Project Threadways records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in The Shoals community, and the American South. Our goal is to accurately and respectfully retell the story of textiles—from farm to finished product—and the way the act of making textiles shaped the lives of the communities and the individuals of those communities. In partnership with the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, we collect oral histories, analyze and publish data, and stage events that serve as centers for conversation, exploring the connection between community and the evolving region through the lens of material culture.
-The Project Threadways Mission

The stars that hang over Alabama Chanin are aligning and we’ve got some exciting news to share with you. Project Threadways, one of Natalie’s most steadfast dreams, is alive and thriving – with the help of many, but especially The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, The University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and Nest.

We know first-hand how challenging it can be to manufacture textiles in the United States. Alabama Chanin is located in a former Tee Jays’ T-Shirt Textile Mill, and we feel the presence of the hard work that was done here before us every day. It encourages our attempt to revitalize craft and manufacturing in America.

Earlier this year, Alabama Chanin received a grant from The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area allowing us to collect oral histories from and conduct surveys of textile workers in our community, as a representative of the greater South. Fortunately for us, the MSNHA introduced us to historian Brian Murphy. Brian is conducting and transcribing all the oral histories, which will ultimately be housed at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi where they will be available for scholarly research around the globe. Starting in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, we will work backward to the year 1970 (and then beyond). We want to know what working conditions were like, what the employee demographic and pay rate looked like, what people decided to do when NAFTA was signed and the textile industry moved overseas…and the list goes on. Simultaneously, our friends at Nest will be helping to expand Project Threadways’ mission by conducting a quantitative survey of those who worked in the area’s textile industry, shedding a brighter light on industry demographics, and providing a pro bono lawyer to aid in applying for 501c3 status – establishing Project Threadways as a non-profit organization.

We will complete our study of 1970 –1994 in April 2019. Our research will be organized into informative panels and photographs and debuted for all to see at the Alabama Chanin Gathering in April. When we’re sure we’ve learned all there is to know, we will step further back into history. We’ll keep marching until we’ve ripped off the cover to explore the role of making and material culture in America from its earliest days, capturing all the finest and most painful moments.

The arms and legs of Project Threadways are far-reaching, and we are guided by four main values: tell untold stories, seek collaboration, have no agenda but to tell the truth, and commit to responsible and sustainable practices only. This post only scratches the surface. Look back in the coming months for more notes from the field, as we continue this incredibly important work that wouldn’t be possible without the support of each and every one of you. We are immeasurably grateful for the opportunity.

A special thank you goes out to Terry Wylie, The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, Carrie Barske-Crawford and Brian Murphy, The Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Ted Ownby and Ava Lowrey, the team at Nest and Rebecca van Bergen, the Southern Foodways Alliance and John T. Edge, and those who have encouraged Project Threadways from the very beginning.


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Click to read 14 comments
  1. Emma Howard

    A fascinating project!
    I look forward to seeing the information panels and photographs in April.

    I have followed your work (4 of your books too) since I cut out a magazine picture of your Alabama Project wrap dress for an inspiration board

  2. Melissa June Harris

    So happy to read this article. So exciting. This reminds me of the work we were doing with Andy Kardos, historian for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Three of us worked in a metal building in Asheville, NC, collecting the names of crafts people, musicians, stories, photography, records, recordings, books, etc. (much of which is housed at the Folk Art Center now. We made $75 a week, however, this was the most exciting project. I wish all involved a hearty BRAVO!

  3. Susann Dalton

    How I admire you. The last time I saw you was at a night event in Barney’s in NYC. I gave you a almost antique Bakelite horse shoe button for good luck. It looks like it worked as you are still and always inspirational and a wonder. Actually, you are your good luck. Hard work and a sharing heart works every time. We all agree on this. Now I am 76 and so sewing is not as easy but I just bless you for bringing back USA organic fabric. I just like to feel it. You have changed and inspired so many lives.
    You are a wonderful gift to us all.
    And that is really and truly the truth!

  4. Ricky Aycock

    I think this is great. Sure miss those days. We were a contractor out at cotton town, Leighton area. B & H Sewing. We worked for tee jays,tenn River, shirt depot
    Had about 200 employees at peak

  5. Ann White

    During demolition of the Weaver Pants Factory in Corinth, Mississippi, my husband and I were salvaging materials to go into our home (maple flooring, heart pine beams and etc) we were amazed at the number of women who stopped in to collect some memento of their time working there (a bobbin, spool, drawer from a sewing machine). They told us stories of how that job kept their families fed while their husbands were away fighting World War II. These stories are so important. Please keep us the good work.