I’ve been reading Pattern Recognition (2003) by William Gibson as a sort of “digital book club” with a friend of mine who lives in another state. I’ve never been a huge fan of science fiction—and had, honestly, never heard of William Gibson but managed to get lost in the book—equal parts thriller and exposé on consumer culture. Voytek Biroshak, one of the minor characters in the book, is introduced to the reader at Portobello Market in London, where he is involved in a deal to purchase a Curta from a somewhat sketchy seller. The Curta is a mechanical calculator (quite beautiful as you can see in the photos above) that was the pre-cursor to the electronic calculator and was designed by Curt Herzstark when he was imprisoned in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. You can still purchase a Curta today on eBay (if you are willing to pay). The Curta is really a symbol of a time and, as Pattern Recognition unfolds, we discover that there are a slew of underworld collectors of early computing hardware. Voytek, our minor character, is an artist collecting Sinclair ZX 81 personal home computers (produced by the Timex Corporation in 1981) for an upcoming show. Casey (pronounced “Case”), our main character, asks Voytek:

“What do you do with them?”
“Is complicated.”
“How many do you have?”
“Why do you like them?”
“Of historical importance to personal computing,” he says seriously, “and to United Kingdom. Why there are so many programmers, here.”

And with that, we have the crux of what we call Materials Culture.

Material Culture:  noun, Sociology. 1. the aggregate of physical objects or artifacts used by a society

In my design training, we never really spoke directly about the cultural impact of the things (products) we were making. In my memory, conversations tended more towards how the culture impacted us as designers. I learned to make dresses and thought about the manufacturing process that follows good design, but it took me years to understand that the process of manufacturing has its own culture, its own language, its own trajectory that was completely separate from me as designer.


Coming home to Alabama to begin the work that has become Alabama Chanin, I was struck by this culture, through stories from people who were part of an industry in the throes of a slow death.

Inspired by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and their brilliant attention to the importance of documenting the stories and cultural contributions to food culture, I slowly began to collect oral histories. Literally copying the format that the SFA used to document these food traditions around the south, I started trying to collect stories from textile workers in our community. This included farmers, farm wives, gin operators, factory owners, and factory workers.

Today, and thanks to Jessamyn Hatcher and Thuy Tu from New York University, and Ted M. Ownsby and Becca Walton at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, I’ve come to understand that what I’ve been trying to capture are the materials cultures of my community, through the lens of my industry. In 2016, we are going to be looking more closely at Materials Culture. In collaboration with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, independent researchers from New York University, and thanks to our partnership with NEST, we will roll up our sleeves and begin Project Threadways. An exploration of the material culture related to textiles in our community, we look to identify and examine the forms that sewing has taken in the last 30 years, how it is interpreted and how and where this textile work happens across existing communities today—as a picture for much of rural America.

Kristi York Wooten recently wrote a piece about Alabama Chanin for The Bitter Southerner. (Sidenote: I love this piece above many that have been written about our work—if you haven’t had a chance to read it, please do. We’re pretty proud.) Kristi writes about Project Threadways:

“Chanin has a project in the works that may provide insights into the “complexion” of the 21st century Southern textile worker: She wants to know why job applicants in the new textile movement don’t represent the diversity of their local communities, particularly in Alabama. In conjunction with scholars at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, Alabama Chanin plans to lead a 2016 study that will serve as an oral history of sewing in the region—collecting data on both personal and professional uses, including quilting, mending, machine work and factory experience. The Center’s director, Ted Ownsby, says the study is one of many ways Natalie Chanin is “cultivating a community of people who wish to find new ways to think about old things.” Chanin hopes the study will ultimately drive outreach for job training and skill development to fill factory jobs in Florence with a diverse workforce and provide viable textile job opportunities to underrepresented segments of the population.”

Look for more on Material Culture and Project Threadways in the coming months as well as opportunities to participate in and donate to this initiative beginning in Summer 2016.

Photo titled “Curta Mechanical computer img 1651” by Rama – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Commons

Photos of material culture from Alabama Chanin by Abraham Rowe.

2 comments on “MATERIALS CULTURE

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  1. Hope Carr

    Completely fascinating! I believe you are as much a research scientist as a talented entrepreneur.
    I am just thankful I was able to experience a class with you that has literally changed my life.

  2. Grey Walker

    This is an excellent and insightful post! Thank you so much. I love Gibson’s work and his commentary on culture. Gibson juxtaposed with Alabama Chanin is a wonderful bowl of “thought stew.” I’ll be enjoying it all day.