Tag Archives: Storytelling

Indigo-dyed garments hanging in trees to dry.


Original Publication Date: October 27, 2016
Updated: May 22, 2023

There is a lot you can say about Scott Peacock: James Beard Award-winning chef, engaging storyteller, collaborator and co-author to Edna Lewis, budding farmer, writer/filmmaker, experimenter with indigo, and the creator of the inspiring Alabama Biscuit Experience in Marion, Alabama. As we launch our 2023 Summer Indigo collection, I was inspired to look back at some of the indigo experiments we’ve created over the last 23 years. I came upon the post below, originally published in October of 2016, and am inspired anew in reminiscing about this weekend adventure. With a group of friends, my daughter (then ten years old) and I took a roadtrip to visit Scott Peacock at his home in Marion, Alabama. We were joined by a lovely group of makers: Rinne Allen, Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors, Hunter Lewis and Liz Sidamon-Eristoff of BDA Farm, and Ozella Thomas—native to (and expert on) the Black Belt.

Marion, Alabama, is the seat of Perry County, on the northwesterly edge of Alabama’s Black Belt. Booker T. Washington wrote of the Black Belt in his autobiography Up from Slavery:

The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently, they were taken there in the largest numbers.

The black soil of this fertile plain was formed during the Cretaceous period, about 145 to 66 million years ago. At that time, this part of Alabama was covered by a shallow sea where the carbonate skeletons of marine plankton accumulated into massive chalk deposits. That chalk eventually became a soil suitable for growing crops, this ancient shoreline creating the arc that came to be known as the Black Belt.

Three hours south of my home in The Shoals, the Black Belt has been home to some of the deepest poverty in my home state (and our nation). At the same time, it has also nurtured some of the most flourishing and prolific creativity (from natives and visitors alike) that defines the very best of the new south: Gee’s Bend, Rural Studio, HERO, photographer William Christenberry, Walker Evans, James Agee, Lonnie Holley, Emmer Sewell, Charlie Lucas, and writer Mary Ward Brown—just to name a few.

Not knowing where to begin writing about our adventure-filled weekend in the Black Belt, I called Scott a few weeks later to reminisce, and question him, about some of the more memorable moments. I attempted to create a transcript of our conversation; those of you who know Scott (or have eaten his food) will know that his agile mind finds connections between the most disparate topics and tastes, weaving together a banquet of food and story that feels (and tastes) like poetry.

I highly recommend the Alabama Biscuit Experience Scott hosts as an inspiring and most delicious adventure. Plan your road trip.

May 15, 2023

Hands holding a bundle of dried indigo leaves.

Natalie Chanin: Friends who saw that I had visited with you sent me messages of astonishment that I’d actually “laid eyes” on you. It is rumored that you’ve become a hermit and that you’ve “turned your back on cooking.” I see this differently—to me, it feels like you’ve gone to the very root of cooking: the plants. Can you tell me just a little about that transition and how you got to Marion, Alabama?

Scott Peacock: [laughing] I’ve heard that I was opening a cooking school, opening a bed and breakfast, lost my mind. Maybe I am a bit of a recluse at the moment but this isn’t a forever thing.  I think of it as a cycle; I go in and out of this. I’m slow, it takes me time to understand things, to build my understanding. I came to Marion because, in my gut, I knew it was the right thing for me to do. And that sense was so strong—even without knowing exactly what I’d be doing once I got here—I had a feeling of certainty. We all have that internal compass. It took me a lot time to trust it, but I do now.

My oral history work led me here originally. I first came here to interview the writer Mary Ward Brown, the PEN Hemingway awarded writer. I was working on a book and film project interviewing the oldest living Alabamians I could find. I was really interested in people who were born and raised in Alabama. I wanted to record their recollections of food and the food culture of their childhood. As you know, we are running out of time. The oldest person I interviewed was 107. This is part of an evolving project.

I’d never been to the Black Belt, didn’t know anything about it. It was that process of falling in love with Alabama—this place I’d been so happy to have left. There were two places I was never ever going to live again: 1) Alabama 2) a small town.

Now I’m completely happy living in a small town in Alabama and secure in my decision to do this.

I’m as mystified, myself, and I marvel at that every day. I’ve gained this appreciation through the older people I’ve met. It’s for an Alabama I didn’t know existed. As T.S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

NC: And now you’ve got this gorgeous house and you plowed up your back yard, and you are raising rare varieties of plants. Your house even has a name; can you tell me about that?

SP: My personal name for my home is Alabama House—all the old houses around here have those historical markers out front but not mine. So Alabama House became my affectionate name for the house when I was still in Atlanta. I would say, “I’m going to the house,” They would ask, “What house?” I’d answer, “Alabama House.” But then it resonated.

It all started with Mary Ward Brown, and then this house, and then I started hearing about this man Hunter Lewis. I’d been in Marion a few months. Out of the blue, I heard about this man who had purchased Reverie—a Greek Revival mansion in Marion—and was restoring and had purchased land and that he wanted to farm organically. I was skeptical, as much as anyone is. You know, you hear all sorts of things and you take them with a grain of salt until you know it to be true. I had heard things about myself that weren’t true. But it turned out to be absolutely true about Hunter.

Hunter and I met for lunch, had lots to talk about, and I realized that he was serious about farming. He was assembling a herd of Piney Woods cattle—the oldest breed of cattle in the country and one of the rarest—with an important history in the Black Belt. I was fascinated by this all-purpose breed. In the 1800s, they were the meat cow, dairy cow, work cow. There are lots of noble things about this cow and their relationship to the Black Belt, and the ecology of the Black Belt is astonishing. There aren’t that many of them left. So Hunter and I had this idea to track and discover what attributes of the cows are best. There are so many questions: figuring out the impact of the different forages, understanding the right age to slaughter, discovering how the cow is best hung for aging. There is a talented young butcher in Atlanta named Brent Lyman working at Spotted Trotter who is working with us to develop the potential of the breed. We’re working and experimenting with age, forage methods, ways of curing—evaluating the full potential.

A friendship developed between Hunter and I—we were interested in one another’s work. It’s been the last year and a half that I became more involved in the farm. The whole farm is an exploration. We don’t have all the answers.

Sometime in this process, it occurred to me that I wanted to learn about indigo (more on this later). So I called Glenn Roberts. Glenn has been a generous friend and mentor to me; he is also changing the landscape of seeds and heirloom strains of all varieties of plants. Glenn and I began our conversation about indigo but wound up talking about the history of the Black Belt and the plants that would have been grown in this region. After one of these conversations, Glenn sent me 3 tablespoons of Purple Straw Wheat (called Alabama Blue Stem Wheat in Alabama). And yes, 3 tablespoons, which was incredibly generous given its remarkable scarcity.

I felt such a responsibility to Glenn Roberts for giving me these rare seeds, so I didn’t want to take my eyes off of them—and that’s how the decision came to plow up my back yard to see what could be gleaned from it planting wisely, harvesting wisely.

So I planted 2 teaspoons of the 3 tablespoons and those produced about 8 cups of viable seeds after the birds ate half the crop—greedy bastards. I wound up having to put up two layers of bird netting to keep them out. We’re now in the process of planting those 8 cups on a test plot at Bois c’Arc Farm.

An Osage orange hanging from a branch.

NC: Hunter has a miraculous certified organic farm in the very center of the Black Belt. Can you tell me about the farm and what you’ve been working to do?

There are 80 acres set aside as test plots at BDA, and I will keep planting some of the seeds in my back yard plot as a sort of insurance policy for the seeds. Just to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket (or seeds in one plot).

BDA is the largest certified organic grain farm in the southeast. BDA or “Bois d’Arc” is the French word for Mock Orange or Osage—at present 5300+ acres of certified farmland.

Glenn [Roberts] uses the word “repatriate.” I like that. And it is Hunter who drives the experimentation, he once said to me “not to go in this direction would really be to miss an opportunity.”

NC: For me, the most beautiful part of the weekend was Sunday morning (just before we were leaving) and what Maggie and I have come to call the Plant Safari. Tell me about the purpose of that day and what you hope develops from it.

SP: Botanist Brian Keener who is from the University of West Alabama – The Center for the Study of the Black Belt joined us on this adventure. The purpose of the Plant Safari was to go with Dr. Keener who is so knowledgeable about The Black Belt and to assess the native plants for botanical pigments with Kathy Hattori from Botanical Colors. And we really just started to scratch the surface. There is perhaps the thought of growing indigo on a larger scale—for production. But also, Osage Orange (known as Mock Orange in the southeast) is very prevalent at the farm—all over the Black Belt.

The wood is so hard that it is difficult to mill after it is dry and the farmers aren’t crazy about Mock Orange because it has very large thorns and takes over the farm. But it makes a beautiful color of yellow dye. Mock Orange renders a lightfast yellow pigment when dying fabric. Depending on what mordant is used, you can develop a range of colors. So, it would be interesting if something considered to be a pest could be turned into a cash crop.

So we set off around the hedgerows of the farm to look at Mock Orange and try and discover any other dye stuffs that might be prevalent. And then we went back to Reverie and created dye baths and colors.

Hands holding fresh indigo leaves.

NC: And then there is the Indigo—which is how this whole story started. Let’s talk about that.

SP: Indigo is one of those things that happens with me where something just pops into my head. I was in Atlanta and thinking about Alabama House and how an old crumbling house needs something new. A new crisp cocktail napkin would make this all right.

But I couldn’t find the right thing one day as I was avoiding something that I should have been doing, and I started Googling organic indigo and found Kathy Hattori. I called her and she offered to walk me through it. Kathy had read an article in the NY Times about Ms. Lewis and me—it’s a moving piece and Kathy had remembered it. She asked me if I was that Scott Peacock. I remember that both of us weren’t having the very best day and it felt affirming to just speak about this plant. And I realized that I was on the right path. She was getting ready to go to Charleston to visit Donna Hardy who was harvesting and making dye baths from indigo that she was growing.

So all of this started with those cocktail napkins, and they are still not dyed even though everybody was here two weeks ago with their arms in the dye vats.

From census records, indigo was grown here in the 1700s—crop records…indigo and rice. I started researching different kinds of indigo and where I could get seeds. Glenn told me that by 1780 anything that was being grown in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas was being attempted in Alabama because those were the crops that the settlers brought with them. We found records of people moving into Alabama and growing indigo.

Separating indigo leaves from their stems.

NC: There are several people doing great work of indigo. There is Donna Hardy of the Sea Island Indigo in Charleston, South Carolina, Sarah Bellos of Stony Creek Colors in Nashville, and Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors in Seattle, Washington, who joined us for the weekends Plant Safari and indigo test.

SP: Sarah Bellos, Donna [Hardy], everyone was incredibly generous and gave me seeds and put me in touch with contacts. I got seeds from several different sources and all have grown and behaved a little differently from one another. There are several varieties of indigo from tropical to Japanese. The Japanese indigo is just now going to seed.

Next spring, I’ll be planting again in my back yard but also at the farm on a larger scale.  Increasing seed stock and experimenting with what grows well, what thrives, and once the plant is harvested, what kind of color does it produce that can be applied to textiles. There are so many variables. Isolating variables: environmental, mistakes, when to harvest, what sort of vat to use to maximize potential. In most circumstances, we’re just figuring out how to make it survive.

You know, Glenn inspired me and guided me towards the books and sources I need to learn about growing wheat and indigo and now sugar cane and rice. This is so much like cooking it’s always humbling. You are always learning and always evolving. Happy to discover that gardening is a lot like cooking and the closer I stick to that, the less daunting it is. At the end of the day, it is alchemy.

And that is what drew me to cooking as a young child: the miracle of transformation.

Natalie Chanin holding a tie-dyed indigo garment.

Thank you to Scott Peacock for hosting all of us in Marion and to Rinne Allen for the photographs documenting our adventures.

Friends gathered around a table to eat outdoors.



“Southern history encompasses migrations from Africa to the Americas, from farms to factories, from the rural South to the urban North and back again,” writes John T. Edge in his book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. In this book, John T. reports on 60-plus years of Southern food histories—from the innovative use of traditional dishes to advance the civil rights movement to today’s more modern attempts to demonstrate that Southern cuisine is more beautiful and complex than stereotypes suggest.

The book begins with acknowledgment that much of Southern cuisine is a direct product of African and African American influences. As he explained to Arts Atlanta, “For so much of the South’s history, when you hear certain segments of the population talk about the region, they’re implying somehow that word South means white South and that the word southern means white culture,” he said. “That’s just demonstrably disingenuous. [The title of my book] is a metaphor for boiling down a pot of greens to its essence. If you boil down Southern culinary culture to its essence, the most defining trait, the most defining cultural trait in Southern cookery and culture, are the contributions of African-Americans. I don’t say that with guilt as a white man. I say that with a pure-eyed vigor.”


John T. begins his examination of the civil rights movement with a section on Georgia Gilmore—cook, midwife, and mother of six—who set up a restaurant in her own kitchen, hosting leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott and serving them chicken sandwiches and pork chops. She also headed up fundraisers, selling cakes and sweet potato pies to raise money for alternate forms of transportation for the black citizens who relied upon buses as their main form of travel. Gilmore helped the black women she organized as fundraisers to see that what they provided to white households as domestics held power in the movement. He writes, “Georgia Gilmore inspired black citizens of Montgomery. And she worried whites, who clung to the idea that, through daily intimate exchange, black cooks and maids became members of their family. Domestics worked for love, whites came to understand, but that love was for their own black families.”

The book also delves into the controversy surrounding soul food, which both connected African Americans with their history and became almost fetish foods for whites looking for something exotic. Fannie Lou Hamer, founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, began to focus on health problems widespread in the African American community and started a national conversation on democratizing food access and worked to convince black Americans to reclaim their connection to the land as a way to combat poverty. She founded the Freedom Farm and Pig Bank which, in her mind, was a strategy to subvert the past. “Hamer preached the differences between the white-owned plantations where she was raised and the interracial cooperative farm she operated… To many blacks in the Delta, though, the land that Hamer farmed was tainted. And so was the labor required.”


John T. explores the 1970s and 80s through stories of The Farm, a commune founded by Stephen Gaskin in Summertown, Tennessee. He was a pioneer of the back-to-the-land movement embraced by a generation of disillusioned hippies. In contrast, he delves into the story of Colonel Harland Sanders who, in franchising his company and its secret recipe of herbs and spices, became rich and recognizable—and eventually realized he may have made a deal with the devil, serving as a conflicted “living mascot” for his democratized version of Southern fried chicken.

The Potlikker Papers reveals the clash of subcultures, of the old-school innovators and the new breed of chefs who combine provincial cooking with experimental techniques. It also attempts to tackle some of the thornier aspects of Southern cooking, including cultural appropriation and the romanticism of ingredients and dishes that were the direct result of brutal slave labor. The book is a primer on the changes in perception of Southern food and the brutal underbelly of its provenance. It should inspire the reader to dig deeper into food histories—being proud of what we have achieved despite hardship, but keeping in mind the struggles and horrors of Southern history.

John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance (of which he is the director) are fresh on our minds. John T. MC’d our Friends of the Café Dinner with John Currence in August, and we always visit his hometown of Oxford for the SFA’s Annual Symposium.

We’ve also been digging into our research for Project Threadways which has partnered with the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Mississippi. John T.’s truthful and challenging work, as seen in The Polikker Papers, has set an extraordinary example for us as we begin our project.



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.



If you are a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance or a fan of the Bitter Southerner, as we are, you likely already know the work of Pableaux Johnson. During the 2015 SFA Symposium, he shared a short film about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and celebrated the city’s resilience with a helping of red beans and rice. His photographic essay on the Mardi Gras Indians was one of the most immersive and colorful pieces of writing we encountered last year.


A prolific writer and photographer, Pableaux often writes about the food, heritage, and culture of his hometown of New Orleans. He is also the author of three books, ESPN Gameday Gourmet, Eating New Orleans: From French Quarter Creole Dining to the Perfect Poboy, and Lonely Planet’s World Food New Orleans.


In 2014, he documented a year of life and loss among the Mardi Gras Indians, who spend untold hours stitching and beading and feathering costumes to be worn each year for Mardi Gras Day and Carnival, for annual events, and for Jazzfest. He captures the craftsmanship involved but also documents the community involvement, chants, drums, and dance of the Mardi Gras Indian culture. His work also portrays the commitment to family—biological and chosen—that tribes express when they lose elders and chiefs.




Scott Peacock, native of Hartford, Alabama, was in his late twenties when he met the legendary, late Edna L ewis, considered to be the “Grand Dame” of Southern cuisine. At the time, Scott was chef for the governor of Georgia, and he and Miss Lewis were assigned to cook together for a fundraiser—though neither of them realized that they were also beginning an extraordinary relationship that would last until the last days of her life. After years of working together—with Miss Lewis acting as both muse and endless source of knowledge, and Peacock serving as faithful collaborator and eventual caretaker—the two partnered to write what is now considered a modern classic Southern cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great Southern Cooks.

But in the years leading up to that partnership, Scott was finding his place in the culinary world. He began his career as a pastry chef at Tallahassee, Florida’s The Golden Pheasant before transitioning into his position in the governor’s mansion for two terms—cooking primarily French-inspired dishes. After some time, with the encouragement of his father and Miss Lewis, Scott embarked upon a new path and earned acclaim at Atlanta’s Horseradish Grill before moving to Watershed restaurant in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. She encouraged him to embrace his Southern roots and to cook food that was true to their Southern experiences, rather than focus solely on what might be considered caricatures of traditional dishes. While Scott eventually became quite well-known for his fried chicken recipe, he also knows how to coax the best flavors from collard greens, okra, seasonal vegetables, and fish. Scott makes no secret of the impact that Miss Lewis had upon his life and his approach to cooking—and to living. The two became family and their bond lasted until the end of her life; she spent her final years at his Decatur, Georgia, home. As he told the St. Petersburg Times, “She’s my best friend. The least of what I’ve learned from her has to do with cooking.”

Alongside Miss Lewis, Scott co-founded The Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, a precursor to the Southern Foodways Alliance. Scott has been nominated for six James Beard awards, and in 2007 was awarded the prize for Best Chef: Southeast for his work at Watershed. His recipes have appeared in a number of publications, including Southern Living, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, and Gourmet, among many others. He has also made frequent appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Martha Stewart’s talk show, “Martha” and is a contributor to Better Homes and Gardens. Additionally, Scott has dedicated years to documenting the stories and food memories of Alabama’s oldest residents.


His longstanding mission has been to celebrate the true nature of Southern food and the community-related approach that surrounds the Southern table. He once told us, “Pure, wholesome food—should be democratic and available to everyone. At my mother’s and grandmothers’ tables, there was a strong awareness of where our food came from that made it distinct. Co mparisons were made between vegetables we grew, those grown by friends and neighbors, and those that came from Mr. Spear’s Market or the Piggly Wiggly. Within the community, individuals were distinguished by who grew the best corn or made the best pound cake… People in Hartford had certain ways of cooking peas that were different from the way peas were cooked in Slocomb, 6 miles away, or where my father’s mother lived, way in the country. There was a uniqueness that set us apart and also bound us together.”

“But even then, I realized that it’s a very different experience to cook or eat food grown by someone or from somewhere you know.” He explained, “To me, food is all about relationships. To have a relationship with your farmer, with your community, with the people who prepare your food, with yourself, and even with the ingredients themselves is so important. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m there because I’ve been inspired—by people, by stories, by my surroundings. The dinner is being served family-style, so that people will interact with one another, serve food to one another, and hopefully, build relationships—with each other and the food.”


These days the renowned chef, oral historian, and storyteller has taken a sabbatical from the kitchen and is dedicating his time to living in and growing in The Black Belt of Alabama—specifically focusing on natural dyestuffs, indigo, and rare antique wheats. His commitment to thorough research and practical experimentation is as comprehensive as his work exploring Southern food histories and traditions. Even so, we have somehow managed to coax Scott out of his temporary retirement to host our upcoming Friends of the Café Dinner, benefiting the Southern Foodways Alliance. This is an extraordinary opportunity to share food, fellowship, and stories with one of our most celebrated and knowledgeable food historians in America.



One of the most fantastic things about surrounding yourself with creative people is that you are constantly inspired and challenged to look at ideas through new and ingenious lenses. Rinne Allen, a frequent collaborator, is someone who has a special skill for capturing moments—details that other people may not see. This quality has made our work with her singular and special.


In addition to her obvious talents, Rinne has her own inimitable sense of style derived from her carriage and demeanor, paired with that unique spirit and artist’s eye. When inspired to do so, she occasionally customizes garments she owns to fit her lifestyle and meet her day-to-day needs. This is how Rinne created one of our favorite dresses of hers: part vintage bodice, part well-worn Billy Reid dress. She describes its origins in this way: “I bought the Billy [Reid] dress 11 or 12 years ago… and I wore it so much that I kind-of wore it out! I have a bunch of vintage dresses that I have found over the years that I love, and I decided to ask a friend to make me a new dress using the parts of the Billy [Reid] dress that I loved—the full skirt—and a vintage dress that I liked—the bodice and banded collar. And I added pockets because, well, I love pockets.”


Rinne seems to have an untapped talent as a clothing designer because she can look at the clothes in her closet and have a vision for something more. A tweak here and a tuck there—and she has a fully customized wardrobe. “I do sew a bit and it started there, but I also know people who can sew much better than me and they are patient and help me with some of my ideas. I grew up wearing vintage clothes—and still do—and I think that helped me appreciate things that are unique; understanding sewing made me want to make things myself, once I learned what fits me well. I like functional clothes because I move around a lot and I’m outside a lot for work, so my clothes need to be tough and comfortable. But I also like things that are a little bit feminine, too. And I really do need pockets on most everything.”


Today we are launching what we (naturally) call the Rinne’s Dress Collection, designed in collaboration with Rinne and modeled after her style and that very special hybrid dress. The Rinne Dress has a fitted bodice that snaps up to a mock collar and has a ¾-length sleeve option that snaps at the cuff (on select styles) and can be rolled up or down. The full, pleated skirt sits at the natural waist and opens to a generous width at the hip. And, of course, it could never truly be a Rinne-inspired dress without generous pockets tucked in the skirt’s pleats and folds.


This collaboration also includes a stencil inspired by her Light Drawings. For more information about Rinne, visit her website—or read back on our Journal.



Chili con carne, usually just called “chili” around these parts, may have a Spanish name but it’s an undeniably American dish—with more than one group of people claiming some form of ownership. The earliest written description of chili came from J.C. Clopper of Houston, Texas. In his writings about a visit to San Antonio in 1828, he described a dish, made by the poorest of San Antonio’s residents, that closely matches our definition of chili. “When they have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for a family; this is generally into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat—this is all stewed together.” Listen to more about chili in San Antonio at Fugitive Waves: Chili Queens of San Antonio.

There is evidence indicating that the first chili mix was created around 1850 by cowboys and explorers looking for an easily packaged trail meal. Cooks would pound dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and chili peppers into rectangles that they could rehydrate in boiling water. These “chili bricks” were easy to pack and could be made at just about any trail stop. Around 1860, prisoners of Texas state penitentiaries also claimed to be the creators of their own version of chili—made from the tough beef they were given as meal staples, chopped into tiny pieces and mixed with chili peppers and spices, then boiled until it was suitable for eating. Supposedly, inmates used to rate jails across the state by the quality of their chili.

The San Antonio Chili Stand set up operations at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and officially presented the dish to those outside of Texas for the first time. Eventually, San Antonio itself became a tourist destination and an increasing number of Americans were introduced to chili, firsthand. In the late 1800s, chili stands serving “bowls of red” began to appear on plazas around the city, run by women known as “chili queens”. These women served chili con carne and other Mexican-American foods from dusk until dawn, setting up their own tables, benches, and pots of food over open fires. Author O. Henry wrote a description of the setting in his short story, “The Enchanted Kiss”: “the nightly encampments upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land… Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night.” The city unsuccessfully tried to get the stands shut down for decades, eventually succeeding in the 1940s with help from the city Health Department.


As families moved from Texas to other areas across America, they took their chili recipes and traditions with them. In the early 1900s, family-run chili parlors began to pop up in cities across the country, offering other regions an introduction to traditional Texas fare. These spots became trendy and soon most notable cities had their own famed chili joint and preferred recipe. Cincinnati Chili is a well-known regional dish created in 1922 by a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Kiradjieff, who created a chili using Middle Eastern spices. His famous “five way” is a dish of spaghetti topped with chili, chopped onion, red kidney beans, shredded cheese, and served with cheese-covered hot dogs. Springfield, Illinois, has its own unique chili culture and spelling; in 1993, the Illinois state legislature passed a resolution proclaiming Illinois to be the “Chilli Capital of the Civilized World” and recognized the official spelling to include two letter Ls. (You can imagine how well this was received in Texas.)

Chili consumption spiked in the U.S. during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. His favorite version became known as Pedernales River Chili, named after his Texas ranch. Lady Bird Johnson published the recipe in the Washington Post in 1961 and the White House printed up recipe cards to mail out, as they received many requests for the recipe each day. Johnson, like any Texan, would tell you that real, original chili has no beans. This bean-free chili is the official state food of Texas, “in recognition of the fact that the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.”

Of course, there are now dozens of varieties of chili—both with beans and without. Vegetarian chili, chili verde, white bean chili—all have their own devoted followings. This week, in honor of National Chili Day (traditionally on the 4th Thursday in February), the café will be serving our version of vegetarian chili, from February 27 – March 4. I’m certain there will be chili cook-offs across the country this week where you can enter or support your preferred version—and you can share your favorite version with us as well. Please stop by and say hello and enjoy a bowl (or two).

P.S. We serve our chili on Heath dinnerware with 100% organic cotton jersey Dinner Napkins.


Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been revisiting thoughts from the late Civil Rights activist Vincent Harding, who was recently featured on one of our favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippett. Their conversation, “Is America Possible?” touched on so many feelings we’ve been struggling to corral recently. It reintroduced us to the idea of the Beloved Community, one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most moving and evocative goals. The Beloved Community is his vision of a society where people of all backgrounds recognize that one life is inextricably connected to all others and asks us to move beyond mere tolerance, toward understanding. Dr. King urged all to “fight passionately and unrelentingly for the goals of justice and peace” but to do so with the goal of reconciliation.

Harding said, “When I think about Martin, I think about Martin with the three C’s: courage, compassion, and creativity.” At this moment in time, we must have the courage to look at one another with open eyes, listen with open ears, and approach with open hearts; if we view one another with compassion and see the potential for community amidst the anger, then there is hope for reconciliation. “I think that the stoking of our creative capacities is one of the jobs that is still necessary for us,” Harding acknowledged. In the darkest of times, creativity and art have challenged our norms and also provided balm for our wounds. To travel through difficult terrain, “we have got to get new words, new songs, new possibilities for ourselves.”

To create the Beloved Community, we have to meet at a place that celebrates our diversity and our inclusiveness—and your Thanksgiving table offers you that opportunity. We are family, friends, and neighbors whose bonds may have been challenged in these divisive times. Dr. King advised not to make enemies of those who oppose you—to challenge the ideology but not the individual, for then the aftermath can be redemption. Though we may differ, we must question rather than challenge, ask rather than accuse. Be persistent with one another, be realistic—but be patient. Do not lose hope. Be compassionate face-to-face and not via internet.

Courage, compassion, and creativity—we offer these things to you and invite you to pass them on to others this Thanksgiving.



As a female business owner, Natalie is constantly asked questions about what it is like to be a woman AND entrepreneur, what it takes to start a company from scratch, and how to “have it all.” I hope that we have been able to dispel the “having it all” myth, but even now—after a decade and a half of work—it can be difficult to find female colleagues, business owners, and mentors that can relate to the unique challenges and rewards of being both woman and businessperson.

Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge, is an all-around model for uncompromising creativity and a champion for other women. Her recent book, In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs offers interviews and portraits of women from all sorts of creative backgrounds and a diverse range of races, ages, and abilities. In the book’s introduction, Bonney quotes activist Marian Wright Edelman, who said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Bonney explains, “Visibility is one of the most powerful tools we have in inspiring people to pursue their dreams and educating them about all the amazing options that exist.” This book serves as a mirror—reflecting the work of women who are walking the walk and talking the talk to others who are just getting their sea legs and finding their voices.


The book profiles artists, designers, writers, chefs, activists, musicians, and more; they talk about subjects like the meaning of success, self-doubt and fear, learning from mistakes, strengths, and their own sources of inspiration. Natalie is honored to be profiled here—alongside many talented women—including friends, collaborators, and inspirations like Rinne Allen, Eileen Fisher, Maira Kalman, Liz Lambert, and so many others.

Each profile is accompanied by a photograph of the woman in her personal workspace. Some of these women could not be more different from one another, but many share the same thoughts and fears. So many of us are learning to value our work, manage expectations, create better work/life balance, to say “no”, and we are negotiating what it means to be a business owner AND an artist. Oh—and it seems a number of us wanted to be ballerinas when we grew up. It’s immediately clear that there is no right answer to any question and no one-size-fits-all solution to our problems.


Bonney’s hope is that women will see something in themselves, somewhere in the book. We found many moments of connection with our peers that we could never list them all. Some of our favorites:

“Trust your instincts! There is nothing worse than realizing that your first instincts were right and that second-guessing led to a costly mistake. As women, we’re taught to second-guess ourselves and to look to others for direction and guidance. Most times my inner voice tells me in a flash what I want and need, and whom to trust. I’m learning to honor that inner voice.” – Lisa Hunt, designer and artist

“Create a ‘no assholes’ policy. Nobody you work with or hire can have this quality. Life is too short and we are too sensitive to suffer unkind people. Live kind; your work will show it.” – Genevieve Gorder, interior designer and television host

“Success in business is seeing how badly you can fail and still love yourself.” – Mary Going, fashion designer

“It’s been said before, but people are your biggest asset. There is no way you can be everywhere at once, and you wouldn’t want to be. Put the right people in the right place and your job becomes easier. And you have so much to learn from them, thank God. It takes a village.” – Liz Lambert, hotelier

“I think the world needs more authentic, honest, and vulnerable connections. As an individual, I think this results in richer relationships, and as a businesswoman, I find that the result is a sincere collaboration between my customer and me. Less polish, more authenticity.” – Karen Young, product designer and entrepreneur

“Gummy bears are not fruit, therapy can be interesting, don’t judge people by their shoes.” – Olimpia Zagnoli, illustrator

“The world needs more face-to-face conversation, perhaps over a meal, so we can really get to know each other without assumptions. The world needs fewer sound bites where those assumptions are formed.” – Carla Hall, chef and television host

“When I was about thirteen, my dad told me, ‘Everyone is weird,’ and that simple statement pretty much changed my life. I think of it often. It makes me feel relaxed to be myself and do things my own way and be open-minded about everyone else doing the same.” – Julia Turshen, cookbook author

“I love seeing brilliant, creative women making space and laying down tracks for other women. It’s easy to fall into the pernicious trap of thinking that just because you scrapped your way toward achieving your goal, there’s no room for anyone else.” – Carrie Brownstein, musician, writer, and actor

“The world needs your voice, so stop trying to fit someone else’s idea of who you are. Make them look you dead in the eye; make them know you.” – Danielle Henderson, writer and editor

“Say no to things you don’t want to do, kindly and politely. And give a widely known enthusiastic yes to the things you do want to do.” – Randi Brookman Harris, prop stylist

You can purchase In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs here.


We love the idea that items can have a sort of sense memory or be associated with a specific moment in time. It is something we explored in our Heirloom series—and author Erin Byers Murphy goes deeper into that concept in her cookbook, A Colander, Cake Stand, and My Grandfather’s Iron Skillet. The concept is simple: every cook has a favorite tool, and that tool can tell you a lot about the person using it.


Most of our well-loved recipes have a good story behind them and cooks are some of the best storytellers. Food can tell a story of a person’s past, a family’s past, a region’s past, their present, their values, or the very ingredients they use. That is why cooking for others can be an intimate experience; every element—from the ingredients to the cooking preparation and method, to the utensils and tools used, to the dining experience—has the potential to reveal something essential about the person preparing the meal.

In A Colander, Cake Stand, and My Grandfather’s Iron Skillet, Murphy (a Nashville-based food writer) collects stories from 37 top chefs, including some of our favorite cooks, like Steven Satterfield, Virginia Willis, Ford Fry, Kevin Gillespie, and Tandy Wilson. Each shares a personal story of their favorite tool or utensil, how they acquired it, and why it is so essential to their kitchen. Alongside each story, each chef offers a recipe utilizing his or her tool of choice.


Natalie was honored to be included in this book, and she shares the story of her grandmother’s rolling pin. Over the past 30 years, it has rolled out hundreds of pans of biscuits and been “around the world and back again (a couple of times).” On pages 102 and 103 you will find her story and biscuit recipe. Like all the chefs in A Colander, Cake Stand, and My Grandfather’s Iron Skillet, we know you will be inspired to look in your own kitchen and find the tool that embodies your history and has helped to create some of your own signature dishes.



As with Mother’s Day, there are celebrations of fathers found throughout history. In fact, an ancient “Father’s Day” message was found carved into a card made of clay in the ruins of Babylon. Some historians say that the first Father’s Day in America was held in West Virginia in 1908, when a Methodist church held services celebrating fathers after a mine explosion killed 361 of the community’s men. However, the creation of Father’s Day is generally attributed to a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, from Spokane, Washington, who sought to make Father’s Day an annual holiday.

In May of 1909, while attending a church service dedicated to Mother’s Day, 27-year old Sonora decided that she wanted to find a way to honor her father, William Jackson Smart, who raised her and her five brothers after Sonora’s mother died while giving birth. She wanted to create a Father’s Day, which would mirror Mother’s Day, and celebrate the holiday in June, her father’s birthday month.

In an attempt to gather support for the holiday, Sonora approached the local YMCA, shopkeepers, government officials, and the Spokane Ministerial Alliance. Her petition was approved, and so in Spokane, Washington on June 19, 1910, the very first Father’s Day was celebrated. At that first Father’s Day, girls presented their fathers with red roses; large baskets of roses were passed around the church for attendees to pin on their lapels in honor of their fathers—red for the living and white in memory of the deceased. Dodd and her son brought roses and gifts to homebound fathers in the city.

While the holiday did not gain as much immediate support as Mother’s Day, its observance slowly spread. In 1916, President Wilson honored Father’ Day by using telegraph signals to unfurl a flag in Spokane as he pressed a button from Washington, D.C. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge encouraged states to recognize the holiday as a way to strengthen bonds between fathers and children—and to impress upon fathers the importance of their obligations. Later on, advertisers used World War II to argue that Father’s Day was a way to celebrate and honor American troops and by the time the war was over, Father’s Day was a national tradition. In 1972, President Nixon signed the law that established Father’s Day as a national holiday. Sonora lived to see the holiday rightfully recognized, dying in 1978 at the age of 96.

Many countries celebrate Father’s Day in a similar way, just on different days. Brazil celebrates Father’s Day in honor of Saint Joachim, the father of Mary. In Thailand, dads are given Canna flowers to represent masculinity, and in Germany…a lot of beer.

Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day has become highly commercialized. Hallmark ranks Father’s Day as their fourth most profitable holiday, below Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. But, just as with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day was created by a child, out of deep love for a parent. Whether or not you choose to give gifts, take a moment and thank a father or father figure in your life.

The roses shown in the top image—in honor of the first roses given on Father’s Day—are part of our Beaded Kristina’s Rose treatment. Learn more about it here.


Over the years, through connections with our DIY community and The School of Making programming, we have seen how passionate and virtually inexhaustible our fellow makers can be. We have also witnessed them making connections through craft that extend outward into their lives, creating lifelong friendships and bonds.

Author Christine Chitnis and her mother attended one of our workshops at Blackberry Farm, and Christine shared the experience on her blog, which has its own strong community of fellow crafters, cooks, travel aficionados, and mothers. Christine went home and completed her DIY garment but, due to personal stressors and time constraints, her mother was unable to finish her own garment. As a gift to her mother, Christine wanted to complete the piece—a 6-panel Camisole Dress—as a Christmas gift. With a rapidly approaching deadline and two young children, she recognized that she would need help to complete such a large project.


Three women from her maker community came forward and, together, they stitched and constructed the project on time. On Christmas morning, Christine’s mother received a beautifully finished dress, with notes from each of the women who helped make it. We have witnessed time and again that making for others can be as much a gift to the maker as it is to the recipient. Christine wrote, “There is something so powerful about wearing a garment that other hands made for you with love and intention.”


The experience inspired Christine to organize more “community stitching” experiences and create pieces for others who might be facing difficult days. She put out a call on her blog and Instagram account, looking for makers who would be interested in joining her efforts. She was able to organize 20 women from across the country (plus one in Australia) to hand craft garments for four recipients who, in one way or another, were dealing with a personal struggle. And, like her mother, none of the four women had any knowledge of the project until they received their gifts. Christine said, “We are hoping that these garments make them feel wrapped in love.”

Christine and her community sewed thousands of stitches into those garments, with love and intention. They are examples of how making can enrich the lives of everyone a garment touches. We hope that Christine’s story inspires others to take up the task of creating for those who need to feel loved and cared for. Thank you to everyone in our maker community who continues to reach out and build bridges across lives—strengthening connections and changing the world with your own two hands.

Top two photos by Forrest Elliott. Grid of photos from Christine’s Instagram.


In Spring 2005, Natalie launched a collection (for her company at the time, called Project Alabama) that featured photographs from her family history and community, heat transferred onto t-shirts. She then added appliquéd details and embroidery, including written words and embroidered lines of text.

The photo shown above was one of the images included in the collection. Taken about 1964, the photo pictures Natalie, her father, and a horse Natalie always called Queenie (though the horse’s true name has been lost to history). And while the embroidered shirt and photos have been misplaced, we found photos of similar shirts in our archives from the same collection.


*Photos of shirts from Natalie’s portfolio by Reyez Melendez Photography.

P.S.: With Father’s Day fast approaching, use our Unisex T-Shirt pattern from The School of Making to create your own t-shirt honoring your father, grandfather, or any of the men who helped raise you.  Share your stories with us by tagging @theschoolofmaking.


Alabama Chanin followers and Journal readers are likely familiar with Phillip March Jones—artist, photographer, author, curator, Makeshift participant, and a frequent collaborator of ours. He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, attended Emory University, the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and Auburn University. Phillip founded and runs the non-profit gallery space, venue, and small-scale publishing house, Institute193 in Lexington, Kentucky. He has also been director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York.

We believe that as an artist he sees beauty and relevance in things that most of us either overlook or choose to avoid, like roadside memorials. His book, Points of Departure, is a collection of roadside memorial Polaroids—glimpses of personal grief and reminders to all passers-by that someone’s life was irreparably changed at that specific place. Phillip merely documents each unofficial marker without imposing his own point of view and allows the viewer to bring his or her own meaning to each photo.

Phillip also served as Director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organization that documents, researches, preserves, and exhibits the work of self-taught African American artists. The organization’s goal is to bring this quintessentially American art form to a wide audience and have it rightly recognized for its essential, influential contribution to the history of American art.

While he has never stated this as his goal, I wonder if Phillip is inwardly driven to change the way the world thinks about and sees things that may be overlooked. With the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, he works to ensure long-term survival of art and artistry of those labeled “outsider” artists; with Points of Departure, he is also giving permanence to what might otherwise be temporary. He is attempting to help each subject transcend labels—or to simply be seen and recognized.

He clearly believes in the same sharing philosophy as Alabama Chanin, once telling us: “I believe that information, influences, and sources exist to be shared. I think a lot of artists, publishers, and musicians feel a need to protect their creative material to ensure their ability to effectively commodify their work. In my experience, sharing images on a website does not prevent people from buying a book, visiting an exhibition, or buying into a project. That notion carries over into my work with Institute 193 and Souls Grown Deep. Both organizations have an open content approach, and function on the principle that education and awareness should always be the motivating interest. All of the work I do is focused on providing access and points of entry to new ideas and material.”

It is with all of this in mind that we asked Phillip to participate in our research project on the creative process. Our questions and his answers are below.

Homecoming Party

Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?

Phillip March Jones: Everything I do starts in a small black book. I always have one in my pocket or bag. I make lists. I draw. I take down notes, memorable quotes, or random thoughts. Things seem to expand out of those pages.

AC: What makes you curious?

PMJ: Anything I don’t understand. I’m especially drawn to people driven by a seemingly other-worldly impulse. Artists, writers, musicians, and individuals who are slightly off or out or left or right.


AC: What do you daydream about?

PMJ: Walking out of my door and never stopping. Just walking.

AC: Do you have processes or tricks to spur creativity?

PMJ: De-connecting. I also take long walks, especially in cities. 6 hour walks. That kind of thing.

AC: Do you have to be in a certain mood in order to create?

PMJ: No—it just sort of seeps out, I think.

AC: If your creative process or project isn’t productive, at what point do you cut your losses? Or is there a point? Do you keep pressing on?

PMJ: Keep moving. Throw lots of things at the wall. Something will stick?


AC: What parts of your work seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?

PMJ: My daily photographs are the lightest. My heavier works tend to be my books and works on death, memorials, and memory. And the curated exhibitions. I need to learn to be less formal with those projects—loosen up a bit and find bits of humor in the severity of those ideas.

AC: What parts of your imagination seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?

PMJ: My imagination is active and unfocused. In that sense, it feels light, ideas dashing in and out, but the ideas themselves can be a bit heavy.

AC: In what ways would you want to change your imaginative spirit?

PMJ: I would try to make it more focused and productive, even though I think that might diminish the power or force of the ideas.

AC: Is there something that can halt your creativity? Distractions, fears, etc.? Have you found a way to avoid those pitfalls?

PMJ: Distractions and fears have always proven to be good fodder for creativity.

AC: Have you ever censored your imagination or creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone? If so, how?

PMJ: Not really. But there are things I have specifically not shared, because of their personal nature. They do exist, however.

Pink + Green

AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?

PMJ: Yes, I would be a gardener.

AC: If you were no longer able to use the medium that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?

PMJ: There is always a way to translate ideas into some other format. I would write more I suppose.

AC: Who do you define as a visionary?

PMJ: Unfortunately, most of the visionaries I admire have passed away. I’m looking for some new light. In the meantime: Hudson from Feature Inc, Samuel Mockbee from Rural Studio, and some of my favorite artists like Mike Goodlett and Robert Beatty.

Kid Dreams

AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”?

PMJ: Oh—that happens all the time. I was recently given an umbrella shaped like a cactus. It’s a truly brilliant object.

AC: Which ones of your products and/or services inspire you the most?

PMJ: Institute 193—and what the artists create there—is always inspiring. I only created the structure. The inspiring part is what the artists have done in the meantime.

(This project is made possible in-part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.)

Photo of Phillip by Melvin Way.

All other photographs courtesy of Phillip’s daily photo blog Pictures Take You Places.


The month of April is known as the beginning of spring, with warmer weather, blooming buds, and refreshing rain showers, but it also brings about the holiday of pranksters: April Fools’ Day (which has more to do with springtime than one might think). And while I’m not one to play practical jokes on others, my daughter Maggie loves a good April Fools’ trick.

The origin of April Fools’ Day is a bit puzzling, though—and it seems fitting that no one can exactly pinpoint how or why we celebrate a mischief-filled day. There are a plethora of explanations, most of them calendar-centric. Julius Cesar changed the Roman calendar to the Julien calendar (which he created) in 46 BC, which made the first day of January the beginning of the New Year. Today, we follow the Gregorian calendar created by Pope Gregory in 1582 and a close relative to the Julien calendar.  Before that time, “official” New Year dates varied from country to country. Before the January begin was established, many cultures accepted the beginning of spring as the beginning of the New Year.

The most common calendar-change theory involves France revising its calendar in the sixteenth century to match the Roman calendar (i.e. instead of beginning a new year in the spring, it would begin in January). It is said that citizens who were unaware of the change—or who just refused to follow the new calendar—were often subject to jokes and referred to as “April fools”. These ‘fools’ often ended up with paper fish stuck to their backs and called poisson d’Avril (April Fish), which is still the French term for the holiday.

Some scholars believe April Fools’ Day stemmed from ancient European springtime renewal festivals taking place at what—at that time—was considered the beginning of the year. Participants often wore costumes to conceal their identities and played pranks on one another at the celebrations. Behavior that would typically be frowned up was allowed during the festivals’ timeframes, and social hierarchy often ceased for the period of a day.

Regardless of the origins of the holiday, some of the tricks that have occurred on April 1st are recognized as classics. One of the most memorable April Fools’ pranks is the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax. In 1957, the BBC aired a story showing farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees. The network received an overwhelming number of calls from viewers wanting their own spaghetti tree. In recent years, businesses and the media have gotten more involved in pranking (un)suspecting audiences in marketing ploys. In 1996, Taco Bell made claims that it has purchased the Liberty Bell, causing quite an uproar. A few years back, Scope jokingly debuted bacon-flavored mouthwash, and Hyundai announced production of their version of the “Popemobile.”

For you merry pranksters out there, your day has arrived! For the rest of us, brace yourselves for the onslaught of puns, hoaxes, and potential whoopee cushions in your future. And, of course, take almost everything you read online and social media with a grain of salt.


There are really only three ways to approach Valentine’s Day: embrace it and fall in love with all things love, scorn it and attribute it to false sentiment, or ignore it completely—which is a tactic that I tend to employ most often.

But, as I have been known to do when I have been sitting at my computer for too long, I recently found myself wandering over to the TED website where they have conveniently compiled a whole set of videos on the subject of “love”. I was charmed by this story of photographer Alec Soth and photo editor Stacey Baker and their exploration of how couples meet—and what love really looks like. Their documentation of both the world’s largest speed-dating event (held in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day) and the residents of the largest retirement community in Nevada was a lovely mirror on how relationships begin and why they last.

And, since we have been talking about storytelling more and more lately, I thought I would compile a list of some of my favorite podcasts and stories about love—heartfelt, educational, and humorous:

Each year, This American Life puts together a Valentine’s Day show and it never disappoints. Here is one of my favorites.

My favorite storytelling podcast, The Moth, offers a couple of lovely stories—a tale of love, loss, and LBJ from Sarah Bird, and another of falling in love against your family’s wishes from Mary Lou Piland.

On Mortified, a podcast where adults share embarrassing childhood letters, journals, poems, or other artifacts, a storyteller reads a love letter to his high school crush that is equal parts hilarious and cringe-inducing.

And finally, with The Living Room, Love + Radio offers one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful podcasts I’ve ever heard and allows us to see the beauty of a relationship from the outside.

As much as I’ve tried to fight it, all of this love has taken a bit of the cynicism out of my Valentine’s Day outlook this year. Who would have thought?


The story of my coming home to Alabama in the year 2000 is one that has been told many times. My journey home started in the spring of 2000 on the corner of 38th Street and 8th Avenue in New York City. It was there that the call to adventure hit me squarely on the head. It was the moment I realized that the hand-embroidered shirts I’d been making were really little more than a quilting stitch. In that moment, I realized that this was something I learned in my childhood and, in the same moment, I understood that I wanted to go back to the community of my childhood in North Alabama. It was clear to me that I wanted to talk to my grandmother and the other ladies like her who had quilted their whole lives; I wanted to make a film about why people made quilts, and I wanted to make a small collection of hand-quilted t-shirts.

Stitch is that film. The digital version you can watch below includes a 4-minute trailer at the beginning and before the 22-minute documentary. The trailer was played at the Hotel Chelsea as that first collection of 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts was presented during Fashion Week in February of 2001. The film, shot in January of 2001, is now 15 years old and is the result of 35 hours of digital interviews, 4 rolls of Super-8 film, 469 miles in an old blue Chevy pickup truck, 1 prop plane, and a crew of three that rambled around (and above) Lauderdale and Colbert counties in Northwest Alabama. Additionally, there were approximately 10 transatlantic flights from 1999 to 2001, untold hours in editing suites, and as many hours on-and-around a sound board. Not a single person involved in the making of this film got paid.

Watching the trailer and the film today, it’s clear that a key part of my journey home also has to do with this group of friends and neighbors who are now spread across the globe and the heavens. Many of the ladies and gentlemen interviewed by us have since passed away, including my own grandmother. I’m proud that a small part of these beautiful stories—and way of life—are captured in this little film. Every single one of our interviewees said, “Things were different back then; it’s not like it is today.” How true that statement becomes even 15 years later.

The camera operator and cinematographer—and my dear friend—Sissi Farassat has become a world-renowned artist.

Fish Film, who supported me endlessly—and were also dear friends of my heart—has since closed. Operating from 1998 to 2003, Fish Film produced, directed, organized, wrote, and supported an inspiring body of films, television commercials, and music videos.

The period during the making of this film, and just before, were a time of great chaos in my life but also of great creativity, beauty, and joy. I’ll always look back to this as one of the best times of my life.

I’m a better designer today for having worked with all the crew at Fish Film and my dear friend Sissi. Thank you to all the Fish Film founders: John Buche, Christoph Chrudimak, Moritz Freidl, Gammon, Igor Orovac, Oliver Kartak, Florian Kehrer, Jo Molitoris, and Wolfgang Tschofen.

I’m grateful to one and all,

Concept and Direction: Alabama Chanin
Assistant to Director: Jakob Glatz
Camera: Sissi Farassat and Jacob Glatz
Cut: Gerd Berner
Trailer Editor: Martin Matusiak
Soundtrack: Gammon
Original Song “Stitches”: Khan
Sound Mix: Markus Pochinger
Sound Studio: Soundtrack
Creative Direction: Project Alabama
Graphics: Andrea Jirez and Florian Schmeiser
Stock Material: Lloyd Llewellyn
Producer: Josef Bacher
Chief Trouble Maker: Paul Graves
Positive Criticism: Florian Kehrer
Production Assistant: Agatha Whitechapel and Karen Gruber
Executive Producer: Igor Orovac


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.


Continue reading


I’m going to ask for forgiveness in advance as this post is going to ramble. There is a lot to say and, at face value, parts of the story don’t seem to have any relevance to one another. Bear with me—I need to let the story unfold.

I’ve numbered the facts to help you follow along:


I’ve been listening to The Moth since I stumbled on the podcast back in 2009. I fell in love with George Dawes Green’s story of Southern Gothic and never stopped listening. I’ve traveled many miles, folded laundry, walked dogs, and worked in the garden with my earphones on, laughing out loud, and/or crying—sometimes both at the same time. If you’ve ever sat next to me on a plane or seen me walking through our little town in this state, I was most likely deeply involved in a story from The Moth.

(To diverge: There are others like This American Life, On Being, and The Kitchen Sisters that have been long-time favorites that continue to inspire. Newer flavors like Gravy, 99% Invisible, TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, and Serial have also become regular stops on my ever-evolving podcast playlist.)



Around 1994, I came across a short documentary film inspired by Route 66; that film and the consequent audio recording would change my life. I had been working at a job that didn’t suit me, in a place where inter-community politics ruled, and was living in a house that was embroiled in chaos—sunrise to sunset. At that moment, my life had absolutely nothing to do with my vision for myself. I came home to the “house of chaos” one afternoon—when the house was empty—to find some quiet and was transported, through a story, down a road: Route 66. It was heaven. At the end of this story, I knew that I was going to leave the job, the inter-community politics, and that I was going to tell stories. Exactly how I was going to tell stories was yet unclear but I knew without a doubt that my life was about to change.


Many years later, I came to know that the story of Route 66 I had listened to in 1994 had been created in 1985, when I was still a young girl in design school, by two friends who call themselves The Kitchen Sisters. I became fanatical followers of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. I listened to everything I could find from The Kitchen Sisters. I listened to every kind of documentary audio I could find (more on this in the coming year). I began my version of homeschool studies in storytelling. I watched as many films as I could; I became a fanatic. I made short films (if somewhat poorly). I attended film festivals. I tried (even more poorly) to write stories. I listened—over and over again, and then over again. I applied to film school and was rejected. I bought a camera. I filmed and recorded and watched and listened, but instead of becoming a director of documentary films, in 2000 I came home to Alabama and started the project that has become Alabama Chanin. I made a short film; I made clothes; I learned to tell different kinds of stories.


In 2009, after I had been making clothes for almost eight years (and had put filmmaking aside), I was asked to do a lecture at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Davia Nelson walked into the lecture, took my arm, and became my friend that night. She wrapped me up in her spirit; she turned her recorder on me; she took me on my first tour of the Edible Schoolyard; she introduced me to Alice Waters; she put on my clothes; she loved on me and brought love around me; and she introduced me to Nikki Silva, the other Kitchen Sister.

“Pinch me,” I said.


Once on a cold and snowy New York City night, I made a bet with a friend that we would each submit a story to The Moth. The night (and bet) in question was accompanied by several glasses of wine and in the midst of the banter and laughing, the thought of reaching out to The Moth terrified me. T E R R I F I E D. It took me about a year, but I did send in a story, and the story wasn’t accepted. Bet completed. Check.

“Whew, dodged that bullet,” I said.


In early 2014, Davia Nelson calls me one sunny afternoon to ask if I would be willing to come to New York City, to tell a story at The Moth for an evening they are curating around their award-winning series The Hidden World of Girls. I agree.

“Knock me over with a feather,” I think.



Within this list of facts, we’ve traveled from 1985 to 2014, and through the larger part of my working life as a designer and an adult.

Davia and I talked many times and for hours over the course of that spring about the trajectory of my story for The Moth, all of the facts above, about the story I should tell, about life, and love, and God, the beauty of everything, and about traveling to New York City for the actual telling of the story. In the course of these talks, I was introduced to Catherine Burns, the Artistic Director of The Moth, and we talked about more of the same. She gently prodded me, and poked, and teased a story from my jumble of experiences. And she made my story bigger, and better, more fluid, and solid. I became a better storyteller for having worked with Catherine in those months leading up to the story night.

I was proud. I was terrified. I’m not a natural speaker. It doesn’t feel natural for me to stand on a stage. Each time I’ve been asked to speak in the last years, I think about this quote from Susan Cain’s book Quiet:

“In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye.”

And though I wanted to run (and run as though demons were after me), I did, in fact, manage to tell a story on The Moth Mainstage on the night of April 17th, 2014. That story is now part of The Moth Radio Hour and included with stories from George Dawes Green (yes) and Tim Gunn, and a beautiful story that made me laugh and cry from Warren Holleman.

During that spring and many times since, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with Catherine (an Alabama-raised soul sister) about stories and what makes them strong, why they are important, about our favorites, and about how stories inspire me as a designer. We also talked a lot about the terror of standing before a seated crowd at The Moth Mainstage without notes, without a podium, just you and a microphone and your life. When I first walked onto that stage, I felt like my head might separate from my body and that I might be the first-ever storyteller at The Moth to faint or die.

Catherine laughs at my morbid memory and sent me a list of a few of her all-time favorite stories this week. They are tales of redemption, and struggle, and light, and joy, and, well, just life. I learned from Catherine that Michael J. Massimino said that telling a story at The Moth was scarier than going into space. I’m in good company.

Below are a few of Catherine’s favorite stories, including “A View of the Earth” from Michael J. Massimino (one of my Maggie’s favorites too). Get The Moth’s free podcast to listen weekly:

Alan Rabinowitz: “Man and Beast”
A boy with a severe stutter finds solace in his connection to animals.

Janna Levin: “Life on a Mobius Strip”
An astrophysicist in crisis finds astonishing parallels between her personal life and her research.

A.E. Hotchner: “The Day I Became a Matador”
A young writer is talked into a bull ring by Ernest Hemingway.

George Dawes Green: “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn”
The Moth’s Founder rebels against his aging Southern belle of a mother.

Kimberly Reed: “Life Flight”
A young woman must confront her past and future when forced to go home for her father’s funeral.

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels: “Angel”
The lead singer of RUN-DMC is brought back from the brink by an unexpected angel.

Andrew Solomon: “Notes on an Exorcism”
A man who has struggled with depression gets help from an African Shaman.

Stephanie Summerville: “Life Support”
A young healthcare attendant is sent to care for an extremely challenging patient.

Cynthia Riggs: “The Case of the Curious Codes”
A woman receives an unexpected note from an admirer she hasn’t seen in more than fifty years.

Michael Massimino: “A View of the Earth”
An astronaut runs into trouble on a mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

Carl Pilliterri: “The Fog of Disbelief”
A man is working at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima when disaster strikes.

Wanda Bullard: “A Small Town Prisoner”
The woman on whose porch the Moth began talks about her elderly father “helping out” at his local Mississippi police precinct.


One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2016 was to cook more at home. And I have. I started my New Year’s Day, after a good night’s sleep, with a delicious cup of my famous Coffee Milk—an indeterminate mixture of a latte, cappuccino, and a café au lait—made with whole milk (raw when I can get it)—brewed in my vintage Krups. I use The Factory Blend coffee that is, despite current trends for greener beans, roasted to a dark, chocolaty finish. While drinking my coffee, I glided through Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton, and as I dreamt of her Pasta Kerchief, I found myself scouring the kitchen for possible breakfast egg possibilities.

In the end, I wound up with a beautiful avocado toast with a fried egg (over easy) but only after falling down the rabbit hole of internet egg delights. Follow below…

Bon Appétit has a lovely little piece by Adam Rapoport on an egg fried in olive oil—with tips by Allison Roman—their senior food editor:


Browse the comments below the piece for lively commentary on butter vs. lard. vs. nut oil vs. bacon grease vs. olive oil. I cooked mine just like the sweet little film below but with a second-or-two over-easy and it was delicious—crispy bits and all:


In fact, I got lost in a few of the Bon Appétit films, like How to De-Stem Every Green and How to Make Crème Anglaise. There are also LOTS of other eggy ideas.

I then remembered an article I’d read in the New York Times by Amanda Hesser titled “A Marriage of Convenience,” published on Valentine’s Day in 2001. I followed her path from one southern Italian cookbook to the next—getting lost in the idea of eggs in pasta (and the debate on using cream or no cream). At the end of the article, I found myself reunited with Gabrielle Hamilton and a recipe for Pasta Kerchief with Poached Egg, French Ham, and Brown Butter—adapted from Prune.


Alas, I wasn’t prepared for making pasta on New Year’s Day (although I will be one day soon). But the idea itself made me think of Eugenie Brazier and the recipe for Symphonie D’Oeufs (Symphony of Eggs) on page 45 of La Mere Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking which I had just read the week before and which led me to my kitchen—where I found one egg and a perfectly ripe avocado laying on the kitchen counter.

In the end, I cut two slices of thick toast from day-old Ciabatta bread made by my son Zach at The Factory Café (and inspired by Rob McDaniel at The Spring House). I then sliced half of my perfect avocado, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, lightly smashed it to a spreading consistency, and applied to the perfectly (medium) toasted ciabatta. On the top came the egg—fried in olive oil (over-easy)—with a final sprinkle of salt and pepper.

My resolutions are off to a great start.

Here’s to good eggs in 2016. (I plan to surround myself with them).

Photos courtesy of Rinne Allen and Angie Mosier.


If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to public radio, you become acquainted with or even attached to the sound of a host’s voice. The introduction to a show or podcast becomes familiar, like memorized lyrics to a song, and the host’s voice becomes as recognizable and comforting as a friend’s. For instance, so many times I’ve heard: “From WBUR Boston and NPR, I’m Tom Ashbrook and this is On Point”, or “This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross”. Some listeners immediately recognize the jumbled mixture of voices patched together to say, “You’re listening to RadioLab, from WNYC and NPR”, or the profane voice of Marc Maron preceding the WTF Podcast; even the sound of a girl’s voice mispronouncing “MailChimp” in the advertisement before the Serial podcast became a pop culture reference. For me—one of the most welcoming is, “PRX. This is The Moth Radio Hour. I’m Catherine Burns…The Moth is about true personal stories, told in front of a live audience.” Catherine’s is a voice I trust and one that promises I am about to be enchanted, engaged, and moved in some way.

Catherine is The Moth’s longtime Artistic Director and frequent (though not only) host. The Moth—for the uninitiated—is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, a subject near and dear to our hearts at Alabama Chanin. It celebrates both the seasoned raconteur and the first-time storyteller, equally. Since its founding in 1997 by author George Dawes Green, The Moth has presented thousands of stories, all told live and without notes. Many of these stories are compiled into podcasts—each one unique and moving in its own way.

Prior to her work at The Moth, Catherine directed and produced independent films and television and directed the highly praised Off-Broadway solo show, Helen & Edgar. She is also editor of the New York Times Best Seller, The Moth: 50 True Stories. Burns, an Alexander City, Alabama native (whose parents still live there), has also won a Peabody Award through her work at The Moth Radio Hour. She is also an accomplished fire dancer who, for the last several years, has coordinated a 70-person fire dancing show at the Burning Man Festival.

I remember an interview Catherine did several years ago for the National Endowment for the Arts that still resonates today:

“We live in a world that’s becoming increasingly digital. We sit in our little boxes, staring at other boxes, communicating through our fingers on a keyboard. I don’t think human beings were meant to live this way, and The Moth is the antithesis of all of that. It’s ironic because all our little devices and programs are meant to connect us, but I don’t think they really do. They kind of connect us, but there’s always a boundary there—the electronic wall that keeps us from really experiencing each other in a human way…We can bring people out of their cubicles and get them to interact with their neighbors. Through storytelling, you can hear from a neighbor who you might assume you have nothing in common with, and discover that you share a great deal. When you see the person on the street the next day, your perspective on them will have changed because you know something important about them and other people like them.”

Her perspective on creativity and connection—and her Alabama roots—make her an intriguing participant in our exploration of the creative process.

You can also listen to the weekly Peabody Award-winning show online: The Moth Radio Hour. Warning, you may want to buckle down the kids, and put out the dogs before you start—you’re going to want good time to get lost down this rabbit hole.

Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?

Catherine Burns: This may sound silly, but I need a clean, orderly space in which to create. Both my office and home are pretty tidy. People are sometimes surprised by that—it’s the opposite of the cliché of the blustering artist. (Natalie, didn’t you comment on that the first time you saw my office?) But my job involves juggling a lot of balls at once, and it’s easy to get distracted. Having an organized space allows me to focus on the creating. I also like to surround myself with meaningful things that make me smile (many of which remind me of my beloved Alabama). On the shelves of my office I have piled among hundreds of books, my collection of Jonathan Adler mugs; an Alabama license plate; a quilt made for me by my cousin Sunny; various quartz rocks picked up at my Daddy’s farm near Eclectic; and a portrait of my friend, the poet and raconteur Edgar Oliver, which was painted by his mother Louise in Savannah in the early 1960’s.

AC: What have been some of the most successful campaigns you have launched? Why did you feel successful?

CB: The Moth released its first book two years ago—The Moth: 50 True Stories (Hachette). We were nervous about how the stories would work in print. We transcribed the oral stories, and lightly edited them for the page. The goal was for the reader to feel like they were actually hearing the storyteller speak. After the book was published, we heard about people reading the stories out loud to each other at dinner, which we loved, because it was a brand new way for our audience to interact with the stories. And the book allowed us to feature great stories that would have otherwise been lost. For instance, one of my favorite stories in the book is “Tajik Sonata” by Anoid Latipovna Rakhmatyllaeva. We met Anoid at a show we produced for the U.S. State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Her story—about finding the courage to stand down a group of child soldiers and prevent them from destroying a room full of musical instruments at the height of their civil war—is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever directed. But Anoid told her story in Russian, and the only recording we had was of our English translator during the final show rehearsal. It sounds like it was recorded underwater. But we were able to transcribe it, and now the story has been read by tens of thousands of people all over the world.

AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?

CB: My only regret is that I didn’t move to New York City sooner. When I got out of college, I spent a number of years bouncing between Los Angeles and Boston. I find New York so inspiring. The city keeps me on my toes. It can be overwhelming at times (especially for someone who grew up in a small town in Alabama!), but New York is one of the few places in the world where when I’m here, I don’t feel like there’s anywhere else I’m supposed to be. And I love living surrounded by so many creative people.

AC: Do you critique your own work?

CB: I do critique my own work, but I get a lot of help from The Moth’s artistic team. Storytelling is very subjective. We always know it’s been a great Moth night when, the next day, no one can agree on the best story—everyone has his or her favorite. But for that reason, I rely heavily on our artistic team to weigh in on how we shape the stories, and which ones will be broadcast. A storyteller works one-on-one with a Moth director for weeks (and sometimes months) leading up to a show. But then two days out there’s a big group rehearsal where all the storytellers in a particular show will tell their stories to their fellow storytellers and our artistic team. As a director, it’s so helpful getting feedback from a smart group of people who don’t know the story as well as I do. Our rule is that if someone on our team is confused about something in a story, then someone in the audience probably will be too. After the stories are recorded, a group of about twelve of us listen to the audio to decide what will go on our podcast and The Moth Radio Hour. If we can’t decide amongst ourselves, we send it to our brilliant radio producer, the legendary Jay Allison, who will then weigh in.

AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”?

CB: I’m a big fan of the not-for-profit Narrative 4. They try to foster empathy, often among people who might have reasons to dislike each other. As I understand it, they get a group together (for instance teenagers from a war-torn area), pair people off into twos, and have them listen to each other’s stories. The person listening has to then re-tell the story they just heard in the first person (as if it happened to them). Or as the folks at Narrative 4 put it, “Our core methodology centers around a story exchange, which works on a simple idea: If I can hear your story deeply enough to retell it in my own words, as if it happened to me—and you can do the same for my story—then we will have seen the world through each other’s eyes.” It’s brilliant.


AC: Is there one single act that can open your imaginary mind?

CB: Dance of any kind, whether I’m watching or participating. I love watching dancers. I spend my days with words and language. Everything is about narrative. And while a great dancer always tells a story of some kind, it’s less direct—no words are spoken. Dancing gets me out of my head and into my body, which is always a good thing. I’m not the most graceful person, but about ten years ago I became a fire dancer, performing poi, which is where you dance with balls of fire connected to your hands by chains. Learning this technique was a huge struggle for me, and my teacher later admitted that I initially showed almost no aptitude for it. But I kept with it, and eventually became the New York City lead for the big 1000 person fire spinning show at the Burning Man Festival that happens every year in Black Rock City, Nevada. Dancing with fire scratches some kind of itch in my soul. When I come back to my Moth work afterward, I always feel ready to jump into storytelling in a fresh way again.

AC: Which ones of your products and/or services inspire you the most?

CB: I am constantly inspired by the work being done in The Moth’s community program. This is the leg of The Moth that provides storytelling, free of charge, to underserved communities. The participants could be people living with HIV, holocaust survivors, or teenagers who have a sibling with a disability. I recently returned from a trip to Uganda where I had the pleasure of working with African feminist writers from across the continent. Working with these women was pure magic and a genuine inspiration for me. In the last year, our team led a series of storytelling workshops at a prison in Manhattan. The stories told by these incarcerated men will break your heart. Prisoners can feel very disconnected from the outside world, which can inhibit their rehabilitation and eventual re-entry into the world. Storytelling can help remind them of their humanity. We recently found out that the prisoners have been getting together and coaching each other’s stories in the days between The Moth’s weekly workshops. They call it “Mothing”. We love it.

P.S.: Look for Natalie’s story, told live at The Moth Mainstage in New York City on your public radio station as part of The Moth Radio Hour, “1602: Sewing, Singing, Suits, and Cemeteries.” Natalie’s story about kudzu, snakes, and sewing includes a conversation between Catherine and Natalie—recorded on Natalie’s back porch. You will also be able to download this story (and so many more) for free on The Moth Podcast beginning next week. Check back on Friday for more on Natalie’s journey from story to Mainstage.

Photos courtesy of Catherine Burns.

This project is made possible in part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.


If you don’t yet know The Bitter Southerner, you should. They’ve been telling good stories since 2013, strong stories; stories that make you laugh, and stories that make you cry. There is so much that I love about what they are doing, but I especially love the description below from their “About” page by editor Chuck Reese:

“But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It’s also full of people who face our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. The Bitter Southerner is here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.”

Last Tuesday, they posted a piece about Alabama Chanin , and we are proud. It tells the story we live every day, it cracks open the work, and honestly explains how sometimes we know what we are doing, and how sometimes we do not exactly know what we are doing or the “complexion” of what we want to do, but that we are curious, and we want to do what we do well—with integrity.

But more than all of that, it connects us to our past, to our community, and to friends, and to heroes and heroines, like John Paul White and Rosanne Cash—and to the stories they are telling through the songs they are singing. It’s a piece that makes you want to get back to work. It might make you want to make a road trip.

We are (super) grateful to Kristi York Wooten, Chuck Reese, and all the team from The Bitter Southerner. Please go have a read here and join The Bitter Southerner to help them keep telling stories. (It’s worth the membership fee just for the “BS” bumper sticker.) They launch a new story every Tuesday; sign up for their newsletter to know the score.


Read more on William Faulkner from The New York Times Magazine
Photo from Rinne Allen via The Bitter Southerner


The Shoals is an area rich in folklore, dating back to the 1800s. And this time of year, that folklore comes alive in tales of souls haunting historic homes and spaces. Fifteen years ago, local historian and author Debra Glass was inspired to create a ghost tour that would tell some of the forgotten stories of the Shoals’ haunted residents: the Haunted History of the Shoals Ghost Walk.

Those interested are asked to meet just before 7:30pm—8:00pm for the late tour—beside the eerily disproportionate statue of W.C. Handy at Wilson Park. We recommend grabbing a cup of Rivertown coffee to stay warm throughout the 90-minute walk. Glass begins the tour by recounting personal experiences at her office with the ghost of Jeddy Ryan, a benevolent spirit, and then walks the tour to the corner of Tombigbee and Court Streets to tell the tale of “Mountain” Tom Clark.


Clark was an outlaw during the Civil War, whose gang robbed, murdered, and menaced area residents—murdering at least 19 people, including a child. He was eventually caught by authorities and jailed. On September 4, 1872, an angry mob took Clark from jail and hung him. Glass says that while alive, Clark’s most famous proclamation was: “No one would ever run over Tom Clark!”, which is why the citizens of Florence buried him underneath Tennessee Street, one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the city.


A few paces down from the location of “Mountain” Tom Clark’s hanging is Trowbridge’s, an ice cream bar famous for orange pineapple ice cream and for being haunted by Charles Daniel Stewart. Before the restaurant was built, the land belonged to the Stewart family, who situated their antebellum home in the same spot. Like many men of the time, Stewart was called away from home due to the Civil War and was chosen to carry the Confederate banner into battle. Stewart vowed to protect the honor of the banner, which was made by his mother and other local women. However, Stewart was severely wounded at the Battle of Manassas and was brought home to die on August 16, 1861. Over the years, Trowbridge’s employees have seen the phantasm of a young boy and experienced other strange events.

The tour continues down a section of Court Street Glass refers to as “Ghost Row.”

We don’t want to give away some of the tour’s spookiest tales, but on this stretch, you will hear stories involving some of the area’s most famous residents, a scorned wife, and a mysterious girl and her phantom dog.


At the end of Ghost Row the tour heads towards one of its more gruesome sites, Pope’s Tavern. During the Civil War, the tavern was converted to an infirmary for Confederate and Union soldiers. Many soldiers—including the 32 who died at the tavern—underwent surgery or amputations in the building’s back right room. In 1988, the first archeological dig at the site was underway when bones and bullets were discovered in the courtyard just outside the amputation room’s door. Claims of unnerving experiences increased in the years following the discoveries.

Miss Glass shares several other stories, which also serve as a partial history of the area and its residents. After the tour wraps up, Glass stays for a more intimate meet and greet where you can also buy her books, which expand upon the many ghosts believed to haunt the Shoals area.

Visit their website for more information.



Way back in 2007, performance artist John Rives put together a light-hearted TED talk meant to tease conspiracy theorists everywhere. I won’t get into the incredible connections he makes between people like country music artist Faron Young, Dame Judi Dench, and Bill Clinton. (I suggest you watch for yourself.) But he manages to connect one event to another, and another, through the hour of four in the morning. Four in the morning, he says, is the “worst possible hour” of the day. It’s shorthand for a time of inconvenience, mishaps, and yearnings.

What Rives didn’t expect was that the “four in the morning” effect was more widespread in our culture than he ever imagined. After his initial TED Talk, people began sending him “Four AM” references from all over the world. He has received so many references of “four in the morning” in our culture—from Shakespeare to The Simpsons—that he is now the self-proclaimed expert on 4AM. (For just a hint of it’s presence in our culture, here are a quick set of 50 Four in the Mornings that we’ve all seen at some point.)

In response to the overwhelming response, Rives put together a short follow-up talk to show us what he’s learned about 4AM: watch here. So we must ask—has he discovered and decoded the real witching hour? Or is it a magical, creative hour? Or is it nothing at all? Rives has catalogued every reference he’s discovered at the Museum of Four in the Morning, where you’ll find instances in literature, movies, music, television, and all manner of pop culture transmissions. We invite you to click around, examine the copious evidence, and ask yourselves: Just what is the deal with 4AM?



In the northwest corner of Alabama it sometimes feels like we are in our own little world (or, perhaps, just in our own little state of mind); we have our own way of doing things. This area boasts a beautiful terrain, unpredictable weather, its own unique musical sound, white barbecue sauce, and, of course, chicken stew. But, even as we boast about our unique quirks, claims to fame, and attributes, it must be said that other areas of Alabama certainly have special qualities and points of view, different from our own. Though each region or county or city has its own distinct flavor, we share in a creative spirit that can be found anywhere in the state. (Visit the Southern Makers gathering for verifiable proof of what Alabama has to offer artistically.)

Continue reading


A few notes from the road:

We packed way too much. One suitcase and a favorite pillow would have done.

We haven’t taken nearly enough pictures to describe the magnificent journey this has been.

Snacks are good.

Rain from a train is very beautiful.

Tunnels can be a little dark and scary.

Origami makes people happy.

The absence of cell phone service and Wi-Fi can be a blessing.

There is a beautiful juxtaposition of rugged industrial and breathtaking scenery to be found along railroad tracks (and sometimes side-by-side).

Great satisfaction can be found in just sitting still.
xoNatalie and Maggie



When I was a little girl, I started a postcard collection. Postcards were then—and are now—a low cost memento of a trip (and a low stakes investment for a parent to make on a souvenir). I don’t remember how old I was when I started accumulating these paper treasures, nor can I identify the first postcard that found its way into the old shoebox that housed the collection. As any collector knows, there is often no clear rhyme or reason behind why something appeals to us. It sometimes requires years of study for a true collector able to identify trends and collecting tendencies. After a half of a century of amassing them, I have begun to understand that the postcards were my first connections to travel and to experiencing the world.

I can look through the shoebox and clearly see that early postcards reflected my grandparents’ trips to Florida—to visit a rogue branch of our family that left north Alabama for parts unknown. The photos were of places and attractions that felt exotic to a child. Finally, I made my first trip to the Florida panhandle and Panama City—what today we call the “Redneck Rivera”—when I was 5 years old. After an overnight drive with my mother and a group of her friends, I awoke as we neared our destination and declared, “It snowed!” because the beaches were so white. A collection of 1960s style post cards document that trip: Goofy Golf and images of white sand and turquoise blue waters.

A few years later, my cousins moved to Texas and my grandparents’ adventures expanded. I received postcards from Hot Springs, Arkansas, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial in Dallas, Texas, and all the stops in between. My Aunt Elaine took a job as a teacher with the Armed Forces and set off for the Azores, and my collection grew further. I remember clearly sitting down across from her with a spinning globe between us, searching for the tiny archipelago of islands off the coast of Portugal. From there Elaine began to send a series of postcards that documented every stop of her travels. As my collection continued to multiply, friends and family members would purchase postcards for me from every place they went. Sent and delivered from around the world, these small rectangles of paper most likely created in me a need to travel and see as much as I could in my life.

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This week, we take another look at the lives our clothes have led and the memories forever linked with them. For some reason, we associate memories with objects—or in this case, clothing. Every time I look inside, I think that my closet is, in a small way, some sort of prism through which I see the world.

Project Alabama Garment #17821
Built in September 2005
Pattern:  A-359 Long Coat
Stencil: Facets
Fabric: 100% organic medium-weight cotton jersey
Outer layer color: Sapphire
Backing layer color: Black
Thread: Navy
Beads: Black bugle and chop
Sequins: Gun Metal
Seams: Inside felled
Knots: Inside
Size: Medium
Owner: Natalie Chanin

The Beaded Facets Coat was originally created for the Project Alabama Spring/Summer 2006 Collection, as you can see in the picture above left. It was presented in the first and only runway show we ever produced (thank you Gail Dizon, Jennifer Venditti, Lori Goldstein, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Ruby Jane, and to UPS—who sponsored the show). I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that show made the cover of Women’s Wear Daily the next morning. I had to look three times to realize that it was actually the cover and not from the interior of the magazine. There were eventually 14 of these coats produced in both the Amber and Sapphire colorways shown above for Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Jeffrey Atlanta, and a few special clients.

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Once our garments are born and leave the nest, they have rich lives. At least that is what we hope—what we believe. We work hard to design and construct pieces that will last for many years and become heirlooms, passed down from one generation to the next. For owners of Alabama Chanin garments, it’s common that the garments are integrated into their lives for years and years. In celebration of this sentiment, we decided to highlight garments from our archives—and, where possible, to follow their journeys and see where they have landed.

My closet seemed the natural place to start, and so we begin with a very personal dress from my life:

Project Alabama Garment #5387
Built in August 2002
Pattern:  A-67 Slip Dress (18 pattern pieces)
Stencil: 116 Star Flower
Fabric: Recycled T-shirts in shades of Navy
Seams: Outside Felled
Thread: Navy
Knots: Inside
Size: Medium
Owner: Natalie Chanin

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“From a scientific point of view, it can be said he [Thoreau] documented for the first time how ecological succession works … The mechanism was animals and weather. Squirrels carry acorns so oak trees replace pine when the pines are cut down. And pine seeds blow over to replace the oak.” – Richard T. Forman

I started writing this piece about two weeks ago. I was talking about succession over trend with a colleague and she asked me to put down my thoughts about how that worked. And so I started…and as I was writing, the question of trend began to appear in the press and this story seems on one hand less important and on the other hand more important. I’ll let you be the judge. In any case, thank you for coming here. Thank you for reading:

There is a small stop at milepost 330.2 on the Natchez Trace Parkway called Rock Spring Nature Trail. I’ve been going to this spot on the Natchez Trace since I was a little girl. Perk, my maternal grandfather, used to take me (and all of the cousins) there en route to Colbert Ferry park on the “other side” of the Tennessee River from our home. From there, we would launch his small fishing boat and run the trotline of baited hooks for catfish (more on this boat and Perk’s trotline coming soon).

Rock Spring is a natural aquifer that merges with Colbert Creek where this nature trail now stands. The creek is a small, meandering stream of rare beauty (see the photo above)—named after George Colbert—who ran the Ferry that crossed the Tennessee River along the Trace before the days of a bridge.

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Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and we are honoring his legacy and observing the holiday through service to our community. In the past few weeks, the Civil Rights Movement along with the work of Dr. King has received much media attention, due in part to the film Selma. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came to be and chronicles the events leading up to its monumental passing.

There were three marches that took place in March of 1965—the first is referred to as “Bloody Sunday” due to brutal attacks on the marchers, and the second march was cut short, as Dr. King felt the marchers needed protection by a federal court to prevent further violence. On March 21, 1965 the third march began—this time with the protection of the Army, Alabama National Guard, FBI Agents, and Federal Marshalls. The marchers arrived in Montgomery, at the State Capitol building, on March 25. The route taken from Selma to Montgomery is now a U.S. National Historic Trail.


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During Makeshift 2012, we dedicated a portion of one event to “Worn Stories,” a concept defined and documented by Emily Spivack that explores the stories and emotional attachments surrounding our clothing. Jessamyn Hatcher introduced us to Emily and her work about the relationships we create with our garments and the rich memories we associate with our clothes. Those memories are certainly why we hold on to items long out of fashion, in sizes we will never wear again. The clothing is a physical representation of our emotional scrapbook.

Spivack’s recent book, also titled Worn Stories, is moving and relatable—and earned it’s way to the New York Times’ Bestseller List. In it, she collects over sixty clothing-inspired remembrances from famous faces and everyday people; each was asked to describe the most meaningful item of clothing in their closet—and the stories that surround them.

Worn Stories is meant not only to unearth memories through storytelling, but also to offer intimate glimpses into the lives, memories, and psyches of the tellers. It also prompts readers to delve into their own closets and consider the role clothing plays in their own lives. The book and website together amount to an extensive catalog of oral and written histories, all surrounding garments.


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With 2014 coming to a close and a brand new year upon us, it is time to reflect on all we’ve accomplished—slow in design, but rapid in growth—during the past year. But first and foremost, we want to thank each and every single one of our supporters, friends, collaborators, partners, and everyone who has made 2014 the success that it has been. Without you, none of this would be possible.

Organic Cotton

No feat was as challenging—or as rewarding—as our organic Alabama cotton adventure. From a seedling of an idea to the harvest of pillowcases full of beautiful, white cotton, the success of this project is one of our proudest achievements. Not only were we able to physically see the fruits of our labor, we were also able to see the rewards of sticking to our ideals: sustainability, community, education, open-source sharing, and transparency in method.

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Give the gift of membership to the Southern Foodways Alliance and give the gift of Gravy (plus so much more). And download the new Gravy podcast (for free) for your own weekly goodness.

—excerpted from Gravy 53: Food and Social Justice, page 42 

John Earl Reese, shot while dancing in a café in Mayflower, Texas, October 2, 1955.

Not for the wound, not for the bullet,
++power’s pale cowardice, but
for you, for the three full syllables
++of your name we hold whole
as a newborn by the feet, and so
++for the cry, the first note, the key
So every word to follow, the timbre,
++The tone, the voice that could sing
Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” and slow
++dance the flip side, the blossoms
fallen like a verdict to the jury’s lips,
++not to the blood or the broken
glass or the spiders silking juke-box
++wires in a junkman’s shed,
but the fingers’ heat still on the dime
++when it slides to the switch,
the lamp on the platter, the groove
++that tells the needle what to say,
and the pine boards of the café floor
++once moved by the locusts’ moan
now warm as a guitar’s wood, revived
++with all the prayers of songs, Amens
that flame when a blues turns bright,
++not for what was lost, but what
was lived, what is written here,
++in the night, in vinyl, in the air,
for the bead of sweat at the hair’s deckle,
++the evening star in the trees,
soda-pop sugar wild on your tongue and
++for the tongue telling Saturday night
something of Sunday morning, fluent
++as a mockingbird, and for the hand
that opens as if in praise, as if in prayer,
++asking for another to fill it there,
for the smile and for the smile of skin
++behind the ear where love might lip its name,
for you, if we may, pull back the arm
++and start the music once again.

Jake Adam York (1972-2012) was a poet from Glencoe, Alabama, whose work often focused on the civil rights movement in the American South. “Inscription for Air” was originally published in Abide, copyright 2014 by the Estate of Jake Adam York. Reproduced by permission of Southern Illinois University Press. The SFA thanks Sarah Skeen, Joe York, and Southern Illinois University Press. PHOTO BY Mike Garofalo.


Harald Stoffers has been writing letters every day for over twenty years. Long ones. Short ones. Tall ones. Skinny ones. Some of them measure over ten feet high; others are only a few inches tall. Occasionally, he tears them apart. Most of them are addressed to his mother with the loving words, “Liebe Mutti” (Dear Mother), though he rarely sends them to her.

The substance of the letters varies from the banal activities and formalities of daily life—like what he is planning to wear the next day or the price of a cup of coffee—to personal thoughts and reflections. Most of the text is legible, but Stoffer’s process of writing and line-making sometimes obliterates what he has already written. At times the individual letters might be written so closely together that they become clouds of black ink.


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Last year, when delving into the history of holiday carols, I found myself asking a question that I’ve wondered about since my youth: What exactly is figgy pudding?

The traditional English dessert is mentioned several times in the popular carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it right here), referring to the caroling traditions of 16th century England where Christmas treats and drinks were given to carolers by wealthy well-wishers as a thank you for the songs. Often, these treats included puddings.

After a bit of research, I discovered that figgy pudding is actually more cake-like in form. It is similar to modern-day Christmas puddings and plum puddings, and—like it or not—is a cousin to the unjustly maligned fruitcake. But, don’t let that keep you from trying this delicious, boozy dessert. (Yes, classic figgy pudding includes a good dose of rum and brandy—perfect for warming chilly carolers.)

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“Gravy is the SFA’s collection of original stories—fresh, unexpected, and thought-provoking. Like all of the SFA’s work, Gravy shares stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat. Gravy showcases a South that is constantly evolving, accommodating new immigrants, adopting new traditions, and lovingly maintaining old ones. It uses food as a means to explore all of that, to dig into lesser-known corners of the region, complicate stereotypes, document new dynamics, and give voice to the unsung folk who grow, cook, and serve our daily meals. Gravy the print journal lands in the mailboxes of SFA members four times per year. Gravy the podcast releases a new episode every other week.” –Southern Foodways Alliance

Gravy: The Podcast is now available every second Thursday by iTunes subscription:

“Gravy, a biweekly podcast, doesn’t profile star chefs. We don’t pander to cookbook authors. We don’t narrate recipes. Gravy tells stories of people and place through food…”

Join this important conversation (and get your own copy of Gravy mailed to your door) with your Southern Foodways Alliance membership. (Membership also makes a great holiday gift—think #givingtuesday.)

The piece below, written by Catarina Passidomo, reflects this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance theme, “Who is Welcome at the Welcome Table?” and can be found on page 13 of Gravy #53.


Lessons from A Post-Katrina New Orleans” by Catarina Passidomo

When I tell people that I study food, the response is usually one of curious interest. When I go on to explain that I study food justice—that is, the connections between food systems and race, class, gender, and other means of oppression—the look of curiosity changes slightly. Is that confusion? Agreement? Concern? People who experience one or multiple forms of oppression in their own lives generally nod with understanding. But for many of us, the connections between food and social justice are abstract. The interlocking systems that bring food from field or factory to fork, spoon, fingers, or chopsticks are mostly obscured from view. Or they are so familiar that we don’t notice them. But if we look closely and critically, we can begin to see through food to broader systems of oppression and dominance. This makes food a powerful tool for thinking and teaching about social justice. Continue reading


Over the past months, we have been exploring heirlooms through ongoing Journal posts. Our intention is to look at the things we hold dear and examine how we find meaning in our personal heirlooms and mementos—even if those things don’t necessarily have great monetary value. The Heirloom series is meant to celebrate things that last and the things that we assign meaning to in our lives.

This week, we look at the process of creating something with intention – the act of making something designed to last and assigning a meaning to that object from its inception. Our friend and Journal contributor Sara shares stories of her late father-in-law, told from the perspective of some of his children:

A few months ago, my family suffered a loss with the passing of my father-in-law, who we all called Mike. It was a heartbreaking time but, as is often the case, the painful loss provided the opportunity to share memories, spend time together, grieve, and heal. The ironic part of the rituals surrounding a death—the preparations, family gatherings, storytelling—is that you constantly look at one another and think: He would have loved to be here… He would have loved this.

My husband, Kory, has six siblings. They rarely see one another. We don’t live terribly close to most of them and, though we might have great intentions of visiting one another (or at least calling more often), inevitably life happens. Days and weeks and months and seasons pass with only brief “hellos”, the occasional text message, or the rare visit.

When Mike passed away, we all found ourselves in the same room, thrust upon one another in the middle of life. We were brothers and sisters, spouses and children, nieces and mothers and aunts and uncles—together with one terrible agenda settling in over the room. But, as happens, there are things that must be done, plans to be made, decisions to ponder, meals to cook, and logistics to navigate. You begin the tricky balance of working, grieving, and healing. Your loss is personal and it is also communal. Continue reading


I’ve never met Roderick Kiracofe, but, I’ve known about his quilt collection for a long time. I believe that I heard his name shortly after I returned to Alabama over a decade ago. In those early days, I was working with quilters to create the garments that would make up my first collections. My neighbors supported my interest in quilts and quilting, happy that I was embracing a skill so highly valued in the community. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for me to open my door in the morning and find a bag of quilts left by an anonymous soul. They were often “garbage quilts”, as they are called around here—quilts that had seen better days. Many were shedding handpicked cotton through feed-sack fabric, worn so thin that the strings left couldn’t contain the internal batting. They were quilts that had been used to cover animals or as seat padding for an old car. But someone knew that I would see their value and appreciate their history.


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Through our Journal’s Heirloom series, we’ve been exploring the things we value and why we hold them dear. Each story reveals the value of tradition and honors possessions that were made to last. While these items may not be valuable to the world-at-large, to the owner they are priceless.

This week, Kasey, our Production Coordinator for the Alabama Chanin collection shares memories of the clock she inherited from her grandmother.

From Kasey:

My grandmother, Peggy Louise, was a mother of 6, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of 17 – and she somehow knew how to make each of us feel special. The time we spent together was filled with food, stories, and – above all – laughter.

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Perhaps the most common advice given to any writer: write what you know. Fabric designer, crafter, illustrator, writer, friend, and heroine Heather Ross manages to do just that in her newest publication, How to Catch a Frog: And Other Stories of Family, Love, Dysfunction, Survival, and DIY. In the book, Heather shares wisdom, heartfelt stories, lessons from her eccentric childhood spent in rural Vermont, gorgeous humor, and her deep joy for life.

Published by Stuart Tabori Chang, one of the descriptions of the book reads:

“When, as a twenty-something, Heather complained to her mother about a long list of things she had missed out on and that had compromised her chance of ever leading a ’normal’ life (immunizations, a healthy respect for authority), her mother waved a hand and replied, ’Well, you should thank me, because you have a lot of good stories instead.’”

The stories that Heather weaves, particularly the tales of a childhood surrounded by nature, remind me in-parts of my own daughter, Maggie, who spent much of her summer this year in Seale, Alabama, with her dad, Butch…swimming in a cattle watering trough, exploring the woods, riding ponies, creating art, catching frogs, lizards, turtles, and snakes, and—much to my dismay—having a pretty close encounter with a crocodile.


Heather’s anecdotes of her youthful adventures elicit emotional responses without relying on conventions or tropes. I laughed, I cried, and I found true appreciation for her life lessons.

I was (luckily) invited to read an early copy of the book and contributed this review on the book’s back cover:

I’ve long counted myself among Heather’s admirers; I am now a full-fledged devotee, grateful to her for inviting us all into her world.

How to Catch a Frog: And Other Stories of Family, Love, Dysfunction, Survival, and DIY by Heather Ross is a Melanie Falick Book published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, an imprint of Abrams (our own publisher).



One Saturday morning in the mid-1930s, Mancey Massengill, a wife and mother of two, saw people having their pictures made in a dime store photo booth in Batesville, Arkansas. According to her son Lance, “she watched close, and got the name off the camera, then wrote to the company and ordered the lens. She got the money for that by taking about two dozen pullets in for sale.” Her husband, Jim, built a box to house the lens and outfitted a trailer to create a mobile photo studio. On weekends, they would set up in little towns across the state and make pictures, three for a dime.

Jim and Mancey Massengill started this family side-business to make ends meet. The country was in the throes of depression and on the verge of entering the Second World War. Work was scarce in rural Arkansas, but the Massengills understood that even in rough times, life continues. Babies are born, children play, couples meet, and we all grow older. Someone needed to be there to capture those moments and that person could perhaps make a living doing it.

A few years later, the Massengill’s sons, Lance and Lawrence, and their wives, Evelyn and Thelma, worked their way into the business. They outfitted their own trailers and made their own pictures, traveling across the state in search of clients. The surviving family diaries and notes from this period attest to a very strong and entrepreneurial work ethic, with little mention of aesthetics or technique. The men and women of both generations describe where they went, what they did, and how much they made with only fleeting mention of life’s details. With few exceptions, the stories are left to be told by the pictures they made.


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Thank you to the Southern Foodways Alliance for allowing us to share “I Fell Hard for Buford Highway” by John T. Edge.

From Gravy #52:

I grew up in the country. On fourteen acres of red Georgia clay, cut by gullies and skirted by cedars. I grew up fishtailing down gravel roads in pick-up trucks. And running barefoot through honeysuckle patches. Out in those boonies, I developed an urban crush. After a fitful college run through Athens, I hightailed it for Atlanta and made a life in a neighborhood near the city core.

I could walk to two Indian restaurants, a bookstore, and a co-op grocery. I pinch-hit on the softball team of my neighborhood bar. I became the worst sort of city snob: an arriviste. I was quick to dismiss my country birth and even quicker to declaim life in the white-flight suburbs, which I considered a homogenous wasteland, absent of sentient folk and sidewalks.


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For the past few years, I have essentially worked as a roving curator seeking out new artists and projects for Institute 193 and occasionally finding time for my personal work. I am on the road constantly: crisscrossing the Southern United States, meeting people, visiting artists, and making pictures. Things happen along the way.

This past fall, I was driving from Atlanta to Dallas, a short twelve-hour jaunt, to deliver some paintings. Around sunset, I pulled over to photograph a roadside memorial near Cuba, Alabama. I had been talking to my mother at the time (I know, distracted driving) and our heated, but lovely, conversation had made it slightly more difficult to slow the car down while crossing multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic. As a result, I was much farther away from my subject than usual. I hung up the phone, jumped out of the car, and zig-zagged through one hundred yards of un-mowed wet grass and weeds to the wooden cross. I typically run along the highway shoulder, but it was narrow; the sun was setting; and one of my obvious but unstated artistic goals of my project is to NOT become the subject of a roadside memorial. The irony would be too much for me to posthumously suffer.

After a long slough through the mud and weeds, I bent down and took the picture. I ran back to the car, tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, put my foot on the brake, and watched a small light on my dash flash the words: NO KEY FOUND. And that is precisely the moment when things got interesting.

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As part of our ongoing Heirloom series that focuses on the precious things we treasure – even though they might not be considered valuable by the rest of the world – we continue to tell stories of items that have been passed down through families, from one generation to the next.

Today, we hear from Sara Martin, one of our Journal contributors. She shares a story of her great-grandmother’s butcher knife and how a potential family scandal became a source of family pride.

From Sara:

My great-grandmother, Roxie Mae Hurst, doted on my sister and I when we were born. She passed away when I was quite young, so I don’t have many memories of her. But, my family tells stories of her frequently – of her bold actions, her stoic nature, and her toughness.

She was (somewhat scandalously during that time) married twice. In 1907, at the age of 20, she married the Circuit Court Clerk of Lauderdale County, Alabama. His family was financially well off and his brothers were both respected county judges.

My great-grandmother was not particularly well liked or respected by her first husband’s family. They were well-educated and held substantial wealth and community respect; she was bright and literate, but not formally educated. This caused a cultural and social disconnect in the family that lasted beyond her husband’s lifetime. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in April of 1912.
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“Train-Track Hopscotch”

Your hair is clay,
mine is water, and as we smile
into the camera,
cotton flowers—all gray—
Drape still behind us.
Now, there is no color—
only black and white—
so, after the flash,
we play.  You bring
the bottle Caps (Nu-Grape and Dr. Nutt),
and I pull teacher’s chalk
from my gingham pocket.
The sun sets on your side
of the track
that leads somewhere, like the tear
that will happen
across our paper faces.
Hush now,
Mother said
we couldn’t float bag-boats
down the creek.
Hush now,
hear the train whistle
warning us home.



Nothing comes between
us but the moon
painted silver
beneath a stippled bough.

Dear, that moon
is full, and when our little heads
tilt on the axis of tomorrow,
its light will open–like a pearled

locket—and spill out
our starlit lullabies,
our Luna in a canning jar,
so many shared biscuits.

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We all have different definitions of comfort food—the dishes that make up those meals that leave our bellies (and our hearts) full. They are the dishes you crave when you are far from home; a hankering for something familiar and soothing. For me, this includes an array of casserole dishes, fresh garden vegetables, and my Gram Perkins’ egg salad.

When Davia and Nikki of The Kitchen Sisters agreed to be our featured chefs this month as part of our ongoing Factory Café Chef Series, I started browsing through my copy of Hidden Kitchens. Soon, I found myself totally immersed in the stories I’d heard on the radio years before. I began re-telling stories to the staff at The Factory, and we were all excited about a recipe I found in the chapter about NASCAR kitchens, titled “Slap It On the Thighs Butter Bar”—aptly named, since the ingredients called for yellow cake mix, egg, margarine, powered sugar, and cream cheese. The recipe was originally from the 25th anniversary edition of the Winston Cup Racing Wives’ Auxiliary Cookbook, published in 1989. Curious to know what other comfort food recipes from the kitchens of racing existed, we tracked down a copy of the book on Ebay.


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From Gravy #51: “Canning Memories” By Frank X Walker

Indian Summer meant Saturday morning courtyards and door screens opened and waiting for urban signs of harvest. No new moons or first frosts, just the welcome staccato and horn of an old flatbed truck, overalls and mud-caked boots. Grandmothers who still clicked their tongues and called up the sound of a tractor in the daybreak, the aroma of fresh turned earth and the secret location of the best blackberry patch like they were remembering old lovers, planted themselves a half squint away from the palming and weighing of potatoes stringbeans, kale, turnips, sweetcorn onions and cabbage. GRAVY-06 Continue reading


Foraging is the act of searching for and gathering wild food. Perhaps you remember learning about nomadic hunters and gatherers in grade school—these early societies moved from place to place, following animals, fruits, and vegetables in order to sustain life. Modern humans followed this way of life until about ten thousand years ago, when agriculture was developed.

Today, most of the world’s hunter-gatherers (or foragers) have been displaced by farmers and pastoralists. Modern foragers often look for food in their surrounding environments, and do not move from camp to camp like their predecessors. In fact, foraging has become a livelihood for some—by sourcing wild food resources for restaurants, chefs, markets, and the like.

Below, The Kitchens Sisters share their discovery of modern-day forager Angelo Garro (and his hidden kitchen).


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When I was a young girl, my mother’s mother would cook green beans for what seemed like every meal. They would be fresh from the garden when in season or, during the winter, they would come from her reserves of “put up” vegetables that had been canned and stored. By the time I was about 10, I couldn’t stand the sight of a green bean. Though it took years to reawaken, my love of green beans did eventually return.

All of this cooking and storing of green beans and the bounty of summer took place in the makeshift “outdoor kitchen” that was nothing more than a concrete platform that was the roof of my grandparents’ storm cellar. The tools of this summer pop-up kitchen included a single garden hose, several dull paring knives, and a variety of galvanized buckets and tubs that had seen the better part of several decades. Beans, fruits, and vegetables of all sorts were initially washed and left to air dry on the shaded expanse of the concrete roof, which remained cool from the deep burrow below in the hot summers.  Kids and adults alike gathered there in random pairs to shuck, peel, and prod those fruits and vegetables into a cleaner, more manageable form that would then be moved from the outdoors to the “real” kitchen inside. In her small kitchen, my grandmother would boil, serve, save, can, freeze, and generally use every scrap of food that came from the garden—a tended plot large enough to serve extended family and close friends. The preserved treasures would then move from the house, back outside and into the cool depths of the storm cellar to await their consumption—just below the makeshift kitchen, and alongside a family of spiders and crickets who made that dark place home.


I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but by offering up that summer kitchen to any willing hand (and by serving all of those green beans), my grandmother was providing love and nourishment the only way she knew how—while teaching all of us kids the usefulness and practicality of growing our own food. Stories unfolded over those buckets of produce, and because of her patience and generous time sitting on the edge of that storm cellar, I learned that food could be used to pass down a love of nature, the earth, family tradition, and culture.

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This May, Alabama Chanin is featuring two of my personal heroines (and, now, dear friends) as part of our ongoing Chef Series at the café. They might not be chefs, but Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva are The Kitchen Sisters—independent producers who create radio stories for NPR and other public broadcast outlets. Davia and Nikki are two of the most genuine and real women I know. Without their dedication to telling the real story, I would not be the person I am today. Route 66 changed my perception of storytelling in the autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks; in the third story of a rented house on a square in Savannah, Georgia. Just like that my life changed.

Davia and Nikki met and began collaborating in the late 1970s, hosting a weekly radio program in Santa Cruz, California. Their name was taken from two eccentric brothers—Kenneth and Raymond Kitchen—who were stonemasons in Santa Cruz in the 1940s. One night, they were discussing the Kitchen Brothers, who were featured in a book about Santa Cruz architects, as prep for an interview with the book’s author—while also cooking dinner for a group of people on the commune where Nikki lived—and got caught up in legends of local masonry (chimneys, yogi temples, Byzantine bungalows…), and food prep fell to the wayside. Dinner that evening was a disaster, and The Kitchen Sisters were (laughingly) born.

Oral histories heavily influenced their style of radio production. Over the years, they have produced a number of series, such as Lost & Found Sound, The Sonic Memorial Project, The Hidden World of Girls, and Hidden Kitchens. Regardless of topic, Davia and Nikki find a way to build community through storytelling.

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Our Heirloom series highlights personal items or mementos that hold a special meaning, regardless of monetary value. Our hope is to reveal the incredible value of family, memory, and things that last.

This week Erin, our Director of Media Services and Special Projects, shares the story of her grandmother’s kerchief.

From Erin:

My grandma, Nancy Jo, was a beautiful, artistic, kind-hearted, and very stylish woman. She had a contagious laugh, and I remember her as always happy and smiling. Throughout much of her life, she painted and drew as hobbies (mostly pictures of flowers and birds), made clothes, crafted, and was an amazing cook. (My favorite was her coconut cream pie, which I made for Christmas this year.) I like to think she passed her creative traits down to my dad, who then passed them to me.

When she passed away in May of 2011, she left me her engagement ring, her sewing machine and a box of fabric scraps, hats from her collection, her paper doll collection, and a collection of her kerchiefs. That spring, I had just been introduced to Alabama Chanin and wouldn’t begin working here until the following year. But, I’d been inspired to begin making and sewing for myself and was excited and proud to share my projects with my Grandma.


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My Life in Mobile Homes by John T. Edge

Where I grew up, singlewide trailers were as common as clapboard shotguns. On the far end of my Georgia town, near where the seg academy floundered, the mothers and fathers of my grade school friends worked at the mobile home factory, bending aluminum and punching rivets, constructing metal shoeboxes with roller skates on their bottoms. No matter. In my youth, trailers were jokes waiting for punch lines. We said terrible things. We said stupid things. We said, “Tornadoes are proof that God hates trailer parks.”

With time has come perspective. And humility. And a respect for trailers as shelter and conveyance. A few years back, I wrote a book on food trucks. Once I got beyond the hype and chickpea frites, I recognized that food trucks are trailers, too. Operated by new immigrants. And downshifting chefs. And aspirational hipsters.

When I first glimpsed the Massengill family photos of Arkansas folk, shot in a Depression era trailer studio and now being reinterpreted by Maxine Payne, I thought of old prejudices and of new realizations. And I thought of the everyday beauty that earned flashbulb pops then and deserves the klieg lights of fame now.
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My love for cake, from traditional layer cakes to simple pound cakes, has been well documented over the years. While I delight in the homemade sweets of the South, one of my favorite cakes comes from a local bakery here in the Shoals called Sugarbakers.

The family owned-and-operated bakery opened over twenty years ago in nearby St. Florian. A few years ago, the main location, which focused on baked goods, closed and the bakery operation moved to a restaurant called “The Drink Box,” which serves up delicious milkshakes (Maggie’s drink of choice) and chicken salad, as well as old Sugarbakers favorites and layer cakes.


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Our newest Journal series highlights our personal heirlooms – things that hold special value and meaning to us personally, regardless of their monetary value. Alabama Chanin wants to honor things that last and things that we choose to keep in our lives and our homes as reminders of family, friends, or important moments.

This week, our graphic designer, Maggie, shares memories of her grandfather and his special talent for woodworking. Her story reminds me of the words of William Morris: “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.”

From Maggie:

My grandfather, who we all called Papa, was an extremely smart and talented man – a skilled artist and craftsman. He really could draw, do, or make anything. He was a gunner on a B-17 during World War II. His plane was shot down over Belgium, where he was captured and held in a few different POW camps for 15 months. He had grown up watching his mother crochet, but he was never formally taught. It was freezing some of the months that he was in Austria and Germany, so he whittled down a stick into a crochet hook so that he could crochet a warm hat and mittens out of holey sweaters he’d found and taken apart. He ended up not only making some for himself, but also for the other prisoners so they could be a little warmer. He was a very caring and thoughtful man.
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Last year, we began a series called “Real Women,” an exploration of the real women in our lives (and throughout history) that have made a difference—one way or another—in our world. Today, we are finishing a chapter of that series: real women as seen by men.

Here you find a tribute from son to mother, written by Nashville singer/songwriter (and former English professor) Jon Byrd. Jon grew up just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and is a dear friend of our editor, Sara. Please welcome Jon and enjoy his beautifully candid account of his mother, Margaret Tidwell Byrd.

From Jon:

The most important woman in my life, past or present, is my mother. I’m adopted; that’s probably why I feel this way. I don’t remember our first meeting, at the Alabama state orphanage in 1955, but it was obviously a life-changing moment for me.

My mother was sweet, but tough. She was not a pushover and didn’t have to win an argument or always be (perceived as) right. She had an amazing way of speaking her mind, calling someone out, and standing up for herself that made the other person in the conversation question why they were resisting her. Her strongest quality was, without question, her determination. She encouraged with empathy, compassion, integrity, and consistency.
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My Gram Perkins passed down several recipes to me through the years. I keep most of them in a recipe book my mother compiled of family recipes. From Chocolate Pie to Thanksgiving dressing, Gram Perkins’ delicious Southern dishes continue to make their way onto my table—always tasting amazing, but not quite as good as when she made them.

One of the simplest (and most beloved) recipes she gave to me was for egg salad, featuring homemade Fourteen-Day Pickles (also known as sweet or bread-and-butter pickles). I think of it as one of the ultimate comfort foods. When I was a child, Gram Perkins often served it to me as a summer lunch or afternoon snack. I have vivid memories of sitting in her kitchen, watching her prepare her famous egg salad sandwich for me—always with extra pickles in a jar on the table.

After my Gram Perkins passed away, my granddaddy, lovingly known as Perk, continued making the famous Fourteen-Day Pickles. My mother carries on the family tradition today by gifting pints of these treasures every holiday season. Egg salad is definitely better with this homemade version but there are great bread-and-butter pickles available on the market today that you can use for your homemade egg salad. We recently taste tested the Blackberry Farm version and found it delicious.

No one really knows when egg salad itself was created, but it became a popular luncheon salad in the early 1800s, after French chef Marie-Antoine Carême invented mayonnaise as we know it today. A sister to tuna and chicken salad, egg salad is a nice option for those looking for a simple lunch, packed with protein.


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Alabama Chanin’s first-ever sewing workshop took place in 2008 alongside a seminar on Southern cooking, organized and presented by our friend and collaborator, Angie Mosier. While the sewing participants stitched and chatted, the food preparers fried up some chicken, steamed collard greens and made pot likker, then baked the most delicious Lane Cake. At each meal, Angie explained the history of each dish and its significance within Southern culture. This is where I first learned the details behind one of Alabama’s culinary specialties, the Lane Cake.

Lane Cake was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, as her entry into a county fair baking competition in Columbus, Georgia. She originally called the recipe, “Prize Cake,” but eventually leant her name to the dessert for all posterity. She self-published a cookbook called Some Good Things to Eat in 1898 and included the recipe as one of her featured desserts. Lane Cake is a white, layered sponge cake (originally designed for 4 layers) iced with a frosting that includes coconut, raisins, pecans, and bourbon. It is often found in the South at receptions, holiday dinners, or wedding showers. Chef Scott Peacock writes in The Gift of Southern Cooking that he was served a Lane Cake every year on his birthday.


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Illustrator and author Maira Kalman has long been a personal hero of mine. She visited The Factory a couple of years ago, along with Rosanne Cash and Gael Towey, for a two-day sewing workshop and some adventure. It was then that I learned Maira is not only a talented illustrator, but also an avid embroidery expert. I love everything she creates (but especially her drawings and unique storytelling perspective), and am happy to call her my friend.


In her book And the Pursuit of Happiness, Maira explores American democracy and its workings. Originally published as a 12-part online series for the New York Times, this complete bound volume tells the colorfully illustrated and hand-lettered history of America.


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Alabama Chanin has always aimed to make products that will last a lifetime – even multiple lifetimes. We create things that are both beautiful and durable and we embrace the ideas of Slow Design. But, once upon a time, Slow Design did not exist as a theory or a process; rather, it was simply how things were made. Those that were fluent in “The Living Arts” knew how to make things – food, clothing, shelter, etc. – and they didn’t want to make them more than once, unless they had to. Durability was necessity. Craftsmen and women were born out of requirement. But, often those craftsmen became so skilled that their products were, quite simply, art. Their creations that remain behind and are passed along—heirlooms—still hold meaning.

For some, the word “heirloom” brings to mind a valuable painting or, perhaps, an antique necklace. Certainly both of those things qualify; but, as part of a new series on the Journal, we want to highlight some of our own personal heirlooms – things that are valuable to us on a personal level, regardless of their financial value. As always, we want to celebrate the things that last, the things that we choose to keep in our lives, the things that we assign meaning to, on a personal level.

From Natalie:

The blanket above rested on an upstairs bed at my Grandmother Perkins’s—called Gram Perkins—house for as long as I can remember. In my mind, it belonged to my uncle, but I’m not absolutely sure. The upstairs of my grandparents’ home was completed when my mother was already in high school (although they had lived in the house for many years, starting in the basement and building up as they could afford).  In the upstairs, there were rooms for each of the four children. The older children were already in college by the time it was finished, so my uncle, the youngest sibling, spent the most time in the space and, though all of the bedrooms were filled with things, his room felt the least “empty.”

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Thank you to the Southern Foodways Alliance for allowing us to share “She Spoke, and I Listened” as told to oral historian Sara Wood by Haylene Green.

From Gravy Issue #50:

The evening I met Haylene Green, an urban farmer in Atlanta, Georgia, rain mercilessly poured on midtown Atlanta—and on me. I squeaked across the lobby of Ms. Green’s apartment building and followed her to a small room in the basement. There, she opened a thick photo album with pages of fruits and vegetables from her West End community garden. And she started talking. I put the recording equipment together as fast as I’ve ever assembled it. My job was simple: She spoke, and I listened. All of her answers were stories.

Speaking of his book The Storied South on a radio program, folklorist Bill Ferris recently said something that stopped me in my kitchen: “When you ask a Southerner to answer a question, they will tell a story. And embedded in that story is the information that they feel is the answer to the question.”

Oral history, like the most satisfying literature, relies on listening and observation. The way people speak, how they tell stories, where they choose to pause and scratch their nose, to me, is the greatest part of listening. Being an oral historian or a writer requires you to listen as though your life depends on it. What seems like a simple act is actually the heart of the work. To that end, I share an excerpt from my interview with a farmer who also happens to be a storyteller.
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The Civil Rights Movement gained national attention in the early 1960s. The many protests, marches, and stands for equality were sustained by freedom songs and music from musicians-turned-activists. The setbacks, hardships, failures, and successes of the movement for racial equality can be told through song.

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Musician, author, and dear friend Rosanne Cash was born in Tennessee to a family soon to become Southern music royalty, but has lived for over 20 years in New York City. Still, her Southern heritage played and continues to play a role in shaping who she is as an artist, a traveler, and a citizen of the world. She deeply explores her relationship with the South and with Southern culture in her newest album, The River and the Thread. Listening to these songs, you hear a songwriter investigating how where she came from helped shape who she is today. The tracks are heartfelt, touching, and, by turns, rocking.

A sweet friend to Alabama Chanin, Rosanne curated a playlist for us that includes some of her favorite songs from and about the South. These songs capture the sometimes-elusive nature of our homeland and the people we call family. I’ve been cooking and dancing (and, yes, singing) to these tracks for a week…

Come sing along.

Photo of Rosanne courtesy of Clay Patrick McBride.


Alabama Chanin friend and inspiration, Rosanne Cash, has lived in New York for over 20 years, but her link to the South remains deep and undeniable. Her mother, Vivian Liberto, was born in Texas and her father, Johnny Cash, was an Arkansas native. Rosanne was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised for much of her life in California. As a young woman, she also spent time living in Los Angeles, Nashville, London, among other stops on the road. Though she did not grow up in the South, her connection to the region is profound, largely because of what the South meant to her family and how that shaped her growth. It is this connection to the South and the region’s physical, musical, and emotional landscape that she explores in her newest record, The River & the Thread.

Rosanne found herself traveling southward frequently when Arkansas State University began restoring her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. Knowing how much her father would have loved the project, Rosanne agreed to participate – which initiated a series of visits. As she traveled, she began to reconnect with the Southern sense of place, so essential to her family identity. She, along with husband and longtime collaborator, John Leventhal, began to shape and create an entire series of songs, all about the South. Rosanne said, “I started going back to where I was born and these songs started arriving in me. My heart got expanded to the South, to the people I had known, to the people I met… We started finding these stories, these great stories, and melodies that went with these experiences.”



There is one food tradition that seems to cross all social, ethnic, and economic boundaries in the South: iced tea, particularly sweet tea. In the movie, “Steel Magnolias” Dolly Parton’s character referred to sweet tea as “the house wine of the South.” In many homes and most restaurants, this is certainly the case. But, why is iced tea such a staple in Southern homes? The history is more complicated than you might think.

Tea was introduced to the United States in South Carolina where it was grown in the late 1700s. In fact, South Carolina is the only state to have even grown tea commercially. It is believed that French botanist and explorer Andre Michaux imported it, along with many unique varieties of flowers. Iced tea began appearing in American cookbooks in the early 1800s, first as alcoholic punches. These first punches were made with green tea, rather than the black tea commonly used today.

Households began to keep iced tea on hand when refrigeration became popular – and with it, ice. The first known version of iced tea, as it is prepared today, was printed in 1879 in a publication called Housekeeping in Old Virginia. Recipe author Marion Tyree wrote that green tea should be boiled and steeped all day. Then, the preparer should “fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls of granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar.” This first iced tea recipe also called for a lemon garnish.
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Many of you know that we at Alabama Chanin hold a strong admiration for lyricist, musician, vocal Twitter user, and writer (among other things) Rosanne Cash. I was a fan and supporter many years before we actually met and became friends. The more that I get to know this incredible woman, the more I respect her talent and her humanity. She has said that she wears Alabama Chanin pieces on stage for nearly every performance, an honor that we do not take lightly. Rosanne has become one of our favorite clients, a dear friend, and a near-constant source of inspiration.

Many of you may know of Rosanne Cash because of her renowned family lineage. She is the firstborn daughter of revered American icon Johnny Cash. As a songwriter and performer, she is doing honest work, from her own perspective. For over 30 years, she has written and released 15 albums and four books, charted 21 Top 40 singles, including 11 Number Ones and received 13 Grammy nominations and one Grammy win. Her 2010 album, The List, was named Album of the Year by the Americana Music Awards and her upcoming album, The River and the Thread, is already garnering critical praise.

Her book, Composed: A Memoir, not only tells the story of her upbringing and explores her relationships with her parents and her famous stepmother; it is also the story of a woman in the process of discovering who she is and who she wants to be. Last year, I first read Composed on a trip to Berlin and found myself sitting in an airport terminal, openly weeping; the language is so beautiful and her story is engaging and unfailingly honest.


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Looking back at what we have accomplished this year at Alabama Chanin, I feel nothing short of overwhelmed. With the help of many friends, Alabama Chanin has grown in ways I only imagined. Our company is the best it has ever been, and will only get better. Over the summer, and on the heels of Camp Bacon at Zingerman’s, I wrote a 10 year vision for the company—a peek into what I wanted for the future of our family of businesses. Many of the things I envisioned happening years from now were accomplished by this year’s end, with much hard work, dedication, occasional pains of labor, trial and error, and the true grit and determination of our team. All this growth and success doesn’t come from nowhere, after all.

It is hard to believe that so much has happened in the past year. While we are busy wrapping up our year-end Inventory Sale here at The Factory, it is nice to take the time to reflect on all the projects, people, and places we have experienced in just twelve incredible months.


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The winter holidays seem to evoke the strongest food memories from many of us. Certainly there are family Thanksgiving dinner traditions, and the plethora of other delights that come with the rest of the season – pumpkin pie, homemade eggnog, savory soups, and gingerbread cookies. When I was a child, potato candy was one of the treats that only made an appearance in the days and weeks before Christmas. It is hands-down the strangest of holiday treats, but perhaps the delicacy was more delicious as the wait from year-to-year seemed immense.

To those who have never eaten potato candy, the concept may seem a bit odd. But those who have eaten it know that it is incredibly sweet, much like fudge or caramel. In retrospect, perhaps this dessert is reserved for the holidays because it contains so much sugar. It is possible that the adults chose to ration the candy in order to contain rambunctious children. (I know that I am guilty of that.)


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Exploration of the extensive Dust-to-Digital catalog continues to reveal compilations that strongly resonate. We have previously written about the moving collections: I Listen to the Wind, Never a Pal Like Mother, Keeping a Record Of It, and Goodbye, Babylon.

Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950 is a powerful collection that explores immersion baptism, an important component of many Southern religious traditions and religious culture worldwide.

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As seasons change and the holiday rush begins in full force, Christmas carols seem to appear earlier and earlier each year. Once upon a time, Thanksgiving was considered the unofficial date when radio stations began to play holiday music. This year, I heard my first Christmas carol when picking up Halloween candy at the grocery store.

But, regardless of whether you love or avoid holiday music, many of the seasonal songs have been around for hundreds of years. Some have social or political messages and many have a colorful history.


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Open any Hallmark card or watch a coffee commercial between now and the new year and you will be flooded with the storybook sentiment of the holidays. Ask anyone their feelings about Thanksgiving and they will tell you it’s a time for family, for great food and for, well, giving thanks. All of those things are certainly true for me. When I was young, Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. I have strong sense memories of being in my Grandmother Smith’s house, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television while the smell of roasted turkey wafted in from the kitchen. The air is always clear and crisp in these memories. I can recall running across the farm hills and valleys with dogs and cousins, the smell of barn hay, and the full stomach, distended from too much pie.



A former business partner of mine once wrote a press release that stated our company “came from nowhere.” When I read that “came from nowhere” years ago, my stomach began to turn and, honestly I was a little angry and my feelings were a bit hurt. That sentence seemed to imply that our work was effortless and my business was created magically, without the pains of labor. It certainly didn’t feel to me like I came from nowhere.

Who was talking about me working my way through design school with a four-year-old child, on a wish and a prayer? Who talked about years of working day-in-day-out? Who knew that, in the beginning, I often worked alone, in a basement full of cave crickets and the occasional 6-foot snake? Those were important moments in the life of our company. Ignoring those moments makes our accomplishments seem less important. Nothing comes from nowhere.


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For nearly 25 years, Mike Goodlett has lived and worked in a house near Wilmore, Kentucky, that originally belonged his grandparents. Over the years, he has embellished the house’s interior and even its structure with artwork of his own creation in a sort of visual call and response. Paper flowers bloom from cracks in the ceiling. Doorframes and windows are adorned with carvings. Delicate ballpoint pen-webs emanate from the electric outlets. Accessible only by an overgrown and narrow road, the house and studio are mostly hidden from view.


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Friend (and heroine) Makalé Faber-Cullen is a storyteller and anthropologist who has worked with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Festival of American Folklife, for which we collaborated on some t-shirts with Makalé a few years ago. She served as the first U.S. Director of Programs for Slow Food, where she co-launched and directed Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and education organizations dedicated to rescuing America’s diverse foods and food traditions. She also served on the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance, where she helped produce The Global South and The Cultivated South symposiums. Her current project, Wilderness of Wish, gives context to unusual and out-of-place objects in the course of our daily lives. In Makalé’s words:

“I founded the Wilderness of Wish in 2010 to excite an interest in the artful presentation of contemporary ethnography and material culture. With carefully chosen client-partners we showcase the people, places and goods that give our lives meaning and our communities value. I enjoy merging anthropology, commerce and art for the public good. I’m particularly interested in occupational culture and the role of objects in our relationships — to ourselves and with each other, hence my company’s retail arm.”


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Last year at MAKESHIFT 2012, one of our gatherings revolved around “Worn Stories,” an idea based on the blog, Sentimental Value, by Emily Spivack, friend of Jessamyn Hatcher. Spivack’s blog – and book, titled Worn Stories – shares the stories of garments purchased from Ebay. Those anecdotes were written by each item’s respective seller and, “are a window into people’s lives,” Spivack told the New York Times in a recent article highlighting her “Sentimental Value” exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

Needless to say, Spivack has become an authority on connecting stories and clothing, which she views as works of art. Anyone who has ever made or purchased an Alabama Chanin garment knows the value we place on the quality, timelessness, and story of each project. Spivack’s mission rings very true for us.


We have long written stories and profiles of real women; however, on January 15, 2013, we began an official series that we call, “Real Women.” Here you find the latest in this series, written by Bill Simpson, our friend and father to confidante and editor, Sara Martin.  Please welcome Bill and savor his story of real women across three generations.

From Bill:

My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by amazing women, beautiful inside and out. I was raised by strong women, married a strong woman, and have three lovely, strong-minded daughters, followed by three remarkable granddaughters. Now, I have great-grandchildren: boys and girls, so I’m not quite so outnumbered anymore. But, I have been fortunate to find myself in this situation. These women have made me the man I am today.

The most important women in my life, past and present, are my grandmother (Roxie Mae pictured above), my mother (Evelyn pictured below), and my wife (Grace pictured at the bottom of this post).

My grandmother, Roxie Mae, was smart, strong, and independent and she made her way successfully through a long life. Sometimes her success was with her “man” and sometimes she found success in spite of him. She had the courage to be independent and express her opinions in a day when many women did not. My mother, Evelyn, was much like her mother. She was independent and strong, opinionated and open-hearted. She lived and loved fiercely.


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In Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, Cathy N. Davidson writes:

“When the last worker passed through the doors of White Furniture Company in May of 1993, hardly anyone beyond the city limits of Mebane, North Carolina, noticed. In national terms, it made little difference that 203 men and women were out of work or that a venerable, family-owned firm (the ‘South’s oldest maker of fine furniture’) had been sold to a conglomerate and now was being shut down. After all, what happened to White’s is hardly unique. In the 1990s, in every walk of life and on all social levels, Americans have had to learn a new vocabulary of economic anxiety – layoff, outsourcing, buyout, off-shoring, downsizing, closing. The statistics are mind-numbing: 70,000 people laid off from General Motors in 1991; 50,000 workers from Sears and 63,000 from IBM in 1993; 40,000 from AT&T in 1996. In these times, why should we care about the closing of one furniture factory in a small southern town?”

Davidson’s text accompanies Bill Bamberger’s photographs, which document the closing of this small American factory and capture the artisans, many of whom were masters of their craft. White’s Furniture Company operated by assembly line, though many of the details were executed by hand. The company was small, almost unknown, but to people in the know, White’s was regarded as one of the highest quality furniture crafters in America. Though Closing was published in 1999, nearly fifteen years ago, the trend of downsizing and outsourcing has continued, and our American factories have all but disappeared. Production, as we well know, has mostly been shipped overseas.


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I told someone the other day, “Books saved my life when I was growing up.”  And they did. I have spent days/weeks/years with my nose in books and, consequently, in libraries. As a designer, I find inspiration, and sometimes escape, inside of a library; as a business owner, I find critical information that has helped me grow who we are as a business and who I am as an entrepreneur. As Alabama Chanin (and my skill as a designer) has grown, so has my personal library (just ask our accountant). I have stopped dating certain men because of the absence of a library in their life, and my daughter believes the library is part of her own living room.

Ask almost anyone to describe their feelings about libraries and each person you speak to has a vivid memory of their own childhood library. I’m sure part of the reason for this is that, once upon a time, there were fewer ways to occupy yourself as a young person, and you had to actually check out a book to read it. An actual book – something that had weight, and pages you could turn, and needed bookmarks to hold your place. Ask someone about their smart phone or their Kindle and they will probably tell you how much they love it, how convenient it is, or how many features it has. Ask someone about a book, about a library, and people will tell you their memories.


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Yesterday, I wrote about my appreciation of hand-painted signs, inspired by the book Sign Painters, authored by friend Faythe Levine with Sam Macon. Faythe and Sam have directed a documentary – also called Sign Painters, as a companion to the book.

In 2008, Faythe co-authored and directed a book and film, both named Handmade Nation: The Rise of Craft and DIY. We welcomed her to Alabama last April for our Visiting Artist Series, where she highlighted “craftivism” and brought her light-hearted stories to the Factory. This summer she has taken Sign Painters on the road for a series of screenings.

Faythe has an itinerant spirit. She states in the book’s preface, “Many of my earliest memories involve travel, much of which was by car. I’d stare out the window of the family station wagon and watch America transition from one place to the next.”



It’s been a busy past few months for Alabama Chanin. Shortly after our cotton picking party and field day came our biggest Black Friday sale, then the holidays, our Garage Sale, Craftsy launch, travels to Los Angeles, the Texas Playboys visit to Florence, and much more in between. All the while, we’ve been making headway with our Alabama cotton project.

Almost a year after we planted our cotton seed in the ground, we would like to share another update about our special crop. We are certain many of you – especially those who helped in the field – will be interested in its progress.



This year, as we celebrate Real Women and what they mean in our lives, we thought it essential to include the perspectives of both men and women. So, beginning today, we will be offering stories, thoughts, and remembrances from men of the great women in their lives.


When I was a kid in the 1970s, one of my favorite things to do was go to dinner at the Sam-Pan Chinese restaurant with my mom and my aunt Carlynn “Snoonie” Calhoun. They would order wine and Egg Foo Young and Chop Suey, and I would tear into the wonton soup and the pepper steak, and on a good night I’d be able to get a Shirley Temple if I played my cards right. They would spend hours there, telling their same old stories, sometimes ragging on the idiots in their lives (who they still seemed to have a deep affection for), but mostly telling stories about the menagerie that made up their circle of friends from 1950s Central Florida: two girlfriends who came out as gay in the 1960s and carried switchblades to handle anybody who didn’t like it, their friend in the iron lung (whom Snoonie liked to take to the Steak & Ale with her, mostly just to see peoples’ reactions), and many other characters who could easily have been created by Elmore Leonard.

After listening to them for awhile, I would spend the rest of my time running up and down the sidewalk outside the restaurant – sometimes over to the pond in a park across the street to catch frogs, sometimes ogling the toys at the Toy King. But, eventually I’d find myself in Snoonie’s car listening to her country music tapes. I’d often fall asleep there and finally get woken up and sleepily ride home with my mom.

It’s those evenings I think of when I think what a friendship should be. Listening to them enjoy each other’s company, never getting tired of the same old stories and arguments, never just saying what the other wanted to hear. That’s my model for how friends should interact and what a real friend should be.

Snoonie’s gone now. She and my mom are just two of the strong women who seemed to have filled up my life growing up – self-sufficient women who didn’t take shit off of anybody, but in the most amusing ways. It’s hard for me to single one woman out. But it’s those nights outside the Sam-Pan that I learned my respect and awe of women. I wish I could drive by there right now and take a run up the sidewalk.

-Martin Lynds




Husband and wife team Lance and April Ledbetter are protecting the sounds of our past with their highly acclaimed label, Dust-to-Digital. Founded by Lance a little over a decade ago, Dust-to-Digital is home to a growing catalogue of important cultural works from the United States and around the globe. I’ve been vie­wing their line-up for a few years and am constantly impressed by the amount of material and depth each release includes.  The types of recordings they release are unlike most on the market. It’s really audio conservation in its finest form. I was lucky enough to meet them both last fall during our trip to Atlanta, when we both attended the Lonnie Holly show at the High Museum. Afterward, they attended our event with the Gee’s Bend Quilters at Grocery on Home.


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Monday, we wrote about artist Tilleke Schwarz’s New Potatoes as inspiration for the week. However, Tilleke’s textiles have been a source for inspiration for me for years. When New Potatoes landed on my desk about a year ago, we started the skirt you see above as homage to Tilleke and her work.

We have produced narrative work over the years in the form of our Story Quilts. With that series, we take vintage quilts, refurbish them, and embroider oral histories onto the fabrics. You will find a Textile Stories Quilt project in Alabama Studio Style that describes this series. However, this series is small in comparison to the beautiful narrative work of Tilleke Schwartz.


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Once there was nothing but paper and pen. Not so long ago (a little over a decade), before the email, the text, the tweet, or the Facebook post, there was simply paper and pen.

Think about how special it feels when you get an actual hand-written note in the mail. When you were a child and wrote that super-secret note to your pen pal, covering the envelope in stickers – think of the pure excitement when a response finally arrived. When I was young and corresponded with friends, summer camp bunk-mates, or cousins, I remember watching as they grew and their handwriting changed: a visual representation that we were getting older. As we moved through junior high and high school, the passing of the note in class became high art. As we got older, silly little love notes were left under car windshield wipers, tucked into coat pockets, left on pillows. Some were sappy, some embarrassing, some beautiful – all with one intent: to express affection.

But, at some point we stopped.

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These days, you don’t think twice about hearing a woman’s voice on the radio. There are surely female deejays or journalists on your local station. NPR broadcasts the voices and stories of women like The Kitchen Sisters or Terry Gross among others. Alabama Chanin favorite, Elizabeth Cook has her own show, “Apron Strings,” on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country. But, once upon a time, it wasn’t so common to hear a female voice over the airwaves. For those in the Shoals area, Becky Burns Phillips was one of those first voices to be broadcast.

In 1942, Rebecca “Becky” Burns Phillips met her future husband, Sam Phillips, while they were both working at WLAY radio station in Sheffield, Alabama. They were both in high school. She, 17, had a radio segment with her sister where they played music and sang; he was a 19-year old radio announcer who was on his way to making rock and roll history. The Kitchen Sisters, in an article honoring Becky, quoted Sam as saying, “I fell in love with Becky’s voice even before I met her.”  Becky described her first encounter with Sam to journalist Peter Guralnick: “He had just come in out of the rain. His hair was windblown and full of raindrops. He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen. He sat down on the piano bench and began to talk to me. I told my family that night that I had met the man I wanted to marry.”

The two were married in 1943. Sam worked feverishly to establish Memphis Recording Service and, later, Sun Records. It is said that, during that time, he suffered two nervous breakdowns – which Becky gracefully helped him through. Becky and Sam had two sons, Jerry and Knox, but motherhood never took away her desire to work in radio.

Sam proudly spoke about how Becky’s talent inspired him to co-found WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts, referred to as “The First All-Girl Radio Show in the Nation.” He would say that he wanted women, wanted his wife to have a chance that no one had ever given them before – and he co-founded WHER with the money he made from selling Elvis Presley’s contract. He would say, “Becky was the best I ever heard.”

Her son Knox remembered that, at the time of WHER’s conception, women weren’t even allowed to attend the Columbia School of Broadcasting. “But, because of my mother,” he said, “when Sam started the station (WHER) he made it all female: all female air talent, all female executives and sales staff,” he told The Commercial Appeal.

At WHER, Becky was able to shine – writing scripts, organizing segments, managing the station, and presenting in her own beautiful way. She was in charge of approving each record that was played. Though her husband was a rock and roll legend, there were no rocking records at WHER. And there were NEVER to be any curse words allowed over the airwaves. Over the years, she hosted a number of radio shows and carefully curated every day’s segments. Becky told the Kitchen Sisters, “I played music to work by – all the beautiful music like Jackie Gleason and Doris Day, and I gave household hints.”

Phillips broadcast on the radio for over 40 years, until the mid-1980’s, always with her distinctive sign-off: “A smile on your face puts a smile in your voice.”

Mrs. Phillips died in September of 2012 at the age of 87.

Becky Burns Phillips carefully preserved WHER’s record library for well over 40 years. Many of those recordings can be heard on the Peabody Award winning segment by the Kitchen Sisters, “Lost and Found Sound: 1000 Beautiful Watts.”

Listen to Becky Phillips talk about her husband, Sam, and WHER Radio for the TV Segment, “The Lives They Lived” here:

There were few like her, a true pioneer in her field. Her fearlessness and her devotion to her family and her profession are inspirational. We are proud to be part of a community that fostered a woman like Becky Phillips, a pioneer in spirit and part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.

P.S.: I never met Becky Phillips.  After moving back home in 2000, I was “busy.” Building a business and sorting through my own life, closed me off to some of the great treasures (and families) of my own community. My loss.  Resolution: take time to work less and belong more.  xoNatalie

*Photo above found on The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee


This post – part of our new “Real Women” series – is dedicated to two of the most “real” women I know: Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters.  Without their dedication to telling the “real” story, I would not be the designer, or the person, I am today. Lost and Found Sound changed my perception of storytelling in the Autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks: in the third story of a rented house on a green square in Savannah, Georgia. Boom. Life changed.

Ira Glass said of their work, “The Kitchen Sisters have done some of the best radio stories ever broadcast. I know people who got into radio because they heard Nikki and Davia’s work, and had no idea anybody could do anything like that on the air.”

These women are my heroes. (Along with a slew of others you will meet this year.)  They continue their storytelling on real women with their series: The Hidden World of Girls, and a new series entitled: The Making of…

Through a Peabody Award winning Lost and Found Sound broadcast, The Kitchen Sisters spurred my interest in this relatively unknown, yet groundbreaking group of women.

“1000 Beautiful Watts.” This was the slogan for WHER Radio – 1430 on your AM dial in Memphis, Tennessee. In October 1955, Shoals native and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips and his wife, Becky, took an original concept and made it reality: an all-female radio station. Though the station wasn’t technically the first female station to exist, it proudly referred to itself as the “First All-Girl Radio Station in the World.” As such, WHER broadcast for 17 years in the Memphis, Tennessee market.

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You know how we at Alabama Chanin feel about open sourcing. We offer our techniques and the information necessary to recreate our products, should you decide that you want to do-it-yourself. After three books, countless DIY Kits, and an amazing array of workshops, we have learned some important things: people will take your ideas and run with them; what you put into the world will come back to you in ways that you never imagined; the world is a creative place; and you never know what people are capable of until you give them the tools and the opportunity to create.

That being said, I think we’ve found a kindred spirit in the musician, Beck. While listening to one of my podcast staples, All Things Considered, I caught an interview where he described his newest album – an album that he, himself, hasn’t actually recorded. Song Reader (published by, awesome, McSweeney’s) is a set of 20 songs that Beck has released only in sheet music format. His hope is that other musicians will take the material and record their own versions. After releasing so many solo albums, he said that crowdsourcing his music seemed like a way to make the process less lonely.

From All Things Considered: “When you write a song and make a recording and put out a record, it’s kind of [like] sending a message in a bottle,” Beck says. “You don’t really get a lot of feedback. This is a way of sending that song out, and you just get literally thousands of bottles sent back to you.”

There are plenty of artists that have taken up this artistic challenge. You can hear many of them at Beck’s Song Reader website. Maybe, you’ll find your own inspiration there.

To hear the entire interview and some of the songs that have been recorded, listen to the All Things Considered segment here.

P.S.: Sheet music image from “Old Shanghai” by Beck and included in Song Reader. Illustration for that piece by Kelsey Dake.


There’s a cluster of Polaroids in our production office that never fail to captivate our visitors, and even though they’ve been there for the better part of a decade we still find ourselves staring. They’re so beautiful. It’s hard to look away.

Those Polaroids are from our first fashion show— 8 years ago—a cast of women assembled by the amazing Jennifer Venditti of JV8, Inc. Jennifer, a director and pioneer of selecting models whose beauty is far from typical, introduced us to a group of ladies whose poise, confidence, and style were unmistakable.

Mimi Weddell was among this incredible ensemble, a vibrant actress and New York fashion icon. She was most known for her lifetime obsession with hats. We love that her words are the introduction to Ari Seth Cohen’s book, a celebration of personal style at any age, Advanced Style:

“I can’t imagine going without a hat. The only romantic thing left in life is a hat.”

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If you’ve spent any amount of time at The Factory you know a thing or two about biscuits. There’s at least a dozen different recipes in the Alabama Chanin library, and Natalie can make some of the most flakey mouthwatering creations you’ve ever tasted with no measuring cup in sight, all while wrangling a six year old.

My grandmother had similar powers, but they must skip two generations as I haven’t quite mastered the technique. However, what I lack in skill, I make up for in appreciation. So when the opportunity to attend the International Biscuit Festival and Southern Food Writing Conference presented itself, my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. Storytelling, biscuits, Blackberry Farm = “Yes, Please”.

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While searching for historic parade images in our local library, we came across these beautiful photographs of fireworks. Taken in 1976, they capture a quality of ephemeral beauty and celebration that sweeps our nation (and backyard celebrations) each year.

As a child, I was fascinated with fireworks for their patterns and colors. I watched in awe each July 4th as the displays brilliantly lit up the sky before fading away. Back at home, I reimagined their shapes and recreated them with paper and crayons. Maggie has been decorating our house for weeks now and will, I am sure, come home to paper and crayons the same as I did so many years ago.

As the holiday approaches, we all look forward to days filled with cooking, laughing, and celebrating with friends and family. My neighborhood’s 4th of July parade is followed by the annual Kids vs. Adults Baseball game, a cookout, and a grand fireworks spectacle to conclude the day’s events.

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I’ve always been a little obsessed with parades. I scoured the internet trying to find out where parades originated, or why. What I’ve found is this: nobody knows. There are cave drawings from over ten thousand years ago that depict prehistoric men marching wild game home to cook in a wild and celebratory manner. Perhaps it is human nature – a group of people with a common cause just tend to rally around one another and rejoice.

When you think about the concept of people, musicians, floats, horses, waving pageant queens – it seems as though one would be overwhelmed at having every sense stimulated all at once. But, I’m not.

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Today I received a beautifully packaged CD from the talented Tift Merritt. The CD features many of her new songs that will certainly be heard during our work days in the studio.

We had the pleasure of hearing Tift’s amazing voice at her performance for the opening of our pop-up shop at the Billy Reid store in New York.

We hope to see Tift in New York, or perhaps Alabama, very soon.



Among the most meaningful things I’ve ever found in a thrift store was a pair of dresses I unearthed at the Goodwill in Durham, North Carolina. One was a white summer dress with a fitted bodice and a full skirt dotted with embroidered flowers.  The other was a pink sequined number straight out of an old Italian movie.  What made the dresses so arresting wasn’t their cut or color, or even all the flowers and sequins. It was the fact that inside, attached to the labels, their former wearer had pinned stories:  “Picnic. 1957.  Hillsboro, North Carolina.” “Eastern Star Dance. May 8, 1958. Danced with M.K.”

I’ve since learned from my friend Emily Spivack who created and edits a blog about clothing and memory to call these stories “worn stories.”

On Tuesday night, as part of MAKESHIFT, we invited members of the audience to write their own worn stories. Rosanne Cash, Cathy Bailey of Heath Ceramics, and Natalie read excerpts of their stories to inspire us.

Here’s Natalie’s.

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When I returned to Alabama over a decade ago to start the project that has become Alabama Chanin, I had NO IDEA that this simple project would surround me with stories of cotton, mill work, and, quite honestly, the history of the small community where I grew up. This blog is proof to the fact that I am STILL learning – each and every day.

While researching the post about Sweetwater Mills and reading William McDonald’s books a few weeks back, I came across Rick Bragg’s book, The Most They Ever Had. As an avid reader and, quite honestly, a Rick Bragg fan, I was surprised that I’d never read this book before. I have followed his work for years: from Anniston, Alabama, to The New York Times, through all the novels, the Pulitzer, to the controversy surrounding his departure from the Times. (Full disclosure, I know some of the parties attached to The New York Times scandal and have a few thoughts on that myself – we will save that for a later day or a face-to-face conversation.)

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Thank you to our employees and artisans for their commitment to the extraordinary and thank you to everyone at Etsy for telling our story with this beautiful film. It makes us proud to share the stories that unfold each day in our growing community.

Please visit the Etsy blog to read a little more and leave a comment to enter to win a copy of Alabama Studio Sewing + Design plus a DIY kit that includes everything you’ll need to sew your own Alabama Chanin garment.



I feel so honored and happy to introduce Jessamyn Hatcher as a new contributor to this blog (soon we will add a face to the name). Jessamyn has been a source of inspiration for me as I continue to learn how to frame the work that is so easy for me to DO, but so difficult for me to EXPLAIN in words. My conversations with Jessamyn have taken place across several states, drinks, emails, and phone calls. I am so excited to expand upon those in-depth conversations here with you—beginning today. Please show a big, hearty, and embracing welcome to Jessamyn—our newest contributor and a part of the growing heart and soul of Alabama Chanin. Continue reading


Sometimes, the hectic nature of running Alabama Chanin makes me feel that we are all running at a frantic pace. I’ll be answering a ringing phone, hurriedly returning emails, picking up Maggie from school – then, I’ll glance up and notice that our Production Department is completely calm. They are moving fluidly along, peacefully and happily making, sewing, cutting, doing. This serene productivity comes to us through our Studio Directress, Diane Hall, and now, Olivia Sherif, who is following in Diane’s footsteps.

Olivia came to Alabama Chanin at just the right time and set about making herself indispensable almost immediately. You see, when Diane turned in her five-year notice, I experienced a not-so-slight panic (along with a few tears). Continue reading


I’m almost certain she’s the coolest person I’ve never met.

Several pieces of evidence have led me to this conclusion; the first is this article from the NY Times and the second was probably the conference call that spurred our upcoming Visiting Artist event. Natalie and I were hunched over the speaker phone in my office exchanging ideas about “loom rooms,” home-made bitters, and interactive art exhibits with a very agreeable Levine.

She ended the call saying she had to open her art gallery/skate shop a few blocks away.

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When I began work at Alabama Chanin almost 10 years ago, I had no concept of what the company did or what it would eventually mean to me. I walked into my interview in my only suit, having answered an advertisement in the paper. As soon as I found out what the company did, I broke into a cold sweat.

Luckily for me, they hired me. As I worked each day at my computer, I would glance over at the beautiful garments being produced with a jealous eye. I wanted to know how to make things as amazing as these. But I didn’t know how.

Natalie has often talked about the importance of preserving the “living arts,” those things that are essential to our survival – things that we as a society have forgotten or simply chosen not to learn. I was a perfect example of the person who never learned these skills.

My mother cooked family dinners, but she worked hard all day and it sometimes seemed a joyless task for her. She could make delicious meals, but after a day’s work it was often a chore. I was always fascinated to watch my paternal grandmother – a former cafeteria cook – craft large, luscious meals. I would watch pots bubble on the stove all day, their contents creating amazing smells. She was happy as she stirred those sauces or rolled out her biscuits; there was real joy and pride there. I wanted to understand it.

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“Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s,” Janet Malcolm explains in an article in the New York Review of Books. Malcolm is describing a set of papers she found and used as both inspiration and materials for her collages. These works were exhibited in a show, Janet Malcolm: Free Associations, that ran through January 14, 2012, at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York City. This sentence was also posted in the gallery.

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I used to go sit at Tom Hendrix’ wall to think, particularly on days when I thought I couldn’t take running my business anymore. I would ask Mr. Hendrix over and over again, “Where do you find the passion and will to continue creating 25, 26, 27 years into your work?” He would patiently listen to me, laugh, and tell me to go sit in the prayer circle.  It always worked.  Eventually the wall came to change my entire life – but that is a story for later. Come back in a few weeks to read the rest. This is the story of “The Wall,” as I know it.

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I arrived in Alabama from New York on December 23rd, 2000, to start the project that has become Alabama Chanin.

When I was writing the proposal for the project, I called my aunt Elaine to ask if she might help me find a house to rent near her, in the community where my grandparents had been raised. She had just moved back herself, after years of living and working abroad and I thought – who better to help?

My aunt was living in my maternal grandparents’ home. As a newborn baby, I was brought home to this house. It has been the only constant in my life since my birth. Growing up, I spend a LOT of time with my grandparents and knew their land like the back of my hand.

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It is going to take me weeks to express the joy, inspiration, and love I found at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  (And it will take a lot longer to lose all the weight I found. Strange what a side of pork and a case of beer can do to the body… just kidding – well maybe.)

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My friend Jennifer Venditti has been an inspiration to me since our first meeting a decade ago in New York.  She is one of those friends who I don’t talk to every week but when we do, the stories unfold. We have trips to documentary film festivals behind us and many a trip ahead of us I am sure. (Taos is next on the agenda.)

I met Jennifer at the time I had just started working on what would become Alabama Chanin.  She had a growing casting agency and also worked on a line of clothing with our friend Molly Stern-Schlussel, called M.R.S. (More about our upcoming collaboration with Molly and M.R.S coming soon.)

Jennifer is often credited with changing the face of beauty over the last ten years, mostly due to her unerring eye and a diligence for street casting. She has transformed “unusual beauty” into mainstream beauty in a decade of work, not to mention directing and producing an award winning documentary film called Billy the Kid that speaks to what it means to be an outsider.

At one point in the film, Billy says, “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not foreign… I’m just different in the mind…”

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My latest post for EcoSalon is about how good things – like good design – take time.

Take time to have a read: Give The Story Time To Unfold

And then let us know what you think…


I found a letter that I wrote some years ago.  It starts like this:

“First, I will start with my apology: I am really a terrible friend. I have been ‘absent.’ I have made many people feel as though I did not care. I am sorry; however, if I am really honest, it is not so much that I am sorry as much as I have missed you and missed so many important things in my life.

It has been FULL time. And it will be hard for me to begin to tell all of the laughter, tears, frustrations, joys, moments, days, weeks, years that have happened. I try to find the beginning and the only thing I find is my wish to have you here with me in this moment…”

Isn’t that just how life is?  It gets all full and messy and good at the same time.
And isn’t that the story of a really good friend – one who is willing to wait for the story to unfold?

Southerners are renowned storytellers. I don’t know if that is because it gets so hot that we have to slow down and consequently hear more, or if the porch just provides the best venue for recounting tales. Perhaps we’ve just lived so close to the land for so many generations that the stories naturally grew. Whatever the reason, there are libraries filled with sections with titles that cover a “Southern Sense of Place,” “Southern Gothic,” and “Southern Short Story.”

And while many of us are born storytellers, our stories do take time to unfold. We are slow, methodical, practiced in our pace. My father and my son – following in his grandfather’s very slow footsteps – are masters in this art. They take the right breaths, they slowly move from one part of the room to the other. My father can take three days to answer a particular question. I will unexpectedly get a call and find my father simply replying to a question asked days earlier. Sometimes, I have to stop and think back to what actually prompted the question. This was infuriating as a child, “Daddy, can I go to the movie this afternoon with my friends?”

Silence.  It would be like he didn’t even hear me. Perhaps an hour later, he would call me in from outside, “Are you ready to go to the movie?” My heart would skip and it was like a present, wrapped up in a slowly unfolding package that had just been delivered. I would grab my things and go savor the movie.

The writer George Dawes Green provided the best storytelling platform EVER with the founding of The Moth. He started The Moth because he “wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings on his native St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where he and a small circle of friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales on his friend Wanda’s porch.”

I once wrote a blog post about his story “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn.” This is one of the best Southern Gothic tales I have ever heard. (Keep in mind that all the stories told at The Moth are true.)

My friend, writer, and folklorist, Fred Fussell loved this story but thinks that the audience laughs in all the wrong places – which made me laugh as well. But the thing about stories is this, they are personal: personal for the teller and personal for listener as we are constantly searching for our own humanity within the story. We need that connection from teller to self.  We need to FEEL our friend’s life in and around their words. The beauty of The Moth is that each storyteller feels like a friend once their story is told.  And in the telling, like my father, they take their time. Their stories are not told, they unfold. Yes, good stories – like good friends take time.

Shouldn’t this be the same with good design? In a world that seems to spin faster and faster out of control, shouldn’t we be looking for products that take time to unfold? Or products whose usefulness we savor? Shouldn’t we demand products that have stories to tell? Like good wine, a good design needs time to be a part of our lives, time to reach its full maturity. If we could stop the ever spinning merry-go-round of fashion to see the consequences of our fast fashion choices, we might begin to appreciate the tales that our garments tell. Some items would tell tales of sorrow; others would tell beautiful tales of how they found their way to the wearer. I think that we would start to breathe and listen to the stories of our clothes and their makers – because there are great people out there telling beautiful stories.

American designer Sister Parish said, “Even the simplest wicker basket can become priceless when it is loved and cared for through the generations of a family.” The next time we purchase a single item, perhaps we should exercise patience and think back to this idea. Can this product I am about to buy be cared for and loved through the generations? What story does this item tell? Isn’t buying a product with a long life the same as exercising patience for a good story?

Patience has never been at the top of my list of virtues. I have been told that I have a calm, patient appearance on the outside, but my inner life is much less composed. You might even go so far as to say that my inner life and outer life were disconnected in my youth. This was the cause of much consternation and drama in my earlier days. But what I understand today is that I needed time. I needed time to grow up and to grow into my own story. If I can give my daughter one piece of advice, I will tell her to slow down, be calm, and wait.

Good things – like good design – take time and good friends are worth waiting for.


When introducing guests to our office staff, I always have to stop and take a breath at Diane Hall.  Over the years, she has just become so much to me and to all of our staff.  Like Steven, she has held just about every imaginable job and done or touched just about every task we have in the entire studio – except for accounting. Her current title is Studio Directress, a term that I love since her heart and soul are at the very center of our studio; however, her usual introduction goes like this: “Please meet Diane, our Studio Directress, master seamstress, patternmaker, friend, mother, sister, and company ethicist.” Diane is the person that I always consult when I have a question on ethics. Her kind heart and fair spirit can always see straight through a situation and can usually find an equitable solution for everyone involved.  She is the sort of person that summons kindness in all of those around her.

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About a year after beginning my work with what is now Alabama Chanin, I was managing the company operations in Alabama with one employee, Abbie (after whom our “Abbie’s Flower” stencil is named).

We were still working in the little three bedroom brick ranch house at Lovelace Crossroads.  I was actually living in one side of the house and running the design and production out of the other side of the house.  And when I say running, I really mean undertaking the whole production. I spent my days sorting and washing t-shirts, cutting garments for orders, stenciling them, packing them for sewing and sending them out to our sewers – all of this with a head-set permanently in place for the constantly ringing phone.  At that moment, I could barely keep up with all of the artisans that wanted to sew, communicate with customers and still manage the production deliveries.

April, one of our very first sewers (and soon to be highlighted here), kept saying to me that she knew this man named Steven who would be perfect to help me. For whatever reason, it seems that I never found time to get him into the office.  He finally arrived one gray December day wearing a suit and his University of North Alabama football ring. I was in my Alabama t-shirt, skirt and a work belt made from a pair of old jeans.  He seemed like a gift from heaven and I asked him if he wanted to “go home, change clothes and come back to work.” I remember him smiling and answering that maybe he could “start tomorrow?” He reminded me recently that he was our “1st Male Employee.”

(The photos above are from an older catalog where Steven was also our model.)

Almost a decade later, Steven has attended to just about every task necessary to the running of Alabama Chanin, save for designing the collection and creating patterns (but who knows what the future holds). Approximately 97% of all in-house calls will end up transferred to his office or placed on hold while someone asks him a question. Today, Steven works primarily as our production manager, artisan coordinator, and in-house accountant – although he is still seen in the painting room, packing boxes, and occasionally sweeping the floor. He got his accounting degree (with almost perfect grades) from the local university during our transition from Project Alabama to Alabama Chanin and has never looked back.

A family man with a wife and two sons aged 15 and 4, Steven began working in the textile industry in 1995, just a year before marrying his college sweetheart. Although he’s usually one of the first to arrive at our studio, he occasionally slips out a little early to attend his son’s high school golf tournaments or sporting events with his family (we’re certain his oldest is headed for stardom and that his younger son will follow suit). Steven was a high-school football player, worked with his college team, and is still enamored with the game.  He is rarely spotted without a University of Alabama baseball cap. In fact, we wouldn’t find a single photo of Steven that didn’t picture him sporting one of these hats. We know that he has at least two versions: one for every day and one for special occasions. I recommend a little football-themed small talk for those seeking his good side.

Our artisans love him, the people who come to our weekend workshops adore him, and our customers value his problem-solving skills. Steven might be the hardest working person I know: production manager, accountant, family man, and father. In fact, for a short time each summer, Steven and his son run a lawn maintenance business so that his son can also learn the value of a good day’s work.  An invaluable asset to Alabama Chanin  and to all that know him: Steven Smith – a part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.




In honor of 9/11, print out the PeaceBuilder Pledge below and post it in your place of business, community, kitchen, office, local bar, post office, coffee shop, hair salon, and place of worship.  Print it as a post card, send it out, and make it your social media status.

Send us pictures from your actions and we will add them to our Facebook page:

The PeaceBuilder Pledge:

I am a peace builder.

I pledge to praise people, to give up put downs, to seek wise people, to notice and speak up about hurts I have caused, to right wrongs and to help others.

I will build peace at home, at school, (my work place), and in my community each day.


If you are interested in adding PeaceBuilder’s to your child’s school curriculum, you can contact them here.

(And thank you to Olivia for these lovely actions!)




We left the Hotel Chelsea in New York City that morning on my 1970’s era Schwinn “Stardust” bike – white with the beautiful banana seat. Our plan was to head down to Pastis in the Meat Packing District to meet a dear friend for his birthday breakfast.  Another dear friend from Vienna was visiting, without her daughter for the first time in 6 years (and after surviving both breast cancer and her daughter’s Leukemia). This day was meant to be a celebration of life.  I was doubling her on my bike.  We were happy.  It was New York Fashion Week. We felt beautiful. We were living the dream.

We arrived at Pastis and had just received our coffee when the first plane struck the first tower.

By the time we rode my small bike back up to The Hotel Chelsea, the second tower had been hit.

It happened as we were riding my bicycle back up 8th Avenue.  I was navigating morning traffic and our backs were turned as the world changed. The first tower fell moments after we arrived back to the hotel and turned on the TV.  Our day of joy became a nightmare.

It was strange, but the morning went on – business as usual; we just didn’t know what else to do.  A bike messenger arrived to pick up samples for Vogue magazine. Should have been exciting right?  It just felt wrong. He collapsed into a chair at our table and sighed.  Friends of his, other bike messengers, had been delivering packages in the tower.  There was no word from them.  He stared at his cell phone. Silence.My girlfriend visited the towers the previous morning at 9:00 . You can see her photos above from the observation deck of the South Tower – looking down – on 9/10.  The photos below are taken from the Meat Packing District looking up on 9/11.  You can see the smoke rising just above the white truck on the left.  We all know the rest of the horror.

A decade has now passed and our country continues to struggle with the aftermath from that fateful day. I am still wondering what has changed for our country since September 11, 2001. I am still coming to terms with my feelings about that day and everything that has happened in its wake.

When Osama Bin Laden fell, I felt nothing. College students marred by 9/11 cheered his death, but I felt no healing.  Shouldn’t I be happy?  Why shouldn’t this act of vengeance make something better?  It hasn’t erased the images of human beings leaping to their deaths. It hasn’t stopped the civilians – many of them children – being killed in the name of something today and every day. I felt no healing. I only felt sadness.

So, what to do this weekend as we look back in memorial to a decade ago? I have only one answer: In a situation where I know that there is nothing I can do to make a difference, I know that I have to change myself.

From page 15 of An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama – edited by Nicholas Vreeland:

“In India there exists a caste system; members of the lowest caste are sometimes referred to as untouchables…. Economically, they are extremely poor. I often tell them, ‘You yourselves must make effort; you must take the initiative, with self-confidence, to bring about changes.  You cannot simply blame the members of higher castes for your situation.’”

What can I do to make a difference?

There is just so much in the world to change and do that it overwhelms me.  So, I choose to do what I can in a personal way. I have made my own “grassroots” 9/11 project.  I commit over the next month (perhaps the rest of my life) to this manifesto:

1) I will not complain.  (In this big beautiful life, I should have so little to complain about. And yet…) When I find myself in a situation where I have the urge to complain, I will, instead, react positively – however small my actions, I will do something to improve each situation.

2) I pledge to be a PeaceBuilder. My daughter’s kindergarten class (and entire school) says the PeaceBuilder’s Pledge each morning directly after the Pledge of Allegiance. This seems like a pretty good place to start as we begin to reflect on the last decade:

The PeaceBuilders Pledge:

I am a peace builder.

I pledge to praise people, to give up put downs, to seek wise people, to notice and speak up about hurts I have caused, to right wrongs and to help others.

I will build peace at home, at school, (my work place), and in my community each day.

Who’s with me?  If you are, print out the PeaceBuilder Pledge and post it in your place of business, community, kitchen, office, local bar, post office, coffee shop, hair salon, and place of worship.  Print it as a post card, send it out, and make it your social media status for the upcoming weekend.

For me, I commit a month – 4 short weeks – of practicing non-complaining and peace-building in my life as a way to honor and acknowledge the anniversary of 9/11 and other atrocities of war that are still taking place each and every day.

I am excited to discover where this will take me.

I will be a PeaceBuilder. Indeed.

(If you are interested in adding PeaceBuilder’s to your child’s school curriculum, you can contact them here.)


Last weekend, I finally got a chance to read my Gravy: Special Louisiana Edition, the Spring 2011 Issue of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s “Food Letter” to its members. (Better late than never!)

On page 6 of the downloadable PDF, you will find a story about – and a recipe by – Susan Spicer of New Orleans. Titled “Eggplant, Oyster, and Tasso Gratin: A New Sort of Trinity,” the introduction to the recipe refers to the “trinity of Louisiana cookery: onions, celery and bell pepper.” Susan, a “self-described eggplant freak,” created her own trinity with eggplant, oysters and Tasso – recipe included. (You will also find this recipe and text on pages 35-36 of the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.)

While I was reading about Susan and her trinity, I kept thinking of the Indian legend of The Three Sisters. If you aren’t familiar with this story, it is really just a beautiful explanation of companion planting told in story form. The tale explains that corn is planted on a mound and provides the stalk for the beans to climb. In turn, the bean vines embrace the corn stalk and provide stability. The squash planted on the mound shades it from direct sunlight and prevents moisture from evaporating. Native Americans encourage eating the three “sisters” together, since together they offer the elements to sustain life: the corn delivers carbohydrates, the beans provide protein, and the squash contains essential vitamins.

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In the autumn of last year, I was contacted by a New York University professor from the Liberal Studies department named Jessamyn Hatcher.  She had gotten my email address from our mutual friend Sally Singer and wanted to know if we would be willing to discuss a field trip that she was planning with her 30+ students from the Dean’s Circle, a University Scholars program.

Her email explained that the “theme for the 2010-2011 Dean’s Circle and Colloquium is ‘The Price of Fashion: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Global Garment Trade.’ The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred on March 25, 1911, in what is now the Brown building.  146 people, most of who were between the ages of 16 and 21, died while manufacturing women’s blouses. Next year will mark its 100th anniversary, and we will use the anniversary as an occasion to explore issues surrounding the world garment trade, from mass production in sweatshops to the runways of the world’s fashion capitols to the ‘slow design’ movement.”

While I was fascinated by Jessamyn’s inquiry, in the first moment I wondered how a workshop could function with 30+ students in our studio.  My fears were unfounded.

Several weeks ago, the group arrived and the experience was one of wonder, exploration and pleasure.  Following a two day workshop in our studio, the students moved on to Rural Studio in Greensboro, Alabama, to continue their journey.

Jessamyn joked at one point how many of her colleagues had asked, “Why aren’t you going to Paris?”

The lovely thank you notes from the (18 – 20 year-old) students below explains it all.  I hope that the students don’t mind that I have shared their observations about our world.  I am appreciative to look at our work, our staff and our world through fresh eyes.

(And to have found a new friend in Jessamyn!)

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I struggle these days – not with what to do but – with how to do things the right way.

I find myself sitting up at night, rolling through ideas, and questioning action.

Visiting 2 or 3 Things I Know , I was reminded of Juan Ignacio Moralejo.

I adore his way of looking at work:

“I prefer the vulnerability of trying to do something honest.” Continue reading


I ran across this article by Erica Jong on the madness of modern motherhood through another favorite author: Elizabeth Wurtzel.

The article made me sit back in my chair and I have been thinking of it randomly for weeks.  Perhaps because I am raising two children across two very different decades, or perhaps because I am a working, single mother who is responsible (most of the time) for daily life or perhaps just because there is a small feminist (Charlotte Perkins Gilman are you listening?) ember somewhere inside of me,  I find relief in Jong’s words.

(Admittedly, I have read every book that Jong ever wrote and have always adored her humor.  Fanny, one of my favorite Jong books, was written in response to John Cleland’s Fanny Hill.)

Although I made the conscious decision this last year to take more time for family life, I am still the breadwinner AND the bread baker.  And I stand by my decision and will tell anyone who asks that it was the best decision I ever made.

When my son was young, 29 years ago, I didn’t have that option (which is a luxury).  Yet, I have shed many a tear and endured many moments of guilt and self-loathing in thinking about decisions I made. The last line of Jong’s article feels like an absolution to me:  “Do the best you can. There are no rules.”

Read the Wall Street Journal article and tell me what you think:  Mother Madness

And don’t miss the additional piece by Molly Jong-Fast:  Growing Up With Ma Jong

*Raphael. The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna. 1500. Oil on wood. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Last night, I finally saw Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love.  The cinematography of Yorick Le Sau  is extraordinary. And Tilda Swinton is stunning… Manohla Dargis wrote an interesting review for the New York Times.  I love this last paragraph: “The chase ends in a sylvan perch, where Antonio and Emma make love amid a cacophony of bird calls and a flurry of close-ups of luscious flowers being ravaged by insects. It’s a sublimely beautiful interlude and a touch ridiculous, bringing to mind the blooms of a portentous rose bush in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers that “expanded in an ecstasy,” a prelude to later forest rutting. Here, the flora and fauna constitute an alternative reality far from the villa that has become Emma’s sarcophagus and which will at last inspire at least one bird to take flight. As the working-class seducer, Antonio serves a Lawrentian stud function, though truth be told, he’s the kind of sensitive beefcake (he cooks and fulfills her sexually) familiar to readers of women’s romantic fiction, who, like Emma, enjoy their afternoons wet and wasted.” But then, I have never been afraid of Lawrence. Continue reading


The Doo-Nanny was amazing this year and I have arrived back home after what seems like months. It was lovely to sit at my dining room table this morning and think about all the stories and laughter…

I hope that you can all join us next year in Seale. It is a magical experience and there will be more about this next week. BUT… back to today.   I have been asked over the course of the last year (about a hundred and one times) to start a video blog and I have probably tried it just as many times. I never once posted the video for one reason or the other but mainly because I could not make it through one video watching myself and hearing my own voice. Ever felt that way?   Anyway, I have been broken by peer pressure (Melanie + Gilberto I am writing to the two of you) and here present Video Blog #1. Depending on the feedback (ahmmm… this means to comment below), I will start to share one on a regular basis.   So here you have the story of “Loving Your Thread.” You will find this story in both Alabama Stitch Book and Alabama Studio Style.

Loving Your Thread is at the core of our work at Alabama Chanin and at the core of my work as an entrepreneur. After I become a Video Blog Aficionado, I will most likely want to do this one again.

Smile and let me know if you need subtitles for my Southern accent…


This is fantastic… via Style.com I am jealous and want my own film… stay tuned for ladies rocking & sewing.


While looking out over the water from the balcony of a mansion on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut tells his friend, Joseph Heller, that their host makes more money in a single day than Heller will ever earn from his novel, Catch-22.

Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have.”

Vonnegut questions, “What’s that?”


Untitled 10 by
David Schoemer via Lee Cerre
& a thank you to Conrad Pitts for sharing this story. . .


Thank you to Maria for sharing this story. Visit www.ted.com for more ideas worth spreading.

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity:  http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html



George Dawes Green is a brilliant writer, storyteller and founder of The Moth in New York City. He started The Moth because he “wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings on his native St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where he and a small circle of friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales on his friend Wanda’s porch.”

On one of my recent travels, I listened to his story called “The House that Sherman Didn’t Burn.”

In fact, I have listened to the story about ten times since that first time and have tried to re-tell it just as many. This is Southern Gothic at its best. George Dawes Green is a flawless story teller – a quality that is highly prized here in the south.

**The photo above is from the Forks of Cypress, a plantation of lore in my community that burned to the ground in 1966. There were stories upon stories from my childhood about the ghosts that wander those lands. But then, that is another story…


What can be said about quilting?  It is a process I love: the history, the stories, the fabrics, the people.  (I even made a documentary film called Stitch about old-time quilting circles.)  At Alabama Chanin, we even take vintage quilts, refurbish them and add the oral histories of textile workers, collected from my community.

I am in awe with The International Quilt Study Center, as the pieces there tell a history of women’s work that cannot be seen anywhere else on the planet.

The now-famous Gee’s Bend quilts and their simple magnificence rooted in a complex history have long been an example of beauty sprung from necessity. I cried the first time I viewed the Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Whitney.

It has been said that our collections are based on quilting.  This is only partially true. Alabama Chanin garments derive from a basic quilting process of the straight stitch, and we tie layers of fabric together with quilting stitches. But our garments are not quilts.

I have never really been a great fan of contemporary quilting (Although I LOVE it when the subversive finds its way into the contemporary).

That is until I learned about Julie Floersch.  Julie’s pieces are stunning, refreshing, contemporary and inspiring. And, friend and colleague, Denyse Schmidt adds such beauty to the realm of contemporary quilting.

Ultimately, the quilting process influenced the foundations of Alabama Chanin and will be with us as we continue to grow.


Hi Natalie–

Below, I’ve written a little homage to summer break. Jess is already back in school, and I begin teaching the week after next. I may vanish, as I have 95 students and TONS of writing to grade!


From Blair:
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Hi Natalie–

I’m sending photos from summertime in our yard. The Luna moth was drying itself off; it had just peeled out of its cocoon. They don’t live very long because they don’t eat. As a matter of fact, they don’t even have mouths. As beautiful as they are, I’d hate to be a luna moth.

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Dear Sweet Blair,

You are a gift to our lives and cake for our souls. I will forever think of you with a pair of pink “granny panties” stuck to your back! I was thinking this week that after 40 (some odd) years, I am just now learning to stand in my own shoes (a miracle, that). And I am sure that if I went to the mirror right now, I will have a pair of granny panties (or worse) on my own back.

(I once crossed the entire dining room of a very chic New York restaurant with a stream of toilet paper at least 8 foot long attached to my heel. My bridal train.)

Thank you for coming to Atlanta, for bravely threading your needle, for standing there in your own shoes and then for writing about it. We love you dearly…

Confessions of a Sewing Basket Case

–Blair Hobbs

After attempting to sew at the “Feeding Desire” workshop in Atlanta, I more than ever respect those who are nimble with needle and thread.

To several confident attendees, I explained how I once cross-stitched a stuffed doll to an art project canvas, and although I was proud of the initial outcome, I was mortified when I discovered that in my stitching process, I had stupidly sewn the backside of the canvas to my skirt. I stood up and the entire contents of my lap were attached: canvas, stuffed doll, and cute not-bought-on-sale linen skirt. I had to unzip, violently shimmy, and toss the whole tangled affair into the trash. Over the years, my sewing has demonstrated zero improvement. If Natalie had awarded whipstitch badges at the end of the workshop, I would have left the presentation as one empty-handed little Girl Scout.

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My husband, John T, just came home with a pork butt the size of a hippopotamus, so now we have to have a 4th of July event around the smoker. It’s funny because neither John T nor I like this holiday. John T says it feels “forced.” I don’t like this holiday because it makes me feel lonely.

When I was a little girl, we used to have fourth-of-July family reunions just outside of Selma, Alabama, at a place called “Billy’s Pool.” The man-made pond was on a deeply wooded patch of land called “Billy Goat’s Gruff,” and the old folks who weren’t in wheel chairs circled the pool in metal fold-out lawn chairs. The kids floated across the pond on inner tubes or swung into the water from the tree-branch rope. Of course, there were picnic tables piled with fried chicken, potato salads, hams, watermelons, lemon cookies, and sweating Jell-O molds. I loved this sunny place, and I loved the people, the family on my father’s side.

This family reunion tradition ended many, many years ago because most of the people passed away–including my stern grandmother, my pretty second cousin named Aimee, all the great aunts and uncles, and my sweet father.

Perhaps I’ll try to be more enthusiastic this 4th. Yes, folks are gone, but I have new people to share the holiday with. And, of course, I can’t be sad as I watch my son stand by his father’s side as he tends the mammoth barbecue. As I watch them, I’ll think of my own daddy and how proud I am of him, a former Navy Captain. I’ll bake a pound cake for our fresh berries and prepare deviled eggs. We may even light our favorite sparklers—pink, yellow, blue, and gold Morning Glories and watch the fire fountains dazzle up our little holiday evening that we’ll spend with a few nearby family members, a scattering of friends, and a ton of meat.


Blair just sent me the email below. I replied to her that “this IS a post.”

Enjoy Midsummer Night’s Eve, breathe, look at life and enjoy the moment.

From Blair:

Below, I copied the transcript from Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac (NPR). Tonight, to celebrate, I’m going to poach catfish in paper sacks (the method borrowed from Martha Foose’s new book). However, I’m going to relax the catfish in honey-sweetened sweet tea with lots of lemon and rosemary. If the recipe fails, I’ll make a plan BEE for celebration and skip naked through the morning’s dew. That’s supposed to make me fertile (don’t really want that) and younger (will take that). Anyway, enjoy the transcript. I thought of you when I read it!

I’ll have an entry for you soon. Back to painting!

Bee sweet,

Tonight is Midsummer Night’s Eve, also called St. John’s Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It’s a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That’s where the word “honeymoon” comes from. Midsummer dew was said to have special healing powers. Women washed their faces in it to make themselves beautiful and young. They skipped naked through the dew to make themselves more fertile. It’s a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says, “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. Legend says that this is the best night for gathering magical herbs. Supposedly, a special plant flowers only on this night, and the person who picks it can understand the language of the trees. Flowers were placed under a pillow with the hope of important dreams about future lovers. Shakespeare set his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream on this night. It tells the story of two young couples who wander into a magical forest outside Athens. In the play, Shakespeare wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”


This American Life is one of my all-time favorite programs. I subscribe to the podcast from iTunes that I can enjoy it any time I get the chance to listen for an hour. It is free of charge, inspiring and automatically loads to my library each week.

Their episode “The Giant Pool of Money” is hands-down one of the best programs ever done (and there have been many, many, many exceptional programs – “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar” being another one of my favorite favorites.)

Thanks go out to Ira and all the staff at WBEZ Chicago.


I  love paint chips and the names of colors. I have lived in Cameo, Clementine, Venetian Glass, September Leaf, Cobalt, Aria Ivory, Spice Trader, Rain Mist, and Princess Passion rooms. My husband, John T, and I sleep in a Hickory bedroom trimmed with Sensitive White, and we prepare our family meals within our kitchen’s Walking Path and Butter walls.

For Father’s Day, I surprised John T by painting his study. The room used to be my art room, but we built a beautiful tin-sided studio outside, and that is where I paint now. Finally, John T has his own space in the house, but he was not fond of the feminine Lavender Lane I had painted my old art room.

Jess, our seven-year old son, showed no interest in helping me with the “new room” project, even though the transformation was supposed to be from him. He and I wanted a nice shade of green, but nothing too Golf Course or too Hunter. For a while we settled on Tree House, but we decided that Nature’s Abundance had more to offer.

The golden green walls match what we see from our summer windows—Camellia and Pecan leaves, ferns, ivy, and sunlit grass. John T is happy with his room, and he is filling the bookshelves.

Jess was happy to present his daddy with another gift, a woven rug that’s almost large enough to cover the paint-splattered floor that I couldn’t move out with my art table.

–Blair Hobbs


Bless Blair for sending this email just when I thought that there would be no reprieve in my week. We have a potted gardenia in our front garden bed and I have been struggling for one year to decide on its permanent spot. Blair’s post has inspired me to plant it right down by the road that everyone who passes our house on a June morning can revel in its glory.

From Blair:

Hooray for Gardening week! As I was answering my morning email, I heard a mother stroll her jabbering baby down the street. The woman said, “Smell those gardenias! They’re amazing!” So, I had to write this little something for the lady who planted them:

Mrs. Knight, the original owner of our 1940’s home, was known for her bread baking, bridge parties, chain smoking, and Gardenias. What remains of her, along the south side of the house, are her fragrant bushes. The sweet, thick aroma of the twirled-open buds is so dense that every walker, stroller, or jogger who crosses our block is bound to comment on the sugary breeze.

I especially love to watch the gardenias though our evening window. At night, in the dim streetlight’s cast beams, the blossoms look like paper stars clustered across the windowpanes.

I take no credit for these Gardenias. I do give them a little food, and after each bloom, I do cut them back so they won’t grow taller than the house. These flowers belong to Mrs. Knight, and every June, I clutch my breath until they gloriously return.

Illustration of gardenia thunbergia via Wikipedia by Edith Struben (1868-1936)


We had more than one request for Blair’s pea-themed love poem to her husband. She willingly plays along and makes me smile that big kind of smile that makes your ears hurt.

Falling For My Husband
by Blair Hobbs

Beanstalk skinny, I cared more about not eating
than stirring my dormant tastebuds.
Most flavors left me cold,
but peas, cooked to an institutional drab,
downright offended my fallow tongue.
In heaps, peas showed up on school cafeteria trays
and in my great aunt’s “Crowder Pleaser Salad,” a water-logged
mayonnaise and relish mishap she concocted
for her nursing home’s special occasions.

Alone, uncooked,
a pea was a stone
or the period at the end of a boring sentence.

My thin smile appealed to a man whose tongue was a meadow.
For courtship, I wore size zero silk dresses, high heels
and peony-pink lipstick. He took me
dancing and we twirled and shook.
We laughed and baptized ourselves with spilled Zinfandel.

He dined me and tried seducing my love-dumb senses
into surrendering to field pea risotto with white truffles,
Texas caviar, and blackberry-glazed quail
on a bed of pink-eyed pea salad.
Although I dismissed his razzle-dazzled legumes with a “yuck,”
he kissed me anyway. Little did I know
that those night-time words he whispered into the hull of my ear–
Whippoorwill, glory, snow, butterfly, sweet, and (later) zipper–
were all names of peas!

One noon, full of buttery sunlight,
this man offered me lunch, sage leaves and lady peas.
Perhaps brainwashed, I took the warm bowl.
Before I knew it, my mouth eased open
above the question mark of steam. I lifted the spoon,
chewed and felt the tender pearls dissolve
across my peppered tongue. First lips and throat,
then the whole rest of my body sighed awake.

Here is what Blair says today about her wedding picture:

This photo is of a LONG time ago. I think I’d gone up to a size 2 by the time of our wedding. My, how things have changed!


This post from Blair Hobbs reminds me of why I love gardening. Just this week, Blair agreed to become one of our regular contributors to share her views on being mother, creator, business person, lover of food, gardener and woman of the new south.

I know it’s spring when Mrs. Gary’s field is a snowdrift of little white flowers. Up close, these weeds are star-shaped, and they blanket the lazy lawns of our neighborhood in Oxford, Mississippi. But there are lawns on South 11th Street where these weeds don’t wake. There are yards that are not lazy and are tended by hoards of gardeners from places like Azalea Happenin’s nursery. These gardeners show up after the first frost and get busy on whatever is trying to sprout. These gardeners-for-hire crank up with their loud mowers, weed whackers, and ghost-buster leaf blowers. They prune the Crape Myrtles and Knock-out roses; they blow brown-and-fallen holly leaves from beneath the trimmed boxwood. They also show up with birth control for the Zoysia, and the growing grass remains pure and green and perfect.

Come spring, what grows in my family’s yard does not grow in those more manicured lawns of our neighborhood, and this makes me sad. I like weeds. I like the craggy dandelion leaves, the fragrant stronghold of honeysuckle, the pom-pom clover, and this little yellow flower that now feathers throughout our rain-sodden grass. I don’t know the name of this weed, but the blossoms are precious. They remind me of the small woolly balls that peel up from my favorite cardigan’s sleeves after a long winter’s wear.

Here is Blair’s Bio:

I was born in Oxford, MS in 1964 and moved to Auburn, Alabama when I was three. My dad was dean of Arts and Sciences at the University and my mother was an art professor. I am married to John T Edge, and we have a fabulous seven-year old son, Jess. I teach writing at the University of Mississippi (have an MA in Creative Writing from Hollins College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan). I am a collage artist and painter, and I always weave words into the content of my canvases. At home, I enjoy cooking, eating, patting the cats, reading, writing, laughing, tending the window boxes, and watching some trashy television.


This lovely story from Blair Hobbs makes me smile:

I grew up in Auburn, AL, and Opelika, AL is just a few miles away. It’s the Norma Rae town and has a large textile mill (I’m sure you know this). Anyway, I remember how sparse my elementary school music room was, but there were huge boxes of old thread spools that were discarded by the mill. I remember sitting in a large circle, with my music class, as our teacher, Mrs. Shell, instructed us to keep time with the music by tapping the metal tips of the spools together. It was a sweet clicking sound. For a deeper tap, we’d switch ends and tap the spool “heads” together. Your book helped me recall this memory, so I thought I’d share.

— Photo Courtesy of Blair

I asked Blair if I could share her story & a photograph of her about the time of the musical spools. Here is what she writes about the shot: It’s a picture of the neighbor’s mean cat visiting my grandmother and me on my parents’ patio. With the photo blown up, I can see how the backyard used to be an Alabama pine forest (and then a tornado came). This grandmother used to crochet sweaters for her clothes hangers. Her closet was a rainbow; each hanger was a different yarn color, and she’d decorate their necks with ribbons, silk flowers, and frosted wax berries.


I once wrote a piece called, Hero, for the now-defunct Girl on the Street blog. The writing of that post led me to learn more about Alice Waters, her involvement in the Slow Food movement and commitment to all things sensual:

I received my copy of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee this week and started reading it on a series of flights/travels that seem to keep me away from my own kitchen these days. It continues to surprise me how inspired I am by people who love, grow and prepare food.

This story, from page 28 of the book, made me think about how I want to eat in my own life:

“… and, though Alice was raised loosely Presbyterian and none of them was Jewish, they also always ‘set a place for Elijah’ – a Passover tradition of welcome to an uninvited guest. In fact, as often as not, somebody would turn up just in time to occupy Elijah’s chair.”

I decided on the airplane last night – as we roughly bumped down to our landing – that from this day forward I will always “set a place for Elijah.”


The Arts and Crafts in Contemporary Fashion and Textiles

William Morris said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This is the essence of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Joanne Ingersoll and The Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design have put together an amazing show called Evolution/Revolution – The Arts and Crafts in Contemporary Fashion and Textiles which runs from February 11 – June 15, 2008.

We are honored to have two pieces included in the show. (A detail from one of our “Textile Stories” quilts is below.)


But, more important is that the Exhibition Notes are a wonderful document of the work that is going on today. While they are extremely beautiful, they are also beautifully poignant for the times in which we are living and working. Joanne has done an amazing job of addressing a difficult theme which could have easily lost its way and, consequently, given us a clear vision of where we are headed in the future.

Read a review of the show by Greg Cook here.

I am hoping that the show will have legs and travel…



My friend, and colleague, Stacie Stukin sent me this very beautiful quote from the International Quilt Study Center.

“Much of the social history of early America has been lost to us precisely because women were expected to use needles rather than pens. Yet if textiles are in one sense an emblem of  women’s oppression, they have also been an almost universal medium of female expression. If historians are to understand the lives of women in times past, they must not only cherish the Anne Bradstreets and Martha Ballards who mastered the mysterious ways of quill pens, they must also decipher work composed in yarn and thread.”

–Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich