On the 18th of November last year, Natalie held a Facebook Chat about Design Process + Manufacturing as part of her EcoSalon Post titled: From Field to Fashion. Here is a synopsis of the conversation that unfolded. Keep the conversation going in the comments section of this post and come back each week to read our post for Sustainable Design Tuesdays. Thank you to everyone who joined us that Friday afternoon.
Tammy Abramovitz: Well, I would like to take this opportunity to voice my adoration of you and your company! Love all things Alabama Chanin!!!!
AC: Thank you Tammy!
Doc Waller: Same here, The Layman Group and I are fans as well!
Amy DuFault: Natalie, what was the first piece of clothing/design you ever created?
AC: I started sewing with my grandmothers… so, I would have to say that the first piece was way back then. But, the first piece I sewed “Alabama Style” was a t-shirt—of course.
My grandmother would let me pick out fabric and buttons for my dresses and I think that little act of belief she showed in my opinion set the stage for me to grow into a designer. I try to show my daughter Maggie the same belief in her sense of style – BUT, you should see some of the outfits she wears to school!
Audrey Chamberlain: Hi! Do you think it’s easier, or harder to expand your business when you rely on individual sew(ists?) to create your garments? I so admire your business model and creative ’empire’, your willingness to share your knowledge, and your commitment to your community!
AC: Audrey – It definitely takes more commitment to rely on individual sew(ists) to create your garments – especially as production quantities grow. But, I think this is the part that also makes production rewarding and connects us to our community…
Jo Maxwell: Hi. How do you handle the retail price when so much work goes into the garment but you still need to keep a price point that will sell. How much do you lose when a secondary company manufactures for you?
AC: Jo – Pricing is always a difficult issue… especially when so much of our cost of manufacturing goes into the actual hand-sewing. We work closely with our retail partners on the price points to find a win-win situation for everyone. How much do you lose when a secondary company manufactures for you? I don’t think it is so much what you lose financially but the control you lose over the manufacturing process and, for us, the connection to our artisans and community.
Jo Maxwell: I make pillows, quilts and clothing with vintage fabrics.. barkcloth, chenille, feed/seed/grain sacks. I could never charge for my time and still offer items at prices people will pay.
AC: Jo, it is very difficult in the structure of the economy today to receive the value of hand work. If you haven’t already seen it, please watch The Story of Stuff. There are so many hidden costs that we are not paying as consumers today -makes it difficult for those doing things by-hand and “the clean way.”
Debra LaFollette Blakely: How many garments are made each year? (average) I greatly admire what is coming out of Alabama Chanin. I hope to see y’all this summer.
AC: Currently we produce approximately 3000 individual products a year – this includes everything from heavily embellished bedspreads to t-shirts. Come on the Alabama any time!
Cayce Murphy Collins: I design and sew clothing and would love to make the huge leap to having my garments commercially manufactured- is there a resource you could recommend that could help me get started?
AC: The Fashion Center used to supply a list of manufacturers in NYC along with fabric and notions suppliers – might be a good place to start.
Natalie Northrup: Hi Natalie, I wondered if you had any recommendations on reading for understanding the confusing world of design licensing or understanding copyrights/ licensing for textile designers
AC: This is a very difficult question – I have found the only way to truly understand it is with the help of a lawyer or a student of the law. We are trademarked in the US and Europe which has some precedence worldwide. For serious questions, I would approach a lawyer friend and ask for advice against trade!
Tori Cole: When you began the business, what were techniques you used to grow? Are there any good resources out there for designers who are looking to start their own print/textile companies, but not sure where to begin to market? Ps-I love that you are so willing to help answer questions! I’ve been a fan of your sustainable and artisan-based business model for a very long time!
AC: When I started, the process was so different than today… The web has changed so much and we have access to so many more outlets. I believe that it is very important to have a good graphic designer who can put together a package of tools for you to use to represent who you are. You know, pretty boxes want to be opened. We worked with a fantastic graphic team who helped us put our first catalog together – which opened a lot of doors. Of course – the web is the best place to start for marketing. I tell students all the time – all you need is a good idea. I know this sounds cliché – but it’s true.
Jean Jones: Natalie, what advice would you give to a designer looking to branch into ready to wear, and thus manufacturing?
AC: I would advise any and everyone to go slowly… Grow as you can – take small steps – even if sometimes they feel too small. Look for manufacturing in your community or in a place where you know 100% that things are being done appropriately. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about opening new manufacturing facilities in the US. Talk to everyone who will listen, maybe there is something going on in your own community that you have yet to learn about… Or make the commitment yourself. Buy one machine.
The whole carpet industry in Georgia started with one tufting machine and a woman, Catherine Evans Whitener.
Suzy Peabody: Natalie, how do you open up new accounts? Do you have a sales rep?
AC: We do everything in-house and I really don’t know how to answer, if this is the right way or not… Given the handmade nature of our product, it is hard for someone who is not intimate with our process to do the wholesale accounts – on the other hand, it sure would be nice to have help sometimes! I am not sure that I have the best answer to this – even after 10 years!
Maria Moyer: I’m delighted by your collaboration w Cathy at HEATH Ceramics. Like peanut butter and jelly–you two. I’ll pick up a few pieces of my own on Monday. Please share something with us that you learned in the process. X0!
AC: Hello sweet Maria! Cathy and Robin are amazing designers…they have a peace and dedication to them that just wears off when you sit next to them. I think the thing I learned the most was to slow down – a collaboration happens as it should – not by any clock. It takes time to do something well and you are rewarded by waiting for a design to unfold.
Ashley Baker: Hi Natalie! I admire you for your passion for supporting local community. You practice what you preach by running a successful business that does just this—keeping it local! I have close friends that are able to help provide for their family because you kept the company local. I think it awesome! Are you seeing an increased awareness of people being concerned of where their clothing, food, material items, etc come from? And does this “green” movement affect the colors of fabric you choose for new collections? Such as–are people want more muted colors? or are they over the burlap color scheme and wanting brighter color (not sure if this follows design process+manufacturing..ha! and sorry to be a bit long-winded) Much love!! Ashley
AC: Ashley – you just about made me cry right now!!! Thank you! Luckily, there is a rapidly growing awareness of clothing, food, and community! I wouldn’t say that this specifically affects the colors that I choose but I have always been very “collectively” aware so I am sure that all of this has some underlying push to my design sensibilities… And I have always loved the color of “burlap!”
Abigail Doan: Dear Natalie: I am curious about whether you think that (fashion) design schools are realistically and sustainably addressing the future of fashion (design + manufacturing)? To what extent do you think that students going into programs should supplement their coursework with hands on (local) experiences or helpful mentors? x A.D.
AC: Abigail! Thanks for stopping by! Tough question! Generally, I don’t see nearly enough business + manufacturing coming out of the schools and universities. Of course, there are some schools doing great work at the moment. I find it frustrating to see students coming out with portfolios that have no relation to the current state of the economy and with no skills to operate in the modern world. The students I see really succeeding are those that do choose hands-on experience and mentors – as well as students with strong business skills… I think that you and I need to sit down with this question over a tea?
Debra LaFollette Blakely: Natalie, did you go to fashion/design school?
AC: Yes, I graduated from North Carolina State University School of Design and did an early version of the Anni Albers program.
Rebekah Joy Rickman: Hey Natalie! Just wondering, if your demands grow beyond what artists in your community can handle will you outsource or use machine labor? Thanks for answering our questions!
AC: You are welcome – thanks for coming by!!! We are currently looking for ways to add machine made products – and, of course, work- back into our community… Will keep you all updated if we are able to make it happen…
Beki Biesterfelt: What inspires you in the design process??
AC: My favorite part is the original inspiration – putting together colors, finding patterns that tell stories, and then translating those to garments. This makes my heart sing.
AC: Thanks for stopping by everyone… I am going back to lower case and on to designing the new kids line… xoNatalie
WOW I have a question.. how to you not just walk through those shelves and shelves of lovely supplies and not just stand and gaze at them all day! This is a great interview! Thanks for sharing!