In 2006, Leslie Hoffman of Earth Pledge asked me to write a short paper for inclusion in their Future Fashion White Papers. I recently came across the volume while browsing my library and the essay stirred up so many memories from that time. As the last of my tomatoes drop to the ground, I wanted to (re)share my thoughts on tomatoes and fashion.
What Does Planting Tomatoes Have to Do With Fashion?
– from Future Fashion White Papers
The Alabama tomato is truly a wonder. It takes on the color of the deep, red soil and the taste borders somewhere between sweet and tart. I grew up eating these tomatoes straight out of my grandparents’ garden in Florence, Alabama, and after having lived away from home and in Europe for over 20 years, I still think Alabama tomatoes are the best in the world. So when I moved back to my hometown in Florence, to a place called Lovelace Crossroads, I was eager to have a garden and grow my own.
I quickly realized I could not remember the details of how to plant a tomato so I consulted Mr. Jay Arnet, 87-year-old family friend who has the most beautiful kitchen garden. He taught me how to lovingly remove the bottom branches from the seedlings, dig a hole that seemed too big, fill it with compost and water the plants. If done correctly, these plants would produce the tomatoes that filled our stomachs all summer and become the basis for our soups in the winter. Thanks to Mr. Arnet, the plants thrived and our cupboard was filled with cans of stewed tomatoes.
Still, I was a little shocked that I had lost this very basic knowledge: how to grow my own food. On its most immediate level, growing food literally connects you to roots and earth. But it also connects you with the skills and traditions that farmer families have used forever as they tilled the land to produce fruit, vegetables and, in this area, cotton.
Planting a garden after coming back to Alabama was more than just a way to celebrate my homecoming; it was also a way to immerse myself into the “domestic arts”, which I prefer to call “living arts”. I realized that here in my community, activities like sewing, gardening, cooking and quilting have never just been tasks. They’re artful endeavors that allow for independence, a way to take direct responsibility for quality of life and simultaneously, they create a bond between individuals and community, between past and present.
In our community, women often bonded at quilting bees. These gatherings tapped into the region’s long, rich history of textile work and celebrated valued skills that were passed from generation to generation. Unfortunately, not everyone still deems these skills valuable and often they don’t get passed on.
That’s one reason why I returned home to Alabama: to create a collection of clothing that preserved and reinvigorated those hand-sewing traditions that are unique to my region and that I learned at the feet of grandmothers, mother and aunts. I also wanted to use recycled materials and employ age-old production techniques.
I never imagined that this idea would garner attention from the fashion and business worlds especially during a time when U.S. textile production was moving elsewhere. Instead of going overseas, I worked with about 200 skilled local artisans who came to be revered by fashion insiders for their elaborately embellished, hand-sewn garments that were sold in over 60 stores around the world.
Today Alabama Chanin’s designs are still inspired by local sewing traditions. I was recently reminded of how precious these techniques are when I stumbled upon a piece of handwork made by my grandmother. It was a pillowcase and the intricate needlework was sewn on a flour sack. I could just make out the company’s imprint as a shadow on the fabric. The piece is truly incredible. She spent hours and hours—probably over the course of months—making something beautiful from a piece of fabric that today would be thrown into the garbage.
This validated what I have always thought: that the men and women who raised me were artisans who used readily available materials to create objects, both decorative and functional, which enriched our everyday lives. These items were never considered anything extraordinary, and the people who made them were humble about their work. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer people who can make such future heirlooms.
At Alabama Chanin, I am trying to keep those traditions alive. Most of the people who stitch for us grew up like me, learning to sew from family members. So it was no surprise when at one point we had three generations of the same family working with us. Most of these artisans grew up in rural communities and made their own clothes. Maybe they didn’t have much of anything else, but they had the abundance of a skill that enabled them to make an old dress look new with a few stitches or turn a simple tablecloth into something spectacular with embroidery.
By sustaining these handwork traditions, Alabama Chanin is also hoping to sustain the identity of this stretch of land at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. And while most people talk about sustainability in reference to chemicals or materials – physical things — and their effect on the environment, I also think sustainability depends on nurturing the skills necessary to manipulate local materials into well-designed objects. To do this, I believe it’s essential that we respect the sanctity of our traditions and the skilled workers and artisans who keep them alive.
Whether planting a tomato or embroidering a napkin, staying connected to these traditions allows us to also cherish them. Handwork requires we respect everyday materials and helps us imagine what they can be. It also forces us to use our resources wisely. The people in my community learned to use what they had on hand and make the most of it, especially during the depression. For example, during the depression red thread was costly and hard to come by. So after the men had smoked or chewed the contents of their Red Man Tobacco pouches, the women would take the coarse cotton tobacco bags and unravel the red thread and use it for their sewing projects. This attitude that all things have potential continues to inspire me. It is also an ethic that I try to remember every day as I build my company and design my collections.
Like my original tomato garden, my company has grown. In addition to garments, we now make home furnishings and jewelry. I’m still able to pursue the original vision of working with outstanding artisans and recycled materials to make beautiful products that can be enjoyed by people around the world. But, we’re also trying to do more than just sell things.
A big part of our mission is to make sure these wonderful skills get passed-on through education. We try to spend as much time focusing on workshops and lectures as we do on producing products and garments. In fact, in the Spring of 2008, I will publish a book that teaches people our techniques. We hope to offer them patterns and inspiration so they, too, can sustain their personal aesthetic using our skills while expressing their own unique voice.
These are just a few small ways that I’m hoping to teach more people about the living arts. When we think about how to make a bowl, a dress, or a chair, the process is often shrouded in mystery. Instead, we buy one at the store. But that simple purchase has much bigger ramifications. It creates more distance between us and the power we have to create for ourselves.
It’s my hope that these craft traditions, like planting those tomato plants, will allow us to reap the fruit of our labor and talent while helping us participate more deeply in the rhythms of our everyday lives. Ultimately, I hope the living arts will also re-establish our communities as sustainable, dynamic and inspiring places to live.
P.S. Tell us what you think about fashion and tomatoes…
Mr. Arnet passed away a few years back. I will forever be grateful for his stories, kindness, and tomato growing tips.
Such absolutely lovely words, Natalie. You are such an inspiration.
My gradparents grew tomatoes and about half an acre of cucumbers, lettuce, beans and whatever else caught their fancy and continued on into their 70s and 80s. Great memories.
Amen! Natalie, you inspire me beyond words.
I wholeheartedly agree with your point that “sustainability depends on nurturing the skills necessary to manipulate local materials into well-designed objects.”
I share your vision for reviving an appreciation and marketplace for time honored sewing skills and techniques. While sewing machines play a big role in what I’m trying to do vs. hand stitching, I think it is incredibly important that a new generation of creative makers learn the skills required to produce quality garments in a sustainable manner.
Thanks for being a pioneer in the sustainable sewing movement and being so willing to share your thoughts and advice with the world through your writings and lectures. Your talk in Berlin was awesome and inspiring to me as well!
I completely agree, and will go a step further in wondering (as I have for some time) if we would be a much less anxious (and medicated for it) population if the needle arts were as prevalent as they once were. When one works the left side of the brain, as is required when working a puzzle or diagram, the right side of the brain must be silent, which just happens to be the creative side of the brain that unfortunately allows for creative worry and anxiety, too.
I’m not saying there isn’t a need for anxiety meds; I’m just saying that for everyday stress, mind wandering worry, etc., the needle arts provide a therapy that is unmatched and in the end, results in a much loved heirloom.
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Oh, my goodness! This is an amazing piece! I have felt so empowered by craft and the ability to understand the way a garment or quilt is assembled, since childhood. I am now very passionate about the impact of the fashion and food industries on individuals and the world. This piece fuses all of these together and makes craft and growing so powerful- instead of the belittled way it seems to be viewed by the world today. Thank you for all you do in this direction. You remind me that it is noble and empowering to pass these skills on to my daughters.