We have written before about the rich manufacturing and textile history present in our community. The Shoals area and surrounding communities were working fabric and textile materials beginning in the late 1800’s. Those earlier years were often unkind to the mill workers and their families who worked long hours, lived in factory-owned apartments, and shopped in factory-owned stores. But, as the Industrial Revolution gave way to reform, textile manufacturing stayed in our community and flourished. Eventually, it was something that we in The Shoals were known for, as we were often called the “T-Shirt Capital of the World.”
Terry Wylie’s family founded Tee Jay’s Manufacturing Co. here in Florence in 1976, and in doing so became the foundation for a local industry. Whole families were known to work together, producing t-shirts and cotton products. Typical of our community, the company and the employees were loyal to one another. It was common for an employee to stay at Tee Jays for decades. Our Production Manager, Steven, worked for the Wylie family for years – for a time, working in the same building where Alabama Chanin is currently housed. It was this way until the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tee Jays and other local manufacturers eventually shuttered all domestic manufacturing. It was an undeniably tough hit for a community that had “worked” cotton for most of its existence. Some of those who hand stitch for us once worked in mills and lost their jobs when plants here in Alabama closed and moved to cheaper locations. This move left our building, once a thriving manufacturing center, an empty shell, as you can see from the picture above. Machines like the ones below were moved elsewhere, and the resounding hum of our once busy manufacturing community was silenced.
At Alabama Chanin, we are constantly learning, growing, and gathering the understanding to expand our range of knowledge and operations. In 2012, we made our first attempts at farming organic cotton, and we hope to move forward, taking into account all that we’ve learned. We have also been learning as much as we can about what it means to manufacture on a larger scale, with machines. For Alabama Chanin, part of growing a healthy, sustainable company means growing a healthy community.
I have to admit, the idea of machine manufacturing was always in the back of our minds—even as we built Alabama Chanin with hand-sewn garments over the last decade. There have been many conversations with Terry Wiley, and other businessmen in our community, about what it might take to begin to rebuild the textile industry close to home. It was our thought that by expanding our staple of goods to include a sustainable machine-made line, some of those production jobs might return.
Today, that dream is coming true. We are taking what we have learned from the MAKESHIFT conversations about intersecting design, manufacturing, craft, and DIY. We have relationships that join designers and manufacturers and DIY. We are involved in our supply chain from seed to finished product. Our next challenge will be creating new intersections of these industries all within one company, under one roof. Adding a machine-made component to our skill set will show, to a degree, how these industries and these ways of working with diverse groups of people can embrace one another and thrive.
To do this, we want to create a manufacturing facility that will not only create an additional range of Alabama Chanin goods, but provide opportunity, knowledge, and space for other companies interested in organic, Made in the USA production. There is a dearth in the market for affordable, organic garments made in our own country. For years we have cultivated relationships with organic suppliers and, to the best of our ability, built an organic supply chain from start to finish.
Our goal is to revitalize the once-thriving garment manufacturing industry within our community while joining elements of design, manufacturing, craft, cottage industry, and DIY as a model for other manufacturers. Some may say that it is a lofty goal, but we have experienced advisors, makers, and designers at our side. The machines are here and we are in the process of getting them running. The silence of the room (see below) is now bustling with the sound of progress. It’s just a matter of days before the machines will be humming too. Look for more information on the Alabama Chanin machine-made line in the coming weeks, and stay tuned for updates on our progress.