’t made that way anymore and that Natalie is trying to bring back personality into her garments by tying them into to her setting, her workers, and her ethical methods is inspiring. I walked out feeling proud.
Visiting Natalie’s studio was among one of the best experiences I’ve had to date. From the moment we arrived I felt welcome, as if i was part of the community in Florence. Natalie’s entire process, the way in which she takes carefully curated materials and turns them into beautiful pieces of clothing was awe inspiring. In a world dominated by careless production standards and unethical labor, Natalie challenged the entire world of garment production. It was clear from the visit that her and her staff truly care for each garment, for each customer, and for everybody involved in the process of creating a garment, something that seems other worldly according to today’s standards. Overall an absolutely wonderful and enriching experience.
In brief, my experiences at both Alabama Chanin and Rural studios were ten out of tens. I don’t consider myself particularly hard to impress, but these experiences were both really very special. The most powerful thing that I will take away from this is exposure to dimensions of this life/country/world that I had previously been completely unexposed to. I think it was evident to everyone in Natalie’s studio what a good time I was having sewing my shirt and I’m thrilled with both the resulting tee shirt and my newfound skill of sewing. The time we spent at Alabama Chanin was deeply inspiring to me, as is evident by the fact that I am now sewing a narrative quilt for my project! All of the employees at the studio were absolute sweethearts too.
Only one day back and I am having difficulty describing our trip to my friends. There was something about Alabama unlike anything else I have experienced, something unique and incredible. The sheer amount of hope held by all of the people we encountered was enough to make the trip a memory that stands out from all others. We didn’t go to a huge city or an impoverished foreign country, and that made all the difference. Had we gone to a city, the trip would surely have been fun, yet impersonal. The chances that we would develop friendships with people like our bus driver or the waiter at our restaurant would have been virtually nonexistent. Had we traveled to the third world we would have been even more disconnected, as language and geographic barriers would have made the place seem alien and different from our own.
Instead, we stayed in America and spent time in some of the most rural and struggling areas of the country. I would have expected the people in such a region to be disappointed or frustrated, uneducated or suffering. Instead, I was met with the most hopeful people I have met in my entire life.
Natalie Chanin’s studio is a stark rebuttal to cynical beliefs that clothing must be made overseas or with machine. Natalie’s workshop was unbelievable not only in its hospitality but also its incredible success. By sewing my own garment, I was able to get a glimpse into the daily lives of the people responsible for such methods of manufacturing. Is the work tedious? At times. Is it inhumane? Definitely not. It is rewarding? A thousand times yes. Clothing can be produced outside of the sweatshop, by people who genuinely enjoy their work. I personally thank Natalie for showing this to us, and for helping us understand the value of each stitch in a properly made garment.
Rural Studio’s ambition and goals would seem impossible if it weren’t for their abundance of results. In the midst of the poorest areas in one of America’s poorest states, Rural Studio produced incredible projects on a scale that I wouldn’t have believed unless I saw it for myself. They seemed to have the idea that “we could produce amazing architecture anywhere, lets start in the places that need it most”. Any one of their graduates surely could have gone off to produce shapeless glass office buildings in any of the world’s cities, yet they chose to stay and produce works of architecture whose creation aided entire communities.
Our dean’s circle is, needless to say, a pretty well-traveled group. Had we gone to nearly anywhere else in the world, there would have been at least one circle member who had been before, or even grew up there. Any city on the world would have been compared to New York, and any third world country would have been a trip based on economics and global trade. Somehow, we developed a trip about individuals. Every person that we encountered, whether it be the architecture student, the bus driver, or the waitress at a gas-station-turnedrestaurant, we had real human reactions. It wasn’t New York where I would walk past a thousand people on the sidewalk on my way to class, it was something else entirely.
Before the trip, my view of the south was most likely one of the most incorrect views I could have possibly harbored. The standard dean’s circle student most likely knew more about the average citizen in Iran or Cuba than they did in Alabama. After this trip, I feel like I have experienced a totally new and different way of life. I saw more hope in the clothing of Natalie Chanin or the buildings by Rural Studio than in any globalized clothing manufacturer or metropolitan design firm.
When I flew out of Birmingham yesterday morning, I felt as if I had experienced something totally foreign and new, yet somehow incredibly understandable and amazing.
Rachel Stern: From the moment I walked into your beautiful workspace I knew you were like nothing I had ever seen before. In those two days I became enthralled with the entire process. Whether it was never wanting to stop sewing or listening to Natalie’s wonderful stories, I truly enjoyed my time with you. You were completely hospitable and lovely people whom I am so glad to have met.
In addition to all that, you changed the way I thought about things. After sewing my own scarf, I have a whole new appreciation for the word “hand-made.” While standing in line for one of the lunches you provided (both of which were delicious), I stood in awe of the beautiful clothing hanging on the racks. I overheard one of the ladies who worked at Alabama Chanin say, “I can’t wait to make that” and the simple statement shocked me. It helped me realize that we can take more active roles in everything we do. It could be making clothing rather than purchasing it or doing something rather than waiting for others to get it done. Thank you for helping me learn this lesson and many others in my short time with you.
Ilana Greene: I loved my experience at Alabama Chanin. Although I got a late start in the workshop, I felt like a I learned so much not only about how to sew a garment, but also more deeply about the values that exist behind the ethical and noble garment industry that Alabama Chanin is trying to create. I admire Natalie and her team’s pursuit to create a business based on the foundations of community and sustainability, and I believe that this business model should be extended into other disciplines of business and organizational endeavors. I really appreciated this once in a lifetime experience to visit Alabama Chanin.
Before sharing my feelings about the experience as a whole, it should be known that prior to this, I had only sewed a pillow as part of my requirements for Family and Consumer Sciences in 7th grade. Without a paintbrush, pencil, or set of piano keys, I tend to be very limited as far as creating things goes. However, it was Natalie’s warm and inviting studio that enabled me to actually enjoy sewing. This was my first glimpse at the “southern hospitality” I have heard about; the people there could not have been more kind and inviting, nor could they have been more patient with some our slow-sewing. The folk music in the background could not have better highlighted the mood of the room (truth be told, I actually went over to the iPod to jot down a few artists), and if I had the time, I could write an anthology of poems to describe the unbelievable, sensational tastes of the food that was prepared for us (I am still suffering from withdrawal). Seeing how Natalie’s successful studio has helped keep Florence alive was inspiring. Regarding the political attitudes of the workers, it was very interesting, educational and worthwhile to get a different perspective on NAFTA; while I am by no means a protectionist, paying close attention to the rhetoric of those who have been left behind has pushed me to reconsider a few things. At the very least, I have learned that the issue of globalization is not so black and white. There is much gray ground to be explored – an expedition which I would like to be a part of.
Getting over some preconceived notions, I was quite drawn to the progressive nature of Florence, Alabama, specifically the art gallery and neo-folk music scene, as well as some interracial groups I noticed in public.
I’m so sorry–my computer has been screwy for the past two days, and so has everything else been malfunctioning, so I’m currently writing this in the Apple Store at Covent Garden while it is getting fixed. In pre-meditating my transition from Alabama to London, there was no question in my mind as to which place I was looking forward to the most, and how much more I was going to enjoy Europe after leaving the armpit of the country (to be honest). It amazes me how much my pre-notions of where I come from has changed, and how much I found out about myself and my prospects for this semester in only two days in Alabama at Natalie’s studio! I remembered when I entered the place and how I felt like I was walking into the movie, Big Fish, in that city where everything smiles and wears no shoes, is fitted in pastel colors, and never wants to leave–the chunky racks of dresses, the stitches visible everywhere, the smell, the abundance of cotton, the people, relaxed–it was a utopic-sensory-overload. I loved the humbleness of this company and I loved Natalie. When she spoke to us about accusations of being too high-end, explaining the many, layered processes that go into making her garments, it lessened the growing distance between myself and the practicality of sustainable fashion for a starving college student like me (which, honestly, left me unconvinced despite a semester’s-worth of education in sustainable fashion). Beforehand, it was either 1) pay for unaffordable fashion, or 2) buy that Walmart T-shirt and feel very guilty. Instead, I learned so many useful things about garment-making, and how accessible sustainable fashion is. The way Natalie and the staff taught me how to work with used materials was inspiring: I found myself really affected by the way I was taught to assemble something beautiful from, basically, recycled waste and thread. And how good it felt too! Somehow the act of pulling thread through fabric, measuring out the stitches, listening to the conversations in that room was so textural and fascinating and removed from everything, that I stopped thinking in facebook, in my semester abroad, in anything that was outside of that community of stitchers, and I definitely started crying at one point. Now, I’m in London, I can’t stop comparing everything to Alabama, I would rather stitch my own clothes than pay for anything in pounds, my immediate response to seeing something beautiful is wanting to stitch it (this is an immediate response), I’ve worn my Rose and Lace Striped T-shirt for the past four days, and all I want to do is go back to the South.
Before we even met for the first time as a group this past September, I was browsing through our itinerary for our trip to Alabama. Of course, what caught my eye the most was that we were visiting a factory which I had never done before. When I looked at the website for Alabama Chanin, my first thought was, “Oh my god, these dresses are beautiful.” My second thought was, “Eight hundred dollars?!”
That was a long time ago when I didn’t have nearly as much knowledge as I do now about the garment industry. Now I can understand, more than ever, the meaning of the value. Our visit to Alabama Chanin only reaffirmed what I had been learning this past semester about moral responsibility and being a citizen of the world around me. Thank you to everyone over there for being so awesome. Keep doing what you do because you do it much better than I ever could, even though I’ll admit, you may have made a seamstress out of me!
I know for a fact that I would not have enjoyed my experience in Alabama nearly as much if I had decided to simply visit on my own. Our time at Alabama Chanin and Rural Studios were personally enriching and I’ve certainly walked away with a deeper and more complex understanding of the world we live in.
Natalie is intelligent, worldly, and down-to-earth. She’s an admirable person, and one whom I’d like very much to emulate. She’s passionate and forthright, and I think her work at Alabama Chanin is remarkable and really demonstrates her values and what she stands for. The success of her small cottage industry company made me realize that a person could make a living without selling out to corporate/capitalist interests.
She’s truly an inspiration.
With our love, thanks, and admiration,
Jessamyn, Sean, Elayne, and the 2010-2011 NYU Dean’s Circle
*Photos courtesy of the 2010-2011 NYU Dean’s Circle
Love the photograph in front of William Christenberry’s Green Warehouse: