Before Alabama Chanin existed in its current form, before the Journal, the Studio Books, the DIY Kits, even the website, we were a very small company. When I began working to create these garments, I was doing the majority of the making myself. That meant buying t-shirts from thrift stores around the community (or anywhere I could find them), washing them, dyeing them, cutting them up, painting them, and sewing them back together again—all of this from my home/makeshift production office. It was thrilling and exhilarating and exhausting and I learned so much about designing (and running a business) by trial and error. Eventually, staff was hired and our production office moved out of my home and into The Factory; however, those early efforts were a daily experiment.
The first men’s t-shirts were a bit different from those we make today. We had no real patterns for the men’s shirts and each shirt was designed, cut, and sewn based entirely on the style of the t-shirt itself. We were in the beginning stages of developing different seams, stretchable stitches, and elaborate embroideries, so the garments were experiments in non-traditional translations of classic sewing techniques and pared down versions of some of the Alabama Chanin garments you might see today.
The “Pig Shirt” in the photo above is one of my very early garments. It is made from a recycled tee, which was hand dyed (in the bathtub) and the pocket removed. The fabric for the reverse appliqué was taken from a different recycled (printed) t-shirt and everything was sewn together with a straight stitch. The aesthetic was meant to be a tribute to traditional stitch work and the colors and the style served to highlight the stitches themselves. This project is a tribute to our roots, a reflection upon where Alabama Chanin grew from and how those early years helped form the company we are today.
When you select a recycled t-shirt for this, or any, project pay close attention to the quality of the cotton. Look for shirts that are soft and smooth to the touch and don’t ball or “pill” easily. Thicker shirts are less prone to tearing or wearing out quickly. Always make sure that you wash any recycled t-shirt before using it. This ensures a clean surface, but also reduces any chance of shrinking. If you are working with red t-shirts, wash them two or three times to prevent the color from bleeding and avoid mixing red with light colors.
If the recycled t-shirt has a pocket, it should be removed before embellishing. Carefully and slowly use a seam ripper to remove the stitches attaching the pocket to the shirt. It is very easy to make a hole in the t-shirt when removing the pocket’s corners. Sometimes, particularly with colored shirts, you will find a “ghost” image on the shirt, where the pocket was once sewn. These shadow images were common on our earliest t-shirts and we think they add character to a recycled shirt. We like to incorporate these shapes into our designs whenever possible. Of course, if you do make an accidental hole when removing the pocket, you can repair it with a simple whip stitch, an appliqué, or reverse appliqué.
In this shirt, we deconstructed the body, leaving the neckline as-is. To do this, first detach the sleeves. Use garment scissors to carefully cut through each sleeve along the seam line joining it to the body and along the underarm seam. Cut on the sleeve side rather than the body. Separate the shoulder seams, cutting on the front of the t-shirt, rather than the back. Some t-shirts are made with side seams, while others are cut from a tubular fabric. If your shirt is made without side seams, you can choose not to separate the front panel from the back. We liked a more visibly deconstructed look, so we separated the front from the back. We reconstructed the shirt using a straight stich with an outside, floating seam.
We used a Pig stencil for this project. For a similar stencil, browse the large selection at Dover Publications. They offer hundreds of stencils in any number of sizes and designs, so you have an incredible number of options. You can also opt to use one of the stencils available in the Maker Supplies + Stencils section of our website. Our DIY Stenciling post offers instruction on how to use stencils to embellish your garments, plus several stencil sourcing options. You have the ability to embellish your shirt as much or as little as desired, using the embroidery techniques of your choice.
A men’s shirt is shown here, but the techniques are the same when creating a women’s version. This is a great project for those who want to decorate a shirt that’s wasting away in a bedroom drawer or for those who want to salvage a shirt that’s stained or torn. For us, this project is a fond look back at where we started and how far we’ve come.