Alabama Chanin as a concept and a company began as a DIY enterprise. I made the first garments by hand, to fit my own body. Our entire business model was created because I couldn’t find manufacturing for the sort of garment I wanted to make—and so, we created our own manufacturing system, one stitch at a time.
Because those first garments were made from recycled t-shirts, many of our customers took the concept and re-imagined it for themselves, making their own patterns and clothing. Others felt that—with just a little help—they could create something similar, something that was their own. Almost accidentally, our garments were stirring in others the desire to make. Slowly, and as the internet became more robust, sewers formed groups on the internet to share their Alabama Chanin-style garments and swap ideas. This was the beginning of a more formal DIY presence in our company.
These things were happening at the same time as I began writing our first Studio Book, Alabama Stitch Book. Writing that book helped me crystallize my thoughts on making, open sourcing, and education. It was, in essence, me putting voice to what was important about sharing ideas and creating a community of makers. Throughout the writing process—and as the company grew and evolved over the years—I returned again and again to the idea of keeping the living arts alive. It’s the belief that survival skills for food, clothing, and shelter, are important arts that we live with every single day. And these arts—often considered secondary arts—are equally (and perhaps more) important as the “primary” arts of painting and sculpture.
As a designer, I try to advance and make these living arts accessible to consumers. But, because the pieces in our collection are made by hand in the USA, by artisans who are paid a fair wage, they can be prohibitively expensive for some people to buy. In my heart, I felt that sharing—open sourcing our patterns, methods, and materials—was the right thing to do. My hope was that doing so would ultimately promote sustainable ideals, advance living arts, and demonstrate what makes our company unique and beautiful. In this case, my instincts proved correct. Alabama Stitch Book opened the company up to an entirely new base of consumers. Though many in the industry told me that sharing Alabama Chanin’s techniques would effectively kill our business, doing so actually exposed the company to more people who wanted to make and to keep those essential living arts alive. Much to our surprise and delight, those makers proved a vocal bunch.
People began to contact us with questions—more details about how our garments were made, how to find the organic fabric and sturdy notions that we used in our collections. And so, we slowly started selling raw materials directly to our individual customers. We began embracing opportunities to teach our methods and explain our processes and materials, as they arose. These first small meetings and sewing circles at trunk shows were our earliest workshops—unpolished, yet earnest.
Our workshop programming was a natural outgrowth of the emerging DIY initiative growing around us. We were increasingly connected to our customers and found that face-to-face and hand-to-hand contact helped our customers better understand the what, why, and how of our making processes and the importance of an organic supply chain. And our business continued to grow. Our DIY offerings expanded, our workshop offerings became more diverse, and our Journal content added additional DIY instruction, stories, and ideas.
Our hand-manufacturing operation grew to include machine manufacturing with the launch of Bldg. 14 in the summer of 2013. And we continued learning. The machine skills, once so prolific in our community, needed to be honed. Our design team needed to develop a new language for stitches and machine parts that had been forgotten since the signing of NAFTA changed the textile industry in our community. We made many mistakes early on. We learned on the fly. Because of our A. Chanin line, we re-dedicated ourselves to our own education. Educational programming is one of the fastest growing and most exciting aspects of our business model. So, as the opportunities to educate our team and our customers began to multiply, we realized that we should create a specific home for this knowledge.
To fully embrace this growing model, we have developed an overseeing body that will direct and innovate learning initiatives and educational programs: The School of Making. All of our current and developing educational and training initiatives will fall under the umbrella of The School of Making. This new arm of the Alabama Chanin Family of Businesses oversees Studio Style DIY, workshop programming, format, and content; it acts as a researching body for new subjects and new ways of disseminating information. Our hope is that The School of Making can be an active voice in our local community, our state, and the making community, at large.
Natalie et al. … what wonderful news … congratulations on the growing and maturing of all the facets that are AC!!! Now … back to stitching my gorgeous dress!!!
Cheers … Ina + Pokey + Stella
Natalie! You are forcing my hand to move to Alabama! Wonder what my husband thinks about a long distance relationship? LOL! Thank you! The topics chosen sound so intriguing and will definitely “open” our eyes and expand our world of creating!! Wish I could attend everyone of them!
I am so happy to hear about the School of Making, but since I live in Toronto, I despair of ever being able to participate. I wonder whether you might consider allowing a broader audience to share in the workshops via webinar or some other electronic format. People could register and pay, as they would for an on-site experience, but participate from far-flung places. Just a thought that I hope is in line with your general approach. Here’s to more making!
I am truly grateful to you for sharing your knowledge of this particular craft with us. I love all of my Alabama Chanin Style DIY garments and hope to make more as time allows. This generosity has put your company on my radar permanently and each step that it you take forward I am cheering you on. If I had more robust budget I would be happily buy one of the embellished pieces your artisans have lovingly and painstakingly made. Till then I am happy to support the DIY supply business (I love the stencil felt and the patterns from your books) and continue the slow sewing tradition.
I thank you for opening up your technique to us, to making kits available to us, for encouraging us to be makers,. You showed me that Knit fabric was simple to work with and the end result was beautiful, this is not your fathers t-shirt. I proudly wear one of my 10 Alabama Chanin skirts on a regular basis. I love to tell people I made the garment myself, I gladly explain your company, your fabric, and your techniques to others. I tell them to buy your book, to go to your website, get a DIY kit….they will never regret it. I love seeing the growth in your company grow, the new designs, the new patterns…the new generation of makers that you have inspired.
THANK YOU for all you have done and shared…you are truly an inspiration.
This makes SO MUCH SENSE! It’s such a brilliant idea and perfect next step. Following the formation of this arm of the business, you should consider how and when you can videotape some of these talks and some of the opensource information and provide it for free via video on your site or youtube. I may not have ever learned about Alabama Chanin without your books, and I would not have had the budget to truly take the company to heart if you hadn’t had the generosity to share. Now I UNDERSTAND why your handsewn garments cost what they do, but if I am willing to put in the work and learn the processes, I can make some of these garments for my own or I can take the principles and put my own spin on it. THANK YOU. Now you are not “just some company out there that does cool things”, you are a company that I connect with because you empowered me with knowledge to take my sewing to a new place. Thank you and congratulations and best wishes as you develop in this new way.
Also, I share your company with so many people because of your books. I love them!
This is wonderful! I’m closely watching you since I’ve been thinking about something similar. I’m so happy to see a sewing renaissance, but I’m concerned that it’s starting to follow the “fast fashion” formula in some ways, e.g., racing to make garments to keep the readers’ attention span.)
I’m working on a corset top and it’s been one of the most satisfying experiences in my sewing life. I’m hoping that the interest in slow and sustainable fashion will continue to grow.
Quite simply: YOU ROCK! And your whole studio too, of course.
Yes, please won’t you consider opening a satellite studio/school in Ontario, Canada?
The Alabama Stitch book changed my life, I had never thought of myself as a maker before, until I made my first headband. Many years later I sew, knit, just learned to crochet……I look through the website and dream of owning some of those clothes I will in all liklihood never be able to afford and while my own collection may be more humble it is certainly inspired and uniquely my own. Congratulations on the beautiful way this business has grown. And thank you for how you continue to inspire.
I, too, am a huge fan of Alabama Chanin and your open source philosophy. On Wednesday I used the reverse applique bandana pattern to teach basic sewing skills to my fashion writing students. It was amazing to watch them transformed from students to sewists, or at least to students who felt like they could actually stitch a line. I’ve been lucky enough to take a weekend workshop, and I appreciate the time and attention to detail it included. Not only is my skill set stronger, but my commitment to sustainable and diy fashion has been deepened.
So fabulous! Thank you again for pioneering so much in the garment-ary arts field:-) It sure would be lovely if you could tape or podcast the On Design Series so those of us far-flung could hear them – we would even pay I bet!
I am trying to get a catalog so that we can look at your product and decide if we want to buy some for our museum store.
Slater Mill Museum
PO Box 696
67 Roosevelt Ave.
Pawtucket, RI 02862-0696