I’ve recently been reading Brené Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. I’ve found so much good in the book, both for me personally and also for how we run our business. In any small (or young) business, you must have the courage to fall down, over and over again, and to “rise strong.” Because we aren’t perfect and make mistakes all the time, we have opportunities to examine why we get up and keep going—and in the process, learn to be our best selves.
Brené has taken inspiration in her work from this quote in a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
I highly recommend the book to every maker and entrepreneur who reads our Journal. The book is encouragement for giving yourself permission to experiment, learn, and create, BUT also for learning to set boundaries for what you are willing to permit.
This idea of boundary setting—of standing firm in what I believe is and is not okay—came into focus recently. So much of our lives are lived online; it is incredibly easy to let critical remarks become part of your “arena.” Artists know that it isn’t particularly productive to read reviews or comments on our work, whether negative or positive. It’s easy to get caught up in what other people think and to freeze. You can have 1000 beautiful responses to a work and you start to wonder, can I do something equally as good again? You can have 1000 beautiful responses to the work you do (take our newest book as an example), and yet a few negative remarks about how one pattern prints out can slay you. It’s enough to make you feel like you are crazy. It’s enough to MAKE you crazy. (When I’m feeling this crazy-don’t-know-what-to-think-kind-of-way, I go back to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird—over and over again.)
When Collection #29 launched last year, we were so grateful for the positive responses… Thank you. I’m really proud of the work and our team. But when a response appeared on one of our social media channels implying that one of our designs would be easily copied, my immediate response was one of crazy (see above) frustration. In my mind, I thought, “We’ve worked 6 months on new designs; at least 7 people in our studio and 36 artisans have made these abstract ideas into beautiful textiles, and this person is grateful that the designs will be easy to copy.”
Crazy Me thinks, “A comment like that makes it seem silly that anyone would want to want to purchase our work because it’s, in essence, not that hard to make.” To paraphrase Brené, in that moment, my emotion was driving the car and my thoughts and behavior were in the backseat. I had to catch and reality-check myself before that emotion took me somewhere I did not need to go. And so I asked myself: What am I feeling? What’s driving it? How should I respond?
In Chapter Six, of Rising Strong, Brené writes about her friend and artist Kelly Rae Roberts, who teaches, publishes, and shares her knowledge. During a time when Kelly felt that people were taking too many liberties with her own work—instead of wavering or remaining silent—she wrote a blog post about “what is and is not okay.” After reading this, I asked myself why this single comment made me feel the way it did. Part of the answer is that I’m proud and protective of my team and of this company. The other part is that I was assigning importance to an opinion that shouldn’t matter—in the end, for me, it is the WORK itself that matters.
Our sharing philosophy has allowed our company to grow for the exact reason that some thought it would fail: we wanted to be inclusive where others were exclusive. The initial decision to open source our techniques and materials (and ultimately to create The School of Making) grew from our commitment to sustainability. Doing so allowed us to make living arts accessible to all consumers, not just those who could afford our handmade collection pieces. In general, our community works and plays well together—and for that we are extremely grateful.
We find inspiration from many different places and work to create different designs with different intentions—and we are inspired by others. In the past, certain Alabama Chanin stencil designs and garment patterns have crossed over between our hand-sewn collection and our DIY projects. For example, you can’t find a more perfect skirt than The Every Day Long Skirt—my favorite skirt. Therefore, we decided to make it available in different forms: with hand embroidery in our collection, in basic fashion in our Essentials line, and as a DIY kit that you can make for yourself.
This will continue to be true for a few designs in the future—though not every design will be available in every configuration. We want to challenge ourselves to create something special and meaningful that has been designed and made with purpose—this is what makes the work challenging, and rewarding. For this reason, we create unique designs for our hand-sewn collection that are only available as ready-made garments. We will always experiment with new techniques and, at the same time, take some of our tried-and-true methods a step further. Our design team has also spent a great deal of time developing a new DIY collection, kits, programming, and projects. Right now, our graphics and design teams are working on never-before-released DIY patterns. We believe that this way of working celebrates each of our divisions, all of our makers, and allows us to hone our craft as designers.
Alabama Chanin is a brand, but it is also a company made up of real people. We have a talented design team who work hard to create new designs for our customers. It is an honor to know that we have inspired a community of makers with similar philosophies and design aesthetics. But, I would like to take a moment to emphasize that we at Alabama Chanin are still individuals, trying to make a living and support our families—all while opening up our ideas to a global makers community. Designing the way we do requires us to be vulnerable; it requires that we place faith and trust in our community.
All of this made me sit down and think about my own vulnerability as a designer and business owner. I took inspiration from Kelly Rae Roberts’ manifesto to make my own list of what is and isn’t okay.
And so this is what I know:
It is really important for us to share our techniques. We didn’t invent embroidery stitches or reverse appliqué, and we are constantly inspired by both age-old techniques and current trends in creating our designs.
Working with our hands is a good way to have really important conversations about making, and the future of work in our nation and across the globe.
We offer the knowledge that we’ve been collecting over the years, as we believe that cultural sustainability is just as important as environmental sustainability. We want to preserve these techniques for the next generation.
Job creation in every community in America is important right now. We believe that the loss of manufacturing and maker jobs changed how we see ourselves as individuals and as a nation. The capacity to take care of ourselves and our families is one of the most vital functions of being a human being. Science is catching up with this thought. Read Mike Rose’s conversation with Krista Tippet. Listen to Ellen Langer talk about language, read Shop Class as Soulcraft, watch Gever Tulley, this list can go on and on…
We want you to use our books as inspiration and tools to learn the beautiful handwork techniques we utilize. We want you to use your work with us as a jumping-off place to spur your own creativity and bring that creativity to your own community. We are inspired by how many of you have adapted and expanded upon what we teach in our books and workshops; it inspires us daily to be more creative.
What is okay:
To learn to do the work we promote and share it freely with your friends. Host a party, teach and learn from one another, spread the love, and have fun. To help Alabama Chanin keep our doors open and lights on, please let your friends know where your inspiration comes from. Buy fabric from us and order your kits and supplies through us. All of these things help us make beautiful, inspiring things, in addition to feeding people in our community.
To be inspired from our work. Take what we’ve learned and make it your own. Develop stencils, dye fabric, love your thread. It will take you places you never imagined you might go. I know this from experience.
What isn’t okay:
To copy our designs to sell or pass off our work as your own. As part of a sharing community, it is painful when we see this done. But, as we encourage teaching and sharing, our concern here is with selling, publishing, and/or making money from ideas that take livelihood away from our design and production teams and our artisans.
To take text from our Studio Books and use that to teach your own class for profit—unless you are a store that works with us directly.
To use our name or logos to sell garments or any other products for personal or corporate financial gain.
What will always be true:
It is easy to post negative comments online. As painful as those comments may be to read, we cannot stop—nor would we want to stop—them from coming. While we believe such comments have the potential to devalue the work of our design team, our artisans, and our customers and supporters, we do not rely on Internet comments to make ourselves feel worthy. And sometimes, we might need to be called out.
You may feel, because we have chosen to open source our techniques, that copying our designs and passing them off as your own is okay. It is not okay. We promise you—no joy or pride that you feel when copying another’s work can match what you feel when you create something truly your own.
I have returned again to Brené’s thoughts from Rising Strong, that life is better when we assume that everyone is doing their best. Even when people speak or act in ways that are intentionally hurtful, I want to believe they are doing the best they can with what they have available to them. That idea keeps me from bitterness and removes me from those moments when I am too affected by what others say (online or otherwise). This doesn’t mean that I think people should get away with behaving badly. It does mean that as Brené says, we can “hold people accountable for their actions in a way that acknowledges their humanity.”
It is okay to think what you think and to express your opinion; it is your right to say what you want to us in person, via email, and on the Internet. “The moment we deny a difficult experience, it owns us,” writes Brené. It is an act of compassion to love yourself. In this case, loving myself and loving my team means setting boundaries and sometimes saying, “that’s not okay”.
And so much of the time it is absolutely wonderful, and inspiring, and brings me personally, and our entire Alabama Chanin team, such great pride to watch our growing group thrive and flourish. Thank you.
P.S.: Thank you again (and again) to Brené Brown and Kelly Rae Roberts—there is so much good in what you do. I’m a better person for having read you both.
I’m sorry you’ve experienced the fruitless negativity so prevalent today. It seems some perspective could be gained if everyone thought about what Ecclesiastes 1:9, 10 says: “What has been is what will be, And what has been done will be done again; There is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one may say, ‘Look at this-it is new’? It already existed from long ago; It already existed before our time.” I happily possess all of your books, have visited your store, and have spoken to you personally. Never have I heard you claim you “invented” anything new. You gratefully give credit to your forebears for the techniques you learned. The truth is that no one could rightfully claim to have created anything entirely new (not even the critics!). Everything today is a variation on what came before. HOWEVER, it is that variation — your (and your designers’ and artisans’) own unique perspective on what came before that makes it original to Alabama Chanin. You take wonderful, old techniques and utilize them to create something that reflects you and your values. And NO ONE should violate the trust you have generously shared. I find your books incredibly inspiring. When I face a dry spell in my personal artistry, I have only to page through your books to become motivated and infused with purpose again! “Haters gonna hate”, so please don’t allow the unpleasantness of a few people to rob you of peace of mind and heart and positive creative energy. There are so many more people who truly adore your work!
I love the depth of the experience I have at The Factory on 1st and 3rd Monday. The attention by the staff, integrity, presence of raw talent and expertise, honest food are all part of the whole. There are way too many components to list. To simply “knock off” a garment without understanding the evolution of the process would be a travesty.
Thanks for being unique and being consistent in everything you do.
I live away from you in Birmingham but I am sooo proud of the Alabama Chanin brand and people. Your blog inspires me and I always look forward to your new successes. Successes are just continuing in your passion and allowing others to embrace that and participate. Thank you again.
What a great article! As a fellow artist I couldn’t agree more. I always love seeing what you and your fellow artisians are able to create! Happy Creating!
Natalie, thank you for this beautiful post today. I am writing to thank you for all you do, you have opened a whole new world to me. If you hadn’t been willing to open source your designs and techniques, I never would have discovered the wonderful world of Alabama Chanin, hand sewing, embroidery, and dressmaking again. I used to love to sew as a little girl, but forgot about it as years went by. It was only when I saw your book at our local library that I rediscovered my love of making. Now I am immersed in your creative world, sewing every day, and would like to plan a trip to Alabama to see you and your wonderful studio. You have changed my life for the better, thank you.
can hardly wait for new book and patterns as mentioned=please hurry up!
This is going to sound funny but I think of your brand as The Beatles. Their songs sound simple on the surface but the more you understand how it all goes together the more you realize that the genius is in making it look simple. I have all of your books. I sew and use a mix of hand sewing (which I never would have wanted to do without you!) and machine sewing. Anyone can look at something and say it is easy to copy, the genius is in finding the spark that let you see what wasn’t there before and in creating that idea from whole cloth. I wish I had more money to buy all the pieces I love in your collections. In the mean time I will buy your books and patterns and love the work you do!
Thank you for writing about real life topics. I join the list of people who feel that the Alabama Chanin business model of open sourcing has changed my life for the better. I am so grateful. Here’s a little synchronicity in the world: just yesterday I read this blog post by Glennon Doyle Melton (of Momastery). It speaks from the same place. http://momastery.com/blog/2016/01/20/three-rules-for-a-creative-life/
Thank you, Natalie. Your beautiful work has always inspired me and this post does as well in a way I am not always tapped in to seeing.
There is so much food for thought in your blog post today . Thanks for sharing. It makes me love you and your company all the more. Bravo!
Love the article and your voice that comes through so clearly. I feel like I know you personally even though we have never met. I was drawn to your work at first sight and grateful that your designs are open sourced because I can’t afford to purchase your hand made designs. It’s a sacrifice for me to purchase the kits but I do. And sometimes I ask myself are you crazy? You can’t afford this. But something compels me. And then I start to make your designs and I fall in love with every stitch. And as I finish my garment I begin to realize more and more what initially pulled me in. I marvel and the work of art that I made and the thought that went into designing it. Yes it is simple but so beautiful. I wear my garments with pride and always give praise to the Alabama Chanin for creating it. I realize that there is so much effort to the work that you do that I may never fully understand just how great it is. Thanks for your work. Thanks for providing a way for me to afford it. The most beautiful things are simple and understated humbly never giving a clue to just how complicated it is. Thanks
Dearest Natalie and Alabama Chanin family.
What can I say? Some people just aren’t thinking clearly about many things going on in the world right now…. Where our clothes and food come from have always been important to me and your company has helped so many in very small And large ways. I can’t imagine your dismay upon reading such a flippant comment about ‘copying’ your work and not giving an enormous amount of credit, where credit is certainly do!
I guess what I am trying to say is, is that you make a huge impact on this world and the livilihood of others in everything you do. Can’t wait to see what 2016 brings, I am already so excited about the Build A Wardrope! It is a brilliant and beautiful way to honor your beloved designs and the people who love to make them! #alabamachanin forever!! ?
Thank you all for such kind words and sentiment for our work. All of us at Alabama Chanin are grateful for your notes of love and support.
We are all in this together.
This is a beautiful and meaningful writing . I too believe that it is vital to believe that every person is doing their best. I am so honored to receive the teachings from Alabama Chanin and in fact own each published book! I have learned so much and found true joy in stitching! Your generosity in sharing is hugely admirable. Thank you , thank you , thank you!
I learned to quilt from my Grandmother when I was just a small kid, but after I moved away to college and then new cities for work, I no longer had the opportunity to enjoy that creative outlet with her. Natalie’s books helped me find my love of sewing again years after my Grandmother passed away, and I’ve enjoyed time with friends sewing more recently because of y’all. Your ethical business practices matter. Business, especially something as personal as what goes on your body, can’t not spill over into life because it’s about people. Thanks to Natalie and the Alabama Chanin team for doing what you do. It matters to me.
Thank you so much Natalie for all that you do and share with the world! I’ve been thinking lately about writing you a letter maybe this is the perfect time instead of trying to make it perfect or possibly never doing it, now is possibly the best time. I discovered your work and company a couple years ago quite by accident. I was entering a cake design competition for work and I wanted to find non-cake inspiration for my designs. It drove me insane that a lot of the cakes however pretty they were, quite often came from Pinterest copies. And there it was your beautiful work……I was absolutely smitten! So I wrote for permission to use the paisley stencil on one of the cakes, you all graciously allowed me to use it and cheered me on. I didn’t win or place but that’s ok. That’s just where the discovery began. Then in little crevices of time between then and now I’ve been learning and collected all the books and enrolled in the crafty class. So excited for build a wardrobe!
But most importantly I’ve found a hero and amazing role model in you Natalie. You are like my “Kitchen Sisters.” I met you in person this October at the 2 hour sewing class at Craft South in Nashville. I’m sorry I didn’t know at the time how much you didn’t like your photo taken but you obliged me anyhow 🙂 I’m not good with this stuff in person so I didn’t quite know what to say. But I’m going to try and share my heart. Thank you for sharing all that you do despite the critics saying you shouldn’t. Thank you for being an activist in your pursuit of American made organic materials, American labor, dignity and appreciation in history and the future. Thank you that you care down to every detail it seems, even the very seed at the beginning to the very core of motive and the ability to change our future. If we see that it is possible then others I pray will surely believe they can too! Thank you for paving a path that isn’t easy but is right. God says only He truly knows our hearts but He also says “you shall know them by their fruits.” Your fruits are beautiful! Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I am still in the copying phase of my clothing. My quilts are original- although I do take inspiration from the internet. I feel that until I can draft my own patterns for my garments, they are not really mine to claim fully- although I do showcase them on my web site as Alabama Chanin patterns.
I am grateful for your books because without it, I would not be able to approximate the beautiful garments I see on your site, they are not within my budget. Please continue sharing. I would also be willing to buy your patterns in quality paper form, especially if they came with a printed full size template some of the surface design stencils.
Thanks a lot for this intersting post. Variations is just what each new generation do with the past, it’s roots. I’ m so grateful you and all Alabama Chanin ‘s team to be part of transmission of handmaking skills. Your books are always near my table , all this work you share for years is incredibly inspiring for what I feel, need to do here in my homeland. Open resources is a so incredible and generous way to say how matters handwork . “Easy to copy”… silly words. Nothing of what you shares of your work is easy. And in fact this is not okay, hardworking and sharing are not easy in our industrial business world. Thanks a lot to make it work !
Cheap copies can be copied cheaply. Last years ideas are so last year. Alabama Chanin is more than ideas. Thank you all for your hard work, quality, and spirit.
Thank you for this post!
I was first drawn to you and your company because of your creative re-use of t-shirts and the wonderful way that you showcase hand stitching. I have followed the growth and change of you and your company and am always inspired by your actions, your growth, your ability to experiment , your process of evolution and your willingness to frankly write about topics near and dear to you. This is certainly one of those articles-I appreciate your thoughts.
EXCELLENT post! Thank you for leading me in the creative process called life.
Let me add to the chorus: Thanks for open-sourcing everything, and I’m sorry some people are taking advantage of it.
What a wonderful article, thank you. I absolutely love Alabama Chanin, thank you for sharing everything.
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One of the things that most impressed me about Alabama Chanin is the generosity of open source materials. I would never be able to purchase one of the fabulous hand made items, but have enjoyed making a skirt and corset for my DIY to wear to her sister’s wedding, a bucket hat for a friend with cancer and fingerless gloves for a dear friend. The other very important thing was job creation in a hard hit community. Not menial work, but work that honors creativity, craftsmanship and utilizes underappreciated local skilled workers. Beauty, comfort and originality are hallmarks of your designs. I would never think of abusing your sharing and hope others would have the integrity to recognize your generosity. I take every opportunity to tell others about AC as it deserves support in as many ways as possible. Thank you.
All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you for your incredible generosity in sharing you knowledge, techniques and designs with those of us who love your clothes and love to make. I am just catching up with your site, and am amazed to see another evolution; building a wardrobe; available to your fans. I appreciate your perspective on this sharing, and commend you for setting boundaries, as you should.
I met you in the Boiler Room in SF, attended your talk. I may have overwhelmed you with my exuberance in finally getting to meet you after decades of following your journey, but I remain a supporter and grateful fan.
All the best,
I am so grateful for your generosity of talent and spirit. I have loved your work and your story for years and years. I recall first discovering your brand and becoming a lifelong fan. I adored and longed for a Project Alabama garment of my own. I lovingly tried things on which I could never afford. Fast forward years and years and I’ve recently been delighted to discover your books and website. I’m in heaven. Even my 22 year-old daughter knows you as “that brand that Mom loves.” As I read your book I was stunned by the generosity of your shared resources and brilliant inspiration. You make everything accessible with an open heart because of your love of what you are doing for the community and your family. Last night I purchased a Mother’s Day gift for myself and am excited to receive my first DIY kit! Reading this journal entry on creative integrity makes clear the wonderful person you are. I look forward to building my wardrobe, my relationship with you, and my creativity in the years to come. Many thanks for the inspiration and gifts from your heart.
Thank you for this beautiful piece. I have followed you for many years & was thrilled beyond belief when you started offering paper patterns. Some day I plan to attend a 3-day workshop & see Alabama Chanin garments in person. Keep up your good work & know there are many of us that love your individual creative vision. No one can take that away from you.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Jennifer. We look forward to seeing you at The Factory soon.