I feel so honored and happy to introduce Jessamyn Hatcher as a new contributor to this blog (soon we will add a face to the name). Jessamyn has been a source of inspiration for me as I continue to learn how to frame the work that is so easy for me to DO, but so difficult for me to EXPLAIN in words. My conversations with Jessamyn have taken place across several states, drinks, emails, and phone calls. I am so excited to expand upon those in-depth conversations here with you—beginning today. Please show a big, hearty, and embracing welcome to Jessamyn—our newest contributor and a part of the growing heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
My name is Jessamyn Hatcher. I met Natalie in the fall of 2010, through our mutual friend Sally Singer, when I was preparing to teach a yearlong course at New York University on the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. One hundred years ago, 70% of the nation’s women’s clothing and 40% of men’s was produced in New York City, mostly in the factories and sweatshops that stretched from the Lower East Side of Manhattan up to Washington Square Park. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the 8th and 9th floors of a building right off of Washington Square, was one of the biggest shops. Very young people—mostly between the ages of 14 and 21, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, mostly women and girls—manufactured a kind of women’s blouse there called a shirtwaist.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in a fire while making the blouses. It was the biggest workplace disaster in New York City before September 11, 2001. As the archivists at Cornell’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives write:
The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked—owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials.
The tragedy was compounded by the fact that in 1909, workers had attempted to improve these working conditions. A spontaneous walkout by 400 shirtwaistmakers at the Triangle Factory, protesting conditions and advocating for a living wage, launched the “Uprising of the 20,000,” the largest strike by women to date in U.S. history.
The building where Triangle was housed is now one of the main classroom buildings at NYU; for members of NYU community, the history of Triangle is local history. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is also critically important for U.S. history: it spurred important changes to the nation’s laws, particularly those protecting the rights of workers and the safety of buildings, and it galvanized the country’s labor movement.
For the course I was teaching, I was given an unusual opportunity: as part of an honor’s program, the university would pay for the members of the seminar to take a trip, and we could travel anywhere in the world. My colleagues—and probably most of the students—assumed we’d visit either a fashion capitol (Paris came up a lot), or one of the many places in the world where the conditions that prevailed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory are the status quo today.
My students are the next generation of people who will be making everything from the designs for blouses, to the blueprints for buildings, to public policy. I wanted them to experience something different from either a fashion mecca or a sweatshop. (I’m also put off by the politics of “sweatshop tourism”.)
I wanted to take them somewhere where they could see things being made (and try their own hand at sewing) somewhere that would model ways to make a better world.
I wanted for these students—as I want for all my students—a world of “better joys”. The phrase comes from a passage from Nietzsche that I love: “…[L]earning better to feel joy, we best unlearn how to do harm to others and to contrive harm.”
I asked our friend Sally if she knew of any designer or manufacturer—anywhere in the world—that could teach us better joys. She said: Alabama Chanin.
So instead of going to Paris or Bangladesh or any of the other places we might have gone, we traveled to Florence, Alabama. To see better joy in action, read the letters my students wrote about their time at Alabama Chanin.
Since that trip, Natalie and I have been dreaming up new ways to work together, new ways to continue to connect her work as a designer and a community activist with my university classroom and my research on fashion, ecology, and ethics. We have found that way through a growing conversation about the intersection of fashion, craft, design, and D.I.Y. In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing for this journal about the meanings of D.I.Y. and how D.I.Y. extends to the worlds of education, urban planning, fashion, and beyond…
For starters, here’s a beautiful and important D.I.Y. history project–an open archive assembled by members of the community to commemorate the workers that died in the Triangle fire and the important changes they helped make for many of the rest of us.