While working on some press and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pages this last month, I came across some texts that date back across the decade of Alabama Chanin. In reading and going over some of these texts, I thought it would be a good series to share on our Sustainable Design Tuesdays. Here is one of those texts about building a round company:

My goal with building designs – as I have built my company – is to make a sphere.  I strive to create a well-rounded, (w)holistic company that revolves around a central theme: sustainability of culture, environment, and community.

It has been over a decade since I started working on the company that Alabama Chanin has become today and I am often asked how I had the foresight to start a company based on the principles of sustainability and Slow Design. To this comment, I laughingly reply that I never intended to start a sustainable design company; I simply stumbled into it like the fool falling off the cliff. When I cut up those first t-shirts, I was doing something that I felt driven to do. I didn’t think of those garments as the basis of a business; they were simply pieces of clothing I wanted to wear and, perhaps more importantly, make. However, when I look back today, it all feels like a seamless and directed adventure into the realms of becoming a sustainable designer and manufacturer.

I am often invited to speak about this process and our resulting business model, as it has developed into an unusual one. However, truth be told, I have simply taken inspiration for our model from farmers and strive to build a zero waste company where the results of one production process become the fuel for another.

Our primary work is the business of designing and making clothing. And whether a dress calls for recycled t-shirts or locally grown, certified organic cotton, the designing and making of that product spurs our model. It was developed not by intention, but through process.


Our hand-made ready-to-wear, custom couture, and bridal garments are the foundation of Alabama Chanin and sell to clients throughout the world. trunk shows – the core of this part of our business – are set up in cities around the United States; they allow clients to custom order our couture clothing, which is then made-to-order to each individual’s design specification.

Books of hand-embroidered fabric swatches and color cards are made available to each client and allow for ultimate flexibility and creativity in building a wardrobe. Each of these pieces is then custom cut, painted, and sewn without machines by one of our local artisans. Making clothing this way means that the garment our clients receive is unique and individual.

Alabama Chanin is a design-build company – which originated in architecture and construction industries. This simply means that we build – or manufacture – every piece of clothing that we design and sell. By consolidating our entire manufacturing process in-studio, we have narrowed delivery times, gained more control over our end product, and can build tighter, more fluid relationships with our suppliers AND customers. Each of our pieces is hand-cut, painted and packaged with all necessary materials for our artisans, allowing us the maximum possible flexibility.

Our cottage industry method of production provides project kits (similar to our DIY kits) to local artisans who are able to work from their own homes, run their own businesses, and be in charge of their own lives and families. Our pieces are cut and stenciled in our studio and prepared for embroideries and – in most cases – the construction of the garments. These embroideries are then executed by artisans living within about an hour and a half of our studio. It has been an important mission of Alabama Chanin to bring as much work as possible into our community and to our artisans – who also hold themselves available to work for other designers. This open work/open source philosophy is a goal that we strive to achieve every day and all of our products (as well as many of our supplies) are MADE IN THE USA.

We use lean method manufacturing where no products are made until an order is confirmed. This process insures that we produce only what is required, saving natural resources. A stock of base materials is kept on hand and through our manufacturing process nothing goes to waste.

Scraps from our clothing production are integrated into Home + Table products which require fewer yardages, like pillows, trims, napkins, and quilt-like bedding. Scraps from home furnishings which cannot be incorporated into a project are integrated into upcycled products like yarn balls, farm chairs, and scrap bags.

Scraps not appropriate for any other use are being saved and baled– harkening back to their original cotton form – and are used for special projects. Through our continuous process of recycling and up-cycling waste, we are working towards becoming a zero waste manufacturer.

Elaborate fabric developments – originally designed for a single season collection use- are now archived in our extensive FABRIC LIBRARYand offered to clients and other manufacturers for custom-made garments and/or home furnishing projects, as well as at our ongoing trunk shows. This method of archiving and continually recycling has added to our strength as a company and diversified the products we offer to our customers.

As our garments can be expensive, we choose to open source our techniques and patterns in our Alabama Design Series including Alabama Stitch Book (STC – Spring 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – Spring 2010), and, our newest book, Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012). The series makes our work available to those who might not be able afford to purchase our hand-made garments, giving them the opportunity to make the garment themselves or to pay someone in their community to make it for them.

For those who choose to do-it-themselves, we offer DIY kits fully prepared for sewing to further support the process. We have found that teaching someone to sew using our techniques actually aids in the sale of our product. (See more of this story here.)

Because organic cotton fabrics and other sustainable materials have proven so difficult to purchase, we offer the same Fabric + Sewing supplies that we use for our couture garments directly to consumers, designers, and clients.

Lectures and workshops at universities, organizations and businesses bring our story, experiences, techniques, and working methods out into the world on a grassroots level.

Our Weekend Workshop, Individual Studio Days, and now our Weekends Away offer groups and individuals the opportunity to learn from our team about Alabama Chanin’s business model, patterns, techniques, and more.

All of this to say that we strive each day to make Alabama Chanin the most sustainable and forth-right company possible. We believe that when you do the RIGHT thing, you build the right kind of company. We believe that the right kind of company looks like a sphere: round, sensual, moving, and seamless.



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Click to read 3 comments
  1. Carol

    I think a lot of us read, but don’t comment….so I feel a need to say HI and say how impressed I am by you!…..have two of your books and love them…..

  2. Bela Saudade

    Inspiring and timely read for me as a small business owner and as a consumer. I really love the new book and I’m very pleased to have a more ethical company to order my sewing notions from.
    Sewing is my dearest hobby (or vice) and it teaches me patience and appreciation for all those skilled craftsman and artisans that dedicate their time and energy to beautiful arts. Your book is a great reflection on that as well.

    1. Karen

      I love ALL of your books. I love your philosophy on sharing (knowledge, resources, and kindness). Thank you for posting about this “Round” business model. You are truly an inspiration.