Introducing our new Scrap Project—a sustainable and creative initiative that adds to the maker experience. Beginning today, every DIY Kit order will include not only all the materials you need to create a project, but we’re also including the cutting scraps from the process of creating each kit.
We believe that every piece of our organic cotton fabric tells a story. For two decades—from Texas farmers and ginners, to Carolina mills, to The Factory in north Alabama—many hands, and many people, bring the story of this fabric to life. With the Scrap Project, you’ll have the chance to help improve the ongoing narrative.
These cutting scraps are not just leftover material—they’re the building blocks of imagination. Add a patch pocket to any garment, design a contrasting trim for any project, or create cotton jersey pulls for appliqué or life. The choice is yours.
By participating in the Scrap Project, you’re joining our commitment to reducing waste and promoting sustainability. We believe that even the tiniest piece of fabric can be transformed into something beautiful and meaningful.
In further commitment to sustainable futures—and incorporating valuable community feedback—we are taking another significant step towards resource conservation by discontinuing the use of fabric bags for shipping DIY kits.
While we appreciate the convenience and beauty that these bags have brought to our packaging, we are ever striving to minimize our environmental footprint. By eliminating DIY Kit bags, we’re reducing the demand for additional materials and cutting down on unnecessary waste. This decision aligns with our core values and helps create a positive impact on the planet.
(If you’d like to add a reusable bag to your project, choose our favorite Tote Bag here.)
Rest assured, the content and quality of our DIY Kits remain uncompromised. Each project kit continues to include meticulously curated and crafted materials, designed to empower the creative process and preserve techniques of craft.
Thank you for joining along in these endeavors to create a more environmentally responsible future.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you to Scott Peacock for hosting all of us in Marion and to Rinne Allen for the photographs documenting our adventures.
Over the years, we have tried to create various ways to put our scrap fabric to good use and to inspire our fellow makers to do the same. We studied the zero waste design techniques of Dr. Timo Rissanen to understand how the patternmaking process could be streamlined. What is left after our garments are cut is often worked into othergarments (or become the key component of them), have been used for decoration, made into wreaths, employed practically in mending, and factored importantly in our jewelry casting process. Perhaps our most ambitious use of scraps was baling them to create seating for areas in The Factory.
As sustainability has always played an essential role in our company’s mission, we have always promoted a “waste not, want not” approach to design and to daily Factory life. Our newest effort to maintain a zero waste facility has resulted in a product we find to be beautiful—and a perfect match for Alabama Chanin and The School of Making: recycled paper note cards. Each bundle of pressed-paper stationery contains six note cards, each folded and embossed with the Alabama Chanin logo. A package of note cards also contains high-quality envelopes from French Paper Co.
We also re-introduce our scrap bags in The School of Making store. Available in one-pound increments, the bags contain a random assortment of scraps in different colors, sizes, and fabric types, and each bag’s contents will vary. You can find your own ways to repurpose these, incorporating them into your own designs, making potholders, embellishing wrapped packages, or sprucing up canned jams brought as hostess gifts. We encourage you to be creative in your usage and let us know if you have come up with a particularly unique way to use your scraps.
If any paper makers are interested in acquiring bulk fabric scraps to experiment with their own paper, please contact Rebecca by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing and details. We want to see a scrap movement in the next year. Here’s to more upcycling in the coming days!
We’ve written before about the process of mending and of integrating it into your lifestyle. Embracing mending as sustainable practice and a component of everyday life can be a small change that makes a big difference. Mending acts as a solution to economic challenges by utilizing your own skills to repurpose, repair, and restore your wardrobe. With the perpetuation of “fast-fashion”, mending your clothes is an action you can take to make an impact on a grassroots level.
Plus, as we have discussed in our Worn Stories conversations, people develop relationships with their clothing, keeping and valuing them long past their intended lifespan. Our garments can become part of our personal histories, whether we intend them to or not.
Mending is part of the philosophy of the “living arts” and, like the rest of those skills, we want to see mending grow in popularity. We have hosted Patagonia’s traveling “Worn Wear” repair truck that, in accordance with the company’s repair philosophy, travels the country mending clothing or accepting donations of items that can’t be repaired so they may be repurposed—just as they have been in our Patagonia scarf collaboration. Places like repair cafés—locations where people can take broken or worn items and learn to repair them rather than throw them away—are slowly popping up across the country. iPhone owners are proposing vocal arguments that they should have the ability to repair their own electronics instead of having to buy new (very expensive) phones and gadgets.
As part of our support for the mending movement, Alabama Chanin has created its own mending space that is available to everyone. The School of Making store and workshop space has undergone an expansion, allowing more room to integrate the community into our space. Our expansion includes a mending table, a loom for our zero-waste product development, and a larger workshop area (which is currently getting its finishing touches). The mending table will offer tools like needles, thread, and scissors for those who want to mend any items—not just Alabama Chanin pieces—whether you need to attach a button, patch a hole, or want to rework your item to give it a new life. Organic cotton fabric scraps will be available for purchase to patch and repair your garments too.
The new mending space is open now, and its hours are in conjunction with our store hours: Monday – Friday from 10am – 5pm. Join us in advancing the mending movement in America. (Please note our store is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Swing Skirt is one of our all-time most popular DIY styles. It’s universally flattering on all body types, and its simple, four-panel design and easy construction make it the perfect beginner garment. In “The Swing Skirt Techniques & Construction”, Natalie gives in-depth instructions for all aspects of creating a Swing Skirt including planning, cutting, stenciling, stitching, and completing your garment.
If you like to complete every step of the process yourself, you’ll receive a downloadable Swing Skirt Pattern PDF with four lengths—21”, 24”, 26”, and 28”. There is an expanded version of the pattern available online with two additional lengths—33” and 40”—in both PDF and printed versions.
Or if you’d like to start sewing right away, there are a number of Swing Skirt DIY Kits cut and ready-to-sew in our most popular stencil designs—Magdalena, Anna’s Garden, and Bloomers—or create your own kit to your exact specifications through Custom DIY. We also suggest using “The Swing Skirt Techniques & Construction” as instruction for Host a Party. Gather at least six friends, choose the Swing Skirt as your garment, make your design choices, and gather to work through the course together.
P.S.: If you purchase your class from the links on our website, we will earn a small commission from the product purchased through that link. This commission supports our business and helps us stock our 100% organic fabrics, pay our employees a living wage, and allows our teams to continue to design and create the products that you love. What might seem like a small gesture can go a long way for our business, so thank you.
In 1971, Robert Tharsing moved to Lexington to work as a painting instructor at the University of Kentucky. Geographically, he was thousands of miles from his home state of California; culturally he was perhaps even further removed. On the West Coast, he had grown up near Los Angeles and later studied painting at UC Berkeley under talents like David Hockney and Elmer Bischoff. An unrepentant contrarian, Tharsing was uninterested in the machinations of the art world but completely obsessed by the possibilities of painting. In his new environment, there was time and space to explore.
In the early 1970s, Tharsing began pushing the limits of his own work, transforming traditional canvas paintings into objects and freeing them from the confines of stretcher bars. He pinned massive canvases directly to the wall, draped them over tent poles, and even painted on clothing items he purchased at local thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. This latter series, begun in 1979, was in some ways the most ambitious.
Tharsing began these paintings by laying out collected skirts, dresses, overalls, bellbottoms, and other raw clothing items and slathering them with polymer medium. Unlike a traditional canvas, they were irregularly shaped with varied surfaces that bore buttons, seams, collars, and hems. The human form was both startlingly absent and overtly implied, something Tharsing used to great effect by “freezing” them (with polymer medium) in newly-prescribed states of motion. His action helps us imagine their former roles as participants in the quotidian realities of life, with us while we have meals, go dancing, lie in the park, or lounge around the house.
Robert Tharsing painted exactly twenty of these works before moving on to other endeavors. They were displayed only once during his lifetime in a small exhibition at the University of Kentucky in 1981. While these painted clothes are not necessarily typical of Tharsing’s style, they give tremendous insight into the mind of the artist, his willingness to explore and experiment with painting in every way possible.
Continue your year of making and designing with our second, limited-edition Design Bundle. Like the first quarter, Design Bundle #2 contains fabric, thread, embroidery floss, and beads that are intended to be used as tools to practice appliqué, embroidery, or beading treatments from our Alabama Studio Book Series.
Offering a new range of pre-selected fabric and paint colors, this Design Bundle includes Natural, Ochre, Peacock, Black, and Faded Polka Dot fabric selections. Our classic Small Polka Dot stencil is paired with Aurora—a new stencil design with an Art Deco motif. New, complementary paint colors are also introduced with each fabric color.
The notion colors are updated to include Ochre, Ecru, Peacock, Black, and Ashe Embroidery Floss and Gold Armor Beads.
Use the treatments, color combinations, and beading designs as inspiration for your next sewing project and add all the completed swatches to your growing fabric library.
What you will get:
Design Bundle Color Card
10 – 10” x 16” swatches of organic medium-weight cotton jersey (two of each) in Natural, Faded Polka Dot, Ochre, Peacock, and Black, as your bottom layer
5 – 10” x 16” swatches of organic medium-weight cotton jersey (one of each) in Natural, Faded Polka Dot, Ochre, Peacock, and Black stenciled in Aurora to use as your top layer
5 – 10” x 16” swatches of organic medium-weight cotton jersey (one of each) in Natural, Faded Polka Dot, Ochre, Peacock, and Black stenciled in Small Polka Dot to use as your top layer
Choose between tonal or metallic paint (metallic paint pictured above)
5 spools of Button Craft Thread in Cream, Slate, Dogwood, Navy, and Black
5 spools of Embroidery Floss in Ecru, Ashe, Ochre, Peacock, and Black
5 vials of Beads: Clear Bugle, Dark Grey Bugle, Gold Armor, Brown Seed, and Black Chop
As part of an ongoing exploration into indigo and other natural dyes, we are spotlighting artists we consider to be experts in the field—including Scott Peacock, Donna Hardy, and today, Kathy Hattori. Kathy is one of the founders of Botanical Colors, a well-respected source of materials, support, and educational offerings for those seeking to employ natural dyeing techniques. They offer a range of services for both the new dyer and the designer wishing to use a more sustainable supply chain—including color development, prototypes, sampling, and production. Kathy was a big help to us when we started our own natural dye house at The Factory in 2014. We sourced our indigo from her, and she patiently answered questions and helped us troubleshoot our vats.
Kathy has a background in environmental studies but spent years working in the tech industry before founding Botanical Colors. When asked why she wanted to make the change, Kathy told us, “The realization of how precious time is and how I wanted to spend it prompted the leap from telecommunications to textiles. And then I found it wasn’t a leap at all, but just a firm step forward. Working with colorants wasn’t my first career, but I had created for many years with textiles and dyes in my own work. The reason I moved toward natural dyes was that I felt strongly that my next career had to make a positive impact in the world.”
It is important to Kathy that both large- and small-scale makers see natural dyeing as a feasible alternative to synthetic dyeing, as long as you understand the benefits and limitations of each; to her, the differences between the two approaches can result in remarkably different results in quality. “Synthetic dyes are efficient, as they are engineered to bond with one fiber type and are designed to produce consistent results. Their color palette is very bright and saturated. [But] they are derived mainly from petrochemical feedstock and their manufacture can produce toxic waste if not carefully managed. Natural dyes…have a more varied color profile that must be coaxed from the plant onto the fabric. Their color palette is richly colored and less saturated.” And, as opposed to synthetics, natural dyes are cultivated, grown, and maintained on closely managed land using agricultural or food processing waste—or are responsibly wild-harvested.
“Ten years ago, natural dyers were often challenged and dismissed because the dyestuffs and methods we used were perceived as lower quality than synthetic dyes. That perception has shifted as makers and customers embrace the natural beauty of the color and learn how to create quality items using natural dyes. I see that natural dyes are overlapping and being used to create inks, paints, healing tinctures, and colorants for cosmetics, so makers are getting really creative and tapping into other aspects of the dyestuffs.”
Botanical Colors and Kathy are helping usher in a new era of artisan-driven growth in the textile industry. They use their expertise to help individual makers and small businesses find sustainable solutions that will work on their respective scales. “The new American manufacturer is often a smaller scale company who must innovate in order to survive, and they are often interested in new technology or intriguing collaborations. Most of the companies that we’ve worked with are also pioneers and innovators in sustainable production. Botanical Colors provides an interesting solution with plant-based, beautiful color and this seems to resonate deeply among designers and brands.” And like many farmers who use organic methods but cannot afford to go through the process of being certified organic, there are also textile manufacturers who produce using standards like those governed by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), but cannot afford to be officially certified. “GOTS certification certainly helps to identify suppliers who adhere to the standard,” she says. “But there are many suppliers who don’t carry certification and have built their businesses on thoughtful and sustainable practices, and these companies are equally worthy of our support.”
Kathy agrees with Donna Hardy’s assertion that natural dyeing can be utilized by large manufacturers, if they make the necessary commitment to responsible production. “Moving from artisan-based making to larger format production can be a challenge, as the equipment and volumes can change dramatically. That being said, larger scale natural dyeing is quite feasible. For companies who are concerned with toxicity and wastewater issues, natural dyes can provide a solution, so several visionary companies have made the leap and introduced natural dyes.” She and Botanical Colors work with Eileen Fisher on the Green Eileen and Vision 20/20 programs that aim to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. “Eileen Fisher has confronted the environmental issues facing the industry head-on with their Vision 20/20 policy. Vision 20/20 is the roadmap toward a more responsible and sustainable company including emphasis on organic fibers, fair trade, safe chemistry and wise water use. It’s been a great honor to work with them on their Green Eileen recycling initiative and extend the life of clothing.”
Kathy also recommends that consumers educate themselves on the issues surrounding garment production, safety, and the environment and she supports Greenpeace in this effort. “They offer an important service by exposing the complex chemistry that industry uses for dyeing and finishing garments and publicizing the brands that continue to use toxic substances in their clothing. These chemicals persist in the environment and in some cases break down into more toxic components with home laundering.”
More than anything else, it is obvious that Kathy Hattori is still enamored with the artistry of natural dyeing and excited by the possibilities. “I’ve worked with and learned from some very talented teachers in the natural dye world, and am constantly striving to improve processes, while celebrating the tradition of natural color. I love to see how natural colors change with different locations and water sources. There’s something about being able to drop a few flowers into a dye pot and pull out a beautifully dyed fabric. That will always be magic for me.”
P.S.: We recently received a report from our dye house, and while many of our colors are not derived from natural dyestuffs, we take great strides to understand, be aware of, and be transparent with the process that our fabrics go through. Regarding the dyeing process for most of our organic cotton, “The only dyes to be used will be natural, low-energy, non-metal, reactive dyes, bi-functional dyes, or low impact dyes.” And the exact dye formula is kept on file along with MSDS (material safety data sheet) for each ingredient in the dye bath for review or audit.
We have a long history of loving and working with indigo at The School of Making and Alabama Chanin. We’ve used it in previous collections, worked with and learned from Artisan Natural Dyeworks in Nashville, and even had a special indigo-focused exhibition at Heath Ceramics showcasing upcycled antique quilts and one-of-a-kind indigo garments.
For the past few years, we’ve sourced our indigo materials from Botanical Colors in Seattle, Washington. Owner Kathy Hattori was an invaluable resource throughout the time we operated our dye house (more on Kathy tomorrow). Since closing down our dye house last year, we have been working with Stony Creek Colors in Tennessee to produce our Hand-Dyed Organic Indigo Fabric— used in our Rinne’s Dress Collection.
For the makers that prefer to have their hands on every step of the process, we are now offering an Indigo Dye Kit for use at home. Inside you’ll find the same organic indigo that we’ve used sourced from Botanical Colors along with iron powder, calcium hydroxide (lime), soda ash, and instructions for creating your own mineral vat. The kit comes packed in an organic cotton canvas bag and includes enough materials to dye approximately 6 yards of our 100% Organic Medium-weight Cotton Jersey. You will need to provide your own plastic tub or trash can for creating the vat as well as gloves and a mask for handling the raw materials.
We can’t wait to see what you’re able to create with the kit. Indigo produces such range of shades with lovely variations in the fabrics. Be sure to share your indigo projects with us using #theschoolofmaking on social media.
We’re launching an expanded collection of core garments today and also updating our manufacturing model for these garments. Conserving natural resources is at the core of our mission statement. This means balancing our supply chain with lean method manufacturing in order to deliver the best possible product to our customers. Every day we look for better ways to reduce and even eliminate waste in our production process. This helps us operate our business in a lean, sustainable manner as we continually search for ways to utilize every fabric scrap and only produce what is needed.
All of our hand-sewn collection garments are made after the order is confirmed. When we began machine manufacturing in 2014, we produced our machine-sewn garments in small batches. We are updating this process, and starting today, we will also make our machine-sewn garments to order. This will enable us to make the most sustainable use of our fabric. We understand that our culture is currently obsessed with immediate gratification—and that we want to wear our new garments as soon as possible—and at the same time, we also want to protect the precious resources the earth has to offer. So with this update, we’re hoping to find the balance between both. If you have any questions, give us a call at 256.760.1090 or email office (at) alabamachanin.com.
Today we’re rolling out updated rib styles under this new process. All our rib tops are fitted through the body and made of a soft and comfortable lightweight rib fabric.
THE SCOOP SERIES
We’ve updated The Scoop with a lightweight trim along a feminine neckline that is open, but not too revealing. The sleeves are long and hit past the wrist. We introduce new elbow-length and sleeveless versions as well.
THE RIB SERIES
We’ve streamlined our rib tops and offer three versions of The Rib Crew: The Rib Shell, The Rib Tee, and The Rib Crew. Each of these styles has feminine details with lightweight trim along the neckline, sleeve, and bottom hem. The sleeves on The Rib Crew are long and hit past the wrist.
Find each of these new styles in our Collection and mix and match with the rest of our Core Essentials.
The Alabama Chanin Signature | Bridal Collection features a range of dresses, skirts, tops, and accessories for special occasions, for the bride and her wedding party, and for black-tie events. Our organic cotton jersey garments are hand crafted and modern—and offer sustainable options for everyday elegance. While many of our garments are created with simplicity in mind, they also feature intricate hand-beading and embroidery.
The Signature | Bridal Collection is available in a range of colors. Consider any of our garments for evening or formal wear with a Black fabric option on select styles.
If you are interested in placing a custom order or arranging a personal fitting at The Factory, please email shop (at) alabamachanin.com.
P.S.: You can also schedule a private appointment and work with our experienced sales team on-site at The Factory to design a custom-made dress for your special event. Our skilled team and artisans make the highest quality, one-of-a-kind garments from our organic cotton fabric. Give us a call at 256.760.1090 M – F from 8am – 4:30pm CST.
Esteemed chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, one of six Michelin three-star restaurants in New York (there are only 14 in America) has an incredibly meditative approach to life and business—appropriate for a practicing Buddhist, but uncommon for a high-powered chef. As a young chef, his hot temper led to heavy staff turnover and what he felt was an imbalance in his daily life. Ripert’s food, his vision, his reputation—those were the things that occupied his thoughts. With time, reflection, and meditation, he has changed the way he works in the kitchen. Today he sees himself as more of a teacher, guiding staff through excellent training with a focus on teamwork.
All of this and more are on display in his gorgeous book, On the Line: Inside the World of Le Bernardin, written with Christine Muhlke. On the Line is a detailed account of a day in the life of Le Bernardin, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the precise operation created by Ripert and his business partner Maguy Le Coze. Part biography, part cookbook, it is made up of five sections: The History, In the Kitchen, The Dining Experience, The Business, and The Recipes. Each part is comprehensive, describing almost every element from the front of house to the basement offices. Readers learn a fairly typical day’s schedule, menus, the staff hierarchy and each person’s duties, the timetable of a dish—from order to service—and numbers, numbers, numbers. There are 500 pounds of black bass served each week, 1,300 glasses washed by hand each day, 14,000 bottles of wine in their cellar, and $12,000 per month spent on flowers. Plus, you can read Le Coze’s 129 Cardinal Sins for her front-of-house staff.
Each January we prepare our company-wide strategic plan for the year. As we approached this year’s agenda, we revisited On the Line for inspiration, helping us narrow our focus and be specific about each goal—whether it’s a new budget, prioritization of needs, revenue increases, cutting costs, or creating new systems.
Though a day in the life at Alabama Chanin may look slightly different from one at Le Bernardin, some of their systems and their focus on attention to detail apply to our own way of doing things. We have a hierarchy of systems that we use to help make decisions, with quality being first. We focus more each year on safety, monitoring each of our machines closely and even offering CPR courses for our staff. We also have timelines and strict standards on how each product is made. Eric Ripert’s kitchen requires all 120 of its employees to be performing as well as possible to ensure excellent service; at Alabama Chanin, we don’t yet have 120 staff members, but each performs essential tasks and must be counted on to produce high-quality products on a consistent basis.
Much like Ripert and Le Coze have done at Le Bernardin, we want our passion for excellence to be contagious in our staff and artisans. No garment or meal in our café is about only the finished product. It is also important to us that our customers feel a connection to the details of our processes from basic design to order delivery. That means a lot of training, meetings, work, and dedication from our staff, across the board. It also means making the extra effort to source the best and most sustainable materials, on a consistent basis. Just as with a precise dish, consistency is essential to our products.
If you are looking for inspiration on creating your own schedules or ways to organize your own life or business, we recommend consulting On the Line and Le Bernardin’s standards for excellence. Their leadership, their systems, their products, and their reputation inspire us. Onward, to an excellent 2017.
Anyone who is familiar with our company knows that Alabama Chanin is built on the beliefs of collaboration and the open exchange of information. Our connections and relationships with fellow designers, makers, customers, and suppliers run deep, and we appreciate every opportunity to learn from, be inspired by, and to teach and work with others. Examples of design and manufacturing collaborations from Alabama Chanin include Patagonia, 6397, Heath Ceramics, Little River Sock Mill, and DPM candles.
And after months of development (and years of requests for pre-printed yardage), we’re happy to announce our newest collaboration: The School of Making @ Spoonflower. The fabric base is our 100% organic medium-weight cotton jersey in Natural, printed with grey ink, in two designs: Anna’s Garden and New Leaves.
These designs are digitally printed using eco-friendly, water-based inks and dyes. Unlike our normal jersey yardage, this fabric is sold unwashed.
We are testing this first foray into pre-printed fabrics—so based on the response, look for expanded selections in the future. Be sure to wash your fabric before beginning any new project and, as always, share what you create with us using #theschoolofmaking on social media.
Purchase Limited-Edition Printed Cotton Jersey here.
Learn more about Spoonflower here and follow along @theschoolofmaking on Instagram here.
One of the challenges of running a company dedicated to sustainability is adjusting to the ebbs and flows of other small businesses in our supply chain—businesses that are devoted to sustainable practices themselves. Sadly for us, one of those companies has closed its doors after almost 20 years of operation. North Carolina-based Tumbling Colors, our dye house since 2008, worked with Natalie and the Alabama Chanin design team on color development for all of our fabrics. They dyed small batches of our 100% organic cotton jersey with low-impact dyes, producing custom colors for our Collections and DIY. To Chuck and the rest of the Tumbling Colors team: we have thoroughly enjoyed doing business with you.
Beginning last month, Green Textile, located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, became our dedicated dye house. We have employed them as our knitters since 2006 and now they will also be dyeing our fabric with the same low-impact processes we are used to.
As a small business ourselves, we’re always navigating the challenges of supply and demand. Last fall, a portion of cotton was contaminated, lowering our stock of 100% organic cotton. Since then, we have been working to build up our stock. With recent changes in dyehouses, our stock in colors has been substantially reduced, and much of our fabric is currently low stock or backordered (as noted on the color cards). We appreciate everyone’s patience, and we are diligently working to match our supply with our demand.
If there is a fabric color you’d like to order that we currently stock, we encourage you to make your purchase now. We’ll have more updates soon and a lot of new DIY offerings in the coming months. Be sure to check back on our Journal and subscribe to our mailing list for the most up-to-date news.
Purchase our 100% medium-weight organic cotton jersey colors here.
The apron is a versatile garment—equally functioning to protect clothes from the dirtiest of labor, or to signify gentility and hospitality. It can be associated with cooking, cleaning, and hard work and, for many, is a symbol of home and humility, worn in the daily rituals of pulling a pan from the oven or wiping sawdust from hands.
Tying on an apron is a statement of readiness for the possibilities of a new project, and the perseverance to finish. Whether baking, gardening, or exploring an art project, an apron is the sign of a maker.
Part of our newest home collection, the Tony Apron is sewn from 100% organic cotton canvas and hand stenciled with a geometric pattern in pale, neutral shades. It features crossed back ties, a center pocket, and two waist pockets.
As a sustainable design company, we take the health of our employees and our environment into consideration every day. And though not all businesses have the same focus, it is interesting to look back on how much has changed and become the norm—both in workplaces and homes around the world. Forty-plus years ago, the idea of recycling had not yet begun to take hold in the American household. The public did not know about things like the dangers of CFCs, the importance of the ozone layer, and endangered rainforests; we had not yet faced what we now know was to come: an oil embargo, the meltdown at Three Mile Island, and Love Canal. But, awareness was emerging and the birth of that awareness can be almost directly traced to April 22, 1970—the first Earth Day and the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
In 1970, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson was a senator from Wisconsin when he was shaken by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and by seeing Ohio’s polluted Cuyahoga River burst into flames. At that time, all across America, students were organizing protests as part of the anti-Vietnam War movement—a tactic Nelson decided to adapt, hoping to promote environmental issues in the public consciousness and on the political agenda. At a conference in Seattle in 1969, he announced to the national media that he was organizing a national “teach-in” on the environment, which he was calling Earth Day.
Nelson, a Democrat, partnered with Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Dennis Hayes to promote the event, which was strategically scheduled for April 22, in order to fall between college spring breaks and final exams. On that day, 20 million Americans across the nation rallied in major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In New York, a portion of 5th Avenue was cordoned off for a rally with the mayor and actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. In Washington, D.C., Congress went into recess and large groups gathered to hear political leaders speak alongside musician and activist Pete Seeger. Organizations that were fighting against various environmental ills like oil spills, polluting power plants, toxic dumps, harmful pesticides, and wildlife extinction united under one larger, common cause.
According to Nelson, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day—it organized itself.” That first Earth Day transformed the way the public viewed environmental issues. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, (created in December 1970, in an almost direct response to Earth Day initiatives) public opinion polls reflected a permanent change in national priorities immediately following those events. The event also united disparate political parties, ultimately influencing the passage of the Clean Water, Clean Air, Toxic Substances Control, and Endangered Species Acts—among others.
There is much that still needs to be changed and improved with regard to environmental protection and human welfare (particularly in our own industry). But we should appreciate the number of things that—largely thanks to Earth Day and the environmental movement—are now fairly common: recycling and purchasing recycled products; solar and wind energy technology; low-emission, hybrid, and battery-powered vehicles; home goods like compact fluorescent light bulbs, rechargeable batteries, and low flush toilets; electronics take-back programs, even reusable shopping bags.
This Earth Day, find ways that you can take action to reduce your environmental footprint. Find an Earth Day event in your area and take part!
As part of our commitment to responsible production, your goods will always be delivered to you via carbon neutral shipping.
I met Dr. Timo Rissanen several years ago, just as he was taking on the role of Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons School of Design. He is a pioneer in zero waste design, co-authoring Zero Waste Fashion Design with Holly McQuillan.
If you’ve not heard of Zero waste, this genre of design attempts to create clothing patterns that leave little to no waste fabric when a garment is cut. It’s a fact that the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet and that the majority of apparel companies end up throwing away their excess fabric because it is cheaper to do so than to create new patterns and cutting methods.
Zero-waste design strives to create clothing patterns that leave not so much as a scrap of fabric on the cutting room floor. This is not some wacky avant-garde exercise; it’s a way to eliminate millions of tons of garbage a year. Apparel industry professionals say that about 15 to 20 percent of the fabric used to produce clothing winds up in the nation’s landfills because it’s cheaper to dump the scraps than to recycle them. Timo is a leader in this design methodology and can design patterns that fit together on fabric yardage like puzzle pieces.
Rissanen’s work is highlighted as part of the Textile Toolbox, which is a TED web platform that allows designers and experts to interact and exchange ideas. The intention of Textile Toolbox is to create systemic change within the fashion industry through “interconnected design thinking and processes for sustainable textiles and fashion.”
Each section of the site features work and thoughts from industry experts who delve into the specifics of how sustainable design might work and work better. As an expert on waste reduction, Rissanen explores design processes, waste sources and potential solutions, among other topics. We have spent quite a bit of time talking to Timo about our lean method manufacturing and design methods. We are proud that he chose to highlight Alabama Chanin and our manufacturing processes as an example of how to design sustainably.
After the launch of Textile Toolbox, we asked Timo some questions about waste and the future of design.
How did you become interested in sustainable design and waste-reduction methods?
Like many Finns, I grew up with a strong connection to the natural environment. We would fish for food, and forage for berries and mushrooms in the woods, and we still do. I was 11 when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986. There was considerable radioactive fallout in Finland, some of which remains today, three decades later, and I remember my parents’ worry about food during the summer of 1986. That event made the fragility of the environment, as well as our complete dependence on it, very clear to me. When I was a student in the 1990s in Australia, I had one textile design teacher, Julia Raath, who often spoke to us about the environmental issues with textiles. Her teachings have stuck with me. Once I started working in fashion, I started to get a grasp of the responsibility we all share in ensuring that, through our actions today, we allow future generations of humans and all other species to flourish.
The concept of reducing waste in the fashion industry is difficult, both logistically and cost-wise. Can you help explain the reasons why designers and manufacturers might be hesitant to embrace these ideas?
There are considerable systemic challenges to reducing or eliminating fabric waste from clothing production. For example, often the patternmaker is not in the same location as the designer, and the patternmaker’s contribution might not even be considered design but rather, a service to it. In my PhD I argued that patternmaking is fashion design, however in reality it is often not perceived as such. Another challenge is that the various kinds of waste created in fashion are often completely invisible to the designer as well as the consumer. More human-scale supply chains, like Alabama Chanin’s, are an effective way to maintain a real grasp on various material flows within a company. Finally, designing without creating fabric waste can be slower than conventional fashion design. I would say that good design is never fast, and there is an opportunity for fashion design and the industry to slow down. Integrating sustainability is instrumental to good design.
What are the most creative approaches to reducing waste that you have seen?
Several small designers are creating beautiful zero waste fashion, for example Daniel Silverstein in New York, and Lela Jacobs in New Zealand. Each designer brings their own aesthetic to it. Holly and I first saw this when we curated the exhibition Yield in 2011, of which Alabama Chanin was a part, and it was even clearer once we came to write the book on zero waste fashion design during 2014.
In your opinion, what is the best way to educate shoppers about waste and the consequences of fast fashion? And what should they be looking for when building a wardrobe?
One on one conversations tend to be the most effective in my experience; people really get the impact of the predictable future on all of us, unless we act together, when you share it face to face. The challenge then is to scale that education up; as well as educating someone we should also aim to inspire them to become educators in this respect themselves. Nonetheless, brands should also tell the stories of their solutions to these problems. For shoppers, I think spending the same amount of money on less items is often better, for example instead of buying five pairs of shoes at $50, invest in one pair at $250. Learn about quality and look for it. For learning about quality, often speaking to someone from the generation before you can be fruitful, not to mention a joyful experience.
Any advice on how consumers can reduce post-consumer waste?
I think the Alabama Chanin model of operations – to be like a traditional farm where there is no waste – is actually achievable on the level of a household. Disposable, non-recyclable packaging is perhaps the biggest challenge; we need to ask our supermarkets and food producers for alternatives, and our legislators to facilitate changes. As for post-consumer clothing, we can reduce it first by simply buying less and buying better, and wearing things for longer. With every garment I buy I ask, how many years of wear will this garment give me? I know for a younger person this might not sound an exciting proposition; the culture of today is dominated by endless variation. Perhaps shared use is one solution – it already happens with friends borrowing each other’s clothes. Clothing libraries and designer handbag rentals are examples of a service design solution of this, in a business context.
How can at-home sewers begin to integrate zero-waste design and patternmaking techniques into their creation processes?
Simply by treating all fabric as precious, which home-sewers tend to do anyway, and by being endlessly curious about patternmaking and sewing. Not knowing every ‘rule’ can be an advantage in being fearlessly experimental with patternmaking and sewing. Holly McQuillan’s designs for the MakeUse project are fairly easy for even a beginner to construct. And even if a design is not zero waste, home sewers can be intelligent about reusing scrap, and many are. If you can’t find a use for it yourself, there are likely others who might. And if you get stuck, write to me or Holly and ask for advice.
*Second and third images courtesy of Timo Rissanen.
We often speak of collaboration and of creating a community of artists to share ideas. This philosophy is central to our artisan-based way of making. And when we stock our stores online and at The Factory, we offer a carefully curated selection of items that complement our own—always made by other artisans who follow a similar approach to collaboration or community.
Idyllwilde is a clothing company based in the Shoals that works with natural fibers like linen, cotton, wool, and silk. Founder and designer Nadene Mairesse named the company after the California town where she spent her summers, attending the Idyllwild Arts Academy. She praises her experiences there for introducing her to dance and music and for opening her eyes to the idea of a creative community. Idyllwilde makes clothing for women and children and a few sundry items—like the aprons and kitchen towels.
Nadene’s commitment to a collaborative way of making resulted in True North—a studio and retail space that she shares with local graphic designer and screen printer Chris James of Heavy Color. The two separate, established businesses have similar philosophies and priorities and they found sharing a space to be a good match. In this shared space, True North is growing a larger community of artists; they regularly host bands and open their space for artist exhibitions. Nadene also teaches workshops on basic sewing skills and indigo dyeing with Shibori techniques.
We also offer beautiful wooden spoons and spatulas, created by Steven Febres-Cordero, known by most as “The Spoonman”. Steven lives in Center Point, Alabama, and crafts a variety of woodcarvings by hand in the United States, all from exotic wood, sustainably harvested in South America.
Steven began working with wood when he was a young man and expanded his work into ceramics, painting, and clay. He has found the most satisfaction and success in his woodworking and, these days primarily focuses on his work with tropical hardwood. The Spoonman travels often between the United States and South America and he does not have a website, but he sells at craft fairs throughout the south. We offer three of his products: the 11” spoon, 12.5” slotted spoon, and 11” spatula—and their high quality and affordability make them popular gift items.
Look for other Alabama Chanin additions that complement the current offerings, which feature both hand- and machine-made goods.
Today, we launch our Maggie Dress garment pattern—available in PDF format through our website. Part of our Build a Wardrobe programming and available for individual purchase at $18, the PDF download includes the nested pattern and comes in sizes XS to XXL along with instructions for fabric selection, cutting, and garment construction. Our PDF patterns (more styles coming each quarter in 2016) are designed for printing on wide-format printers or desktop printers, as both full-scale and tiled versions are included in the download.
The Build a Wardrobe project is comprised of four new DIY Garments that will be used as the basis for creating a hand-sewn wardrobe over the course of the coming year. Launching with our beloved Maggie Dress pattern, makers can work together to create wardrobe staples or follow along globally on social media with the hashtags #buildawardrobe2016 and #theschoolofmaking.
As we move through 2016, we will combine techniques, colorways, and stencils from our two previous Swatch of the Month bundles with our Build a Wardrobe garments. Look for embellished variations of the Maggie Dress in the coming months.
The format of Build a Wardrobe is similar to that of Swatch of the Month. Participants will subscribe for a year’s worth of content that will be executed with guidelines presented in our Alabama Studio Book Series and specifically Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns. Each quarter, subscribers will receive an exclusive new printed pattern, instructions, and enough fabric to make basic garments in the colors of your choice (thread, notions, and digital pattern versions also included).
In addition, each quarter, subscribers will also have exclusive access to order custom DIY kits for that pattern at a discounted rate. For example, when we launch the Maggie Dress pattern, subscribers receive the printed Maggie Dress pattern, the Maggie Dress PDF pattern, a bundle of fabric yardage in the color(s) of their choice, a 15mm snap, and thread to complete the garment in an unembellished version. Subscribers also have the option to order custom DIY Maggie Dress kits for an additional cost—an exclusive offer that is available through 2016. These custom DIY kits are only available to Build a Wardrobe subscribers.
Each of our Studio Books provides a variety of stencil artwork—which means you have permission to reproduce them for home use and on your projects. We now offer these stencil designs—along with many of our all-time favorites—for purchase as downloadable PDFs in our newly formatted stencil design format which includes: a tiled version to print on letter- or A4-sized paper that you can piece together more easily at home, a full-scale PDF file that you can email or take to the local copy shop to print full-scale on a wide format printer, instructions for creating a stencil, and stencil transfer instructions. Find more information on how to print a garment or textile pattern here.
P.S.: We ask that you respect our policies and use our patterns for personal projects, as they are designed for individual use and not intended for commercial ventures or reproducing and distributing.
Follow along on social media and on our Journal with the hashtags:
In March of 2015, The School of Making launched a partnership with Nest—a non-profit that joins together with artisans across the world to bring about positive social impact through sustainable development. Nest works specifically with artisans because they are often community-based businesses or organizations; they collaborate with those artisans to provide tools, training, infrastructure, and other resources that champion artisans themselves as the makers of change. When artisans are empowered in this way, entire communities are better able to tackle global issues like poverty, preservation of craft and local tradition, and advancement of women (who are often both artisan and primary household caregiver).
Nest’s 2015 impact was felt strongly by artisans across the globe. Nest grew from serving just more than 1,500 artisans in 2014 to serving 5,646 artisans in 2015. Nest’s work is reaching more than 100,000 people, including not only artisans but also their families and members of their extended communities. For every artisan employed, 20 or more people are impacted through the ripple effect.
Our collaborative partnership with Nest finds voice through our educational arm, The School of Making, with a long-term goal of reversing some of the manufacturing outsourcing that has affected our local economy over the last two decades. Together, we are expanding Alabama Chanin’s Building 14 machine-manufacturing division with a plan to create educational programs and up-to-date training on modern textile manufacturing methods. This initiative provides further foundation for Florence, Alabama, and the greater Shoals community to continue growing in the global textile industry.
Alabama Chanin and our Building 14 Design + Manufacturing division are incredibly grateful for the donations we have received this year. When we consider the scope of our long-term goals, it gives us comfort and hope, knowing that Nest—and all of you—are standing alongside us as we grow. We know that during the holiday season, many of you “give” as a gift to others. We also hope that you will consider giving to Nest and to our Building 14 initiative to help us grow and create viable options for our region’s economic future.
To read more about the incredible initiatives Nest is guiding and to donate, please visit the Nest website.
Just over a year ago we launched our line of Alabama Chanin candles. Since then, they have become one of our most popular gift items. We worked diligently to find the right collaborator for this project and are lucky to have found DPM Fragrance, a regionally-owned business in Starkville, Mississippi.
The company, once named Aspen Bay Candles, was purchased by its current owner Tom Reed in 2001. Since then, Reed has added Capri Blue and Found Goods Market collections to the Aspen Bay brand and renamed the company DPM Fragrance. Each product line has a different aesthetic with distinctive scents, packaging, and branding.
DPM shares many of the same goals, like local production, as Alabama Chanin—and their success at impacting the local economy is impressive. When it began, DPM employed about 15 people; today, it employs over 150—with a plan to expand and hire over 100 more in the works. The company was listed for the past three years as one of Inc. Magazine’s 5,000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America. (In order to qualify for the list, you have to sustain 100% growth rate over a three-year time period, meaning that DPM has met that criteria for at least 5 years in a row.)
Like Alabama Chanin, DPM also works to source as many of their materials as possible in the United States. They use American-made wax and fragrance oils and utilize American-made glass whenever they can. The company produces with an eye towards increased sustainability, using all-natural soy wax blends, natural wicks, and recycled materials for their glass and packaging whenever possible.
We have witnessed the effect that employee investment has in our own successes and DPM sees the same kind of impact. They collaborate on the best processes for production with their employees, who are thoughtful and detail oriented in their work. Each of the candles is wicked by hand, poured by hand, labeled by hand, and carefully packed by hand. Some of their production employees have worked at the company for over a decade (and some for almost 2 decades).
As part of their company bio, DPM notes: Though it is not always easy, our team stands behind the established principles of the handmade product, where craftsmen with years of candle making experience bring our visions to life. Every candle we produce is created to make a lasting impression – each having been thoughtfully designed, delicately poured, and proudly packaged in our home of Starkville, Mississippi.
Last year, the company produced over 1.8 million candles that were sold in stores like Urban Outfitters, Crate and Barrel, Nordstrom, West Elm, and Anthropologie—where their Volcano scent has become known as the boutique’s signature fragrance. We burn our Alabama Chanin Grapefruit + Watercress scented candles both at home and at The Factory year round, since the scent is light and fresh—and appropriate for any season. It makes a wonderful gift as, once you burn your candle, you can repurpose the glassware as a drinking vessel or for dozens of other purposes. It’s like two gifts in one.
In October, when Martha Stewart American Made announced the winners of their 2015 American Made Awards, we were thrilled to see a familiar face among the 10 honorees—our sock making collaborator, Little River Sock Mill. The American Made awards were developed a few years ago as a way to spotlight and support creative entrepreneurs and innovative small businesses—and we can attest that Little River is just that.
We first began working with Little River Sock Mill (and their Zkano line of socks) about 2 and a half years ago and launched an official line with them in early 2014. They also knit the socks that we made from our Alabama Cotton Project yield. Little River is based out of Fort Payne, Alabama, whose story of once being the “Sock Capital of the World” until labor was outsourced, felt so similar to our own community’s struggle with the loss of manufacturing jobs. Gina Locklear’s family opened a knitting mill in the early 90s, when Gina was about 12. By 2000, over half of the country’s socks (and 1 in 8 socks globally) were being made in Fort Payne. Of the town’s 13,000 residents, approximately 8,000 worked in the sock and hosiery mills. But, by 2010, that number had dwindled to about 600 people; of the over 300 mills that once operated, only 7 are still in existence.
When Gina graduated from college and made the decision to continue her family’s path in the sock making business, she named her business after the nearby Little River Canyon—in order to emphasize that the company is local, from the ground up. She also wanted to focus on organic materials, so each line is sustainably made in small batches with certified organic cotton and low-impact dyed yarn. Little River remains a family business, with their close-knit family and staff managing every step of the production process, from design to sourcing materials, to product packaging.
When asked by Martha Steward American Made: What does American Made mean to you, Gina responded:
“If I had been asked this question in 1991, I would have thought of my parents and said that American Made means the American dream. As a kid, I remember watching Mom and Dad work in the mill and make socks themselves with only one or two other employees. In the beginning, my dad would stay at the mill making socks until midnight, and then start again around 5:30 a.m. the next day. They did this because they knew if they worked hard, it would pay off and one day become a successful business. Today, when I think about our business and how things have changed for us since manufacturing shifted overseas in the early 2000s, American Made makes me think of perseverance and the hope that, one day soon, being made in America will be as important to all Americans as it is to us.”
Over the past two years, The School of Making has evolved into a community of creators who experiment together with a diverse range of sewing, stitching, and embroidery techniques, design concepts, dyeing methods, and a widening array of practical skills. Through our Swatch of the Month and our Host a Party programs, we’ve watched our community of makers grow in leaps-and-bounds. This year we expand our hand-sewing programming with Build a Wardrobe—moving from the fabric embellishment and embroidery techniques we developed through Swatch of the Month into garment fit and construction. Designed for use with our Alabama Studio Book Series, we’ll be featuring variations of new garment patterns throughout the year on our Journal. As we move through 2016, we will combine techniques, colorways, and stencils from our two previous Swatch of the Month bundles with our Build a Wardrobe garments.
Build a Wardrobe is comprised of four new DIY Garments that will be used as the basis for creating a hand-sewn wardrobe. Launching with our beloved Maggie Dress pattern in January, makers can work together to create wardrobe staples or follow along globally on social media with the hashtags #buildawardrobe2016 and #theschoolofmaking.
The format of Build a Wardrobe is similar to that of Swatch of the Month. Participants will subscribe for a year’s worth of content that will be executed with guidelines presented in our Alabama Studio Book Series and specifically Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns. Each quarter, subscribers will receive an exclusive new printed pattern, instructions, and enough fabric to make basic garments in the colors of your choice (thread, notions, and digital pattern versions also included).
In addition, each quarter, subscribers will also have exclusive access to order custom DIY kits for that pattern at a discounted rate. For example, when we launch the Maggie Dress pattern, you will receive your bundle of fabric yardage, thread, and pattern that you will use to customize your garment. You will also have the option to order custom DIY Maggie Dress kits for an additional cost—an offer you can take advantage of at any time in the year. These custom DIY kits are only available to Build a Wardrobe subscribers.
When you order Build a Wardrobe you will receive:
Digital inspiration and information packet of garment and treatment ideas for your wardrobe
Digital link to a form where you will choose your fabric and thread colors for the year
Discount coupon for 25% off stenciling supplies (for those who want to stencil their garments)
Subscription to an exclusive monthly Build a Wardrobe newsletter
In January—the first quarter—you will receive:
Maggie Dress Pattern in both printed and digital format. This pattern provides 3 length variations (top, tunic, and dress) and all necessary instructions
6 yards of 100% Organic Medium-weight Cotton Jersey in two colors (3 yards each color)—enough to complete one double-layer 45” dress or two single-layer 45” dresses or any variation of your choice
2 spools of thread in the color of your choice
1 15mm snap
Exclusive digital link to a Custom DIY form that gives you the option to purchase DIY Kits for the Maggie Dress—cut and stenciled to your specifications
In April—the second quarter—you will receive:
Alabama Sweater Top Pattern in both printed and digital format. This pattern provides 3 length variations for the garment body (crop top, top, and tunic) with 4 variations for sleeve lengths and all necessary instructions.
2 yards of our 100% Organic Medium-weight Cotton Jersey in one color—enough to complete a single-layer 31” tunic with long sleeves (or any variation of your choice)
1 spool of thread in the color of your choice
Exclusive digital link to a Custom DIY form that gives you the option to purchase DIY Kits for the Maggie Dress and the Alabama Sweater Top—cut and stenciled to your specifications
In July—the third quarter—you will receive:
Walking Cape Pattern in both printed and digital format. This pattern provides 3 pocket variations (Walking Cape pocket, patch, and 5-side).
4 yards of our 100% Organic Medium-weight Cotton Jersey in two colors (2 yards of each color) for completing a double-layer walking cape
1 spool of thread in the color of your choice
1 32mm snap
Exclusive digital link to a Custom DIY form that gives you the option to purchase DIY Kits for the Maggie Dress, the Alabama Sweater Top, and the Walking Cape—cut and stenciled to your specifications
In October—the fourth quarter—you will receive:
Full Wrap Skirt Pattern in both printed and digital format. This pattern provides 3 variations (Full Wrap Skirt, Half-Skirt, and Pull-on Skirt) in three different lengths: 21”, 24” and 26”, with all necessary instructions.
4 yards of 100% Organic Medium-weight Cotton Jersey in two colors (2 yards each color)—enough to complete one double-layer 26” Full Wrap Skirt or two single-layer 26” Full Wrap Skirts or any variation of your choice
1 spool of thread in the color of your choice
Exclusive digital link to a Custom DIY form giving you the option to purchase DIY Kits for all of the 2016 Build a Wardrobe patterns—cut and stenciled to your specifications
Just as with our Swatch of the Month subscription, anyone can join at any point in the year. By purchasing the materials through Build a Wardrobe, you will automatically receive approximately a 25% discount off the total retail value of the materials, plus the printed pattern, special inspiration packet, and notions to complete your garments. Free domestic ground shipping. International orders may incur extra shipping fees.
Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns can be used as a guide for altering patterns and perfecting individual fit. The rest of our Studio Book Series provides excellent resources for embellishing these four basic garments to create one-of-a-kind wardrobe essentials.
As with most of our patterns, each of these new styles are created with multiple length variations—allowing each person to choose the length that fits their personal figure best.
All patterns in our Build a Wardrobe program will also be available for individual purchase in digital format from our website for $18 per pattern, each quarter as the new patterns are released. The Maggie Dress Pattern will be available beginning in January. Note that all garment patterns are intended for use in combination with our Alabama Studio Book Series.
If you make a basic of each variation of every pattern offered through Build a Wardrobe, you can end the year with 30 hand-sewn garments—a sturdy foundation to your own handmade wardrobe. Pattern possibilities, by the numbers:
Lindsay Whiteaker and Pete Halupka – Harvest, Alabama natives and who met in the 5th grade – launched Harvest Roots Farm and Ferment in 2011 with less than $1,000. What was then a small, organic vegetable farm has grown into a full-scale “fermentory” – focusing on producing wild, fermented food and beverages. Lindsay and Pete found that their produce customers were increasingly interested in their small line of fermented goods and ultimately switched their focus from farming to full-time fermentation. They forage and glean – and also process vegetables from local farms, then mix everything together in their Mentone, Alabama, kitchen.
In this context, fermentation refers to the low energy chemical conversion of carbohydrates into alcohol and carbon dioxide or organic acid—using yeast, bacteria, or both. Beers, ciders, kombucha, and other naturally effervescent drinks are the result of fermentation. The process of fermentation also leavens bread, as carbon dioxide is produced by active yeast. It can also be a method of preserving goods—resulting in delicious foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt. Harvest Roots uses wild yeast in its fermentation and preservation techniques to create distinct flavors in foods that may also have medicinal benefits.
For many Americans, “Black Friday” (the name given to the Friday after Thanksgiving) marks the beginning of the holiday season. It’s a day largely associated with fanatical shopping and savings. While some people dread the thought of Black Friday shopping, many get excited—even camping out at stores the night before to get the best deals. A lot of people scoff at Black Friday, but others have made it part of their family’s holiday traditions. How, exactly, did it begin? Truthfully, the day we now call Black Friday began as a car crash—or, really, a string of them.
Back in the 1950s, Philadelphia police officers created the term in reference to the number of traffic accidents caused by extra shopping traffic on the weekend after Thanksgiving. In fact, the two days after Thanksgiving were called Black Friday and Black Saturday by the traffic cops in the City of Brotherly Love, where the annual Army/Navy football game was played on that Saturday afternoon. The shopping traffic, in combination with the influx of people arriving for the football game, meant a decidedly unpleasant amount of roadway chaos and overtime for the officers; reportedly the police force even called in the police band to direct traffic. According to CNN, “It was a double-whammy. Traffic cops were required to work 12-hour shifts, no one could take off, and people would flood the sidewalks, parking lots, and streets.” City merchants adopted the term to describe the long lines of shoppers at their stores—and it became sort-of an inside joke for the people of Philly.
Many believe that Black Friday is named in reference to business profit; in other words, it’s the day that sales revenues move from being “in the red” to “in the black”, in accounting terms. But this usage only began in the early 1980s, once Black Friday had been embraced by retailers as an official shopping event. Stores are known to offer incredible bargains and many have begun opening in the wee hours of the morning. Recently, the trend among more aggressive retailers has been to open at midnight—or even stay open all night from Thursday evening.
Truthfully, there has been a bit of a Black Friday backlash in the last few years, particularly directed toward more aggressive retailers who demand much of their employees over the holiday weekend. While most companies cannot afford to close on such a big shopping day, outdoor equipment retailer REI plans to close all stores (and even its website) on Black Friday this year. Our store at The Factory will be open, but for reasonable hours from 10:00am – 5:00pm on Friday—and from 10:00am – 3:00pm for Small Business Saturday. And in an effort to reflect our genuine love for the holiday season, the café will also be open to promote gathering and fellowship. We want shoppers to visit with us, to slow down and enjoy the day—and to celebrate the beginning of a season filled with camaraderie, good food and drink, and real meaning.
We will be offering savings online and in-store for Black Friday and over the weekend. The truth is that, as a small business, we depend on the income that Black Friday and other holiday sales bring. It keeps our lights on; it helps us pay our employees; it helps us continue to design and produce great, long-lasting products. If you spend your money with us, you are supporting a growing community of makers. Your purchases provide work for our artisans and our team of employees. You are making a difference, and we appreciate every customer and every single purchase.
In his last cookbook, A New Turn in the South, Hugh Acheson won us over with his focus on community, sustainability, and organic products. We so agree with his “Message About Community” in that book that we refer to it often in conversations about our own work and how to set standards for what is important in our work:
“My mantra is this: local first, sustainable second, organic third. Local has impact and impact produces change. Change is the process of making the farming sustainable, and once sustainable, the next step is certified organically grown.
The demand for immediate and complete change by some food advocates is one that just is not feasible for most farmers and one that the average consumer cannot yet afford. Small steps will win this race and those first small steps are about your local sphere. The small steps that you take as a consumer are multifold: Shop at your farmer’s market, buy local crafts and art, frequent local independent restaurants, buy locally roasted coffee, buy native plants, learn how to garden, don’t eat overly processed foods, know the person who raises your eggs. This has nothing to do with a political stance and everything to do with a community stance. I am not a fanatic, just a believer. I believe in the place we live and in finding ways to make it great every day. I am endlessly enamored of my local sphere, my community.”
The Broad Fork maintains Acheson’s relatable tone with the same goal of making good food unintimidating. The idea for this most recent cookbook was hatched at a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce pickup, when a neighbor stopped Hugh for advice on how to use some of the lesser-known vegetables in that month’s box. Or, as Hugh remembers it, “What the hell do I do with kohlrabi?”
If, like us, you’ve ever subscribed to a CSA you know that your box of produce can be filled with surprising, unfamiliar, or an overabundance of one or more vegetables. Some days you get a sort-of veggie anxiety, thinking: what is the best way to use celery root? Or how am I ever going to eat all of this squash? This cookbook is perfectly aligned for those committed to using fresh produce, whether from a CSA, a local farmer’s market, or the grocery store. There are (seriously) about 200 recipes included focusing on around 50 ingredients, broken down by season and by vegetable—which helps you assess your vegetable haul and make a plan for the week’s meals. This cookbook is nothing if not comprehensible and relatable.
Just as she did with A New Turn in the South, Rinne blends her style with Acheson’s, using his handwriting in the photographs and design to make the book feel more handmade and relatable. Most of the recipes are accompanied by her stunning full-color photographs that make us want to head to the farmer’s market ASAP.
As many of you know, artist and photographer Rinne Allen has been a friend and collaborator for years. In our recent profile of Rinne, we told a little of her personal story and highlighted her incredible light drawings. In addition to her work with chef Hugh Acheson, magazines like Selvedge, and her own site Beauty Everyday (shared with Kristen Bach and Rebecca Wood), she has also worked with Alabama Chanin as a photographer for our Alabama Studio Book Series, our collections, our website, and our Journal.
The design world is filled with innovators making products that can impact the human experience for good or for ill. The idea of designing and making with positive, spirited intention is growing far beyond its early influencers like Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio or the now defunct Architecture for Humanity—inspired by Mockbee’s project. Today, AIGA—one of the oldest and largest professional design organizations—has an entire program dedicated to Design for Good. Design leader John Bielenberg created the innovative and influential Project M that is always generating creative solutions to real design challenges. (See Project M’s Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama, for an example.)
One of our earliest “social” collaborations was with an organization called Goods of Conscience, whom we worked with on some of our first indigo dyeing experiments. This was quite a few years ago, when design and social change were words that weren’t often used together. It was one of the early examples in the textile industry we encountered that proved the two ideas could exist together and elevate one another.
All design has social impact, but good design focuses on people as fundamental to the products they make. Designers have a remarkable ability to influence how we communicate and with whom, what we think about, what is relevant, and how social and economic power balances might be restructured. When designing for the good, effective ideas, methods, and products can better a society and humanity. Nest, the non-profit organization we’ve partnered with through The School of Making, has fostered successful initiatives by building deep relationships with the global makers with whom they partner—collaboratively building sustainable solutions to the greatest needs within communities where artisan craft stands to create positive, long-lasting change.
Early on in the life of Alabama Chanin, Natalie had the opportunity to visit the Ventura, California offices of Patagonia. That visit, along with a copy of founder Yvon Chouinard’s manifesto, Let My People Go Surfing, opened all of our eyes to the fact that it is possible to create a healthy workplace, make products responsibly, produce things that are meant to last, and still stay in business. (Or, at any rate, that is certainly our goal…) Patagonia’s The Footprint Chronicles shows the origins of Patagonia products and materials. Their supply chain is completely transparent, and directly inspired Alabama Chanin to document and publish our own supply chain.
Another Patagonia program that we’ve loved is Worn Wear, which documents stories of garments used, reused, repaired, and recycled. (You can read stories of individuals and their garments at the Worn Wear blog.) The Worn Wear program helps garment owners maintain their gear for as long as possible through product care and repair services. It also provides an easy way to recycle Patagonia garments that are beyond repair.
As the Patagonia team puts it, the biggest step we can take to reduce our impact is to do more with what we have. Repeated laundering, ironing, and drying can shorten a garment’s life, just as much as wearing them—so they offer tips for cleaning and care to extend the garment’s life cycle. But, if a garment gets excessively worn, Patagonia urges owners not to toss it, but instead repair it—or send it to them for repair. You can find easy-to-read repair guides on their website. Or, you can ship an item back to Patagonia to be repaired. The company employs 45 full-time repair technicians at their service center in Reno, Nevada. It’s the largest repair facility in North America—completing about 30,000 repairs per year.
Garments that are not salvageable can be returned to Patagonia (postage paid) to be recycled into new fiber, or repurposed. Since 2005, they have taken back over 82 tons of clothing for recycling. Our collaboration with Patagonia used just these cast-offs to create scarves from repurposed material.
Patagonia’s Worn Wear Repair Truck is currently on its fall tour (and upcoming stops can be tracked here). The truck and the Patagonia repair crew will be at The Factory for a special two-day event. On Friday, September 18 from 9:00am – 5:00pm and Saturday, September 19 from 10:00am – 4:00pm, we invite you to bring your well worn, well loved garments—of any brand—to be repaired for free by the Patagonia team. As they say, “If it’s broke, we fix it.”
We will offer regular lunch service at The Factory Café on Friday and a brunch taco stand with other sweet and savory items on Saturday. Alabama Chanin’s School of Making will sponsor a DIY mending station with thread and cotton jersey fabric scraps. Patagonia will also have DIY garments that if you can fix, you can take them home.
According to Wikipedia, supply chain is defined as “a system of organizations, people, activities, information, and resources involved in moving a product or service from supplier to customer.” At Alabama Chanin we strive to responsibly produce quality, sustainable products—at every level of the supply chain. We believe that responsibility means transparency and understanding where each material comes from and whose hands it touches before it arrives to the end consumer. For over a decade, we have worked tirelessly to secure a supply chain that is, as much as is humanly possible, Made in the USA.
With events like the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, consumers are asking questions about how and where their clothes are made. We’ve noticed an increase in emails, phone calls, and questions about our 100% organic cotton jersey fabric—and we welcome those questions. In response, we have compiled all the information here. Each time we take a closer look into our supply chain, we discover something new. This is the projected course of our supply chain in the best case scenario, which is often altered by Mother Nature. Unfortunately, there are always circumstances out of our control, so we share this information with that in mind. As of 2016, this is every step of the supply chain for our medium-weight cotton jersey—from Texas, to the Carolinas, to Alabama.
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
Owner: Natalie Chanin
I first heard of Jones Valley Teaching Farm around 2003. The farm was still a small plot of land located close to The Garage, in Birmingham, Alabama. I drove down one cold winter day to have lunch with (then director) Edwin Marty. There was one hoop house, and running water, and not much else—yet. It was ambitious, and it felt like the beginning of something special.
Later, I heard much more from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q co-founder Nick Pihakis and chef Drew Robinson. Those two so fully believe in the farm’s mission and methods that they back up their beliefs with fundraisers and hands-on support. I am also convinced that the organization can make real difference in the community.
Since my first visit in 2003, Jones Valley Teaching Farm has grown and moved to downtown Birmingham. Since 2007, the organization has expanded their farm and their scope with a focus on educating students, visitors, and community gardeners on how to grow real, healthy food. Today, the farm is a hub of downtown green. The farmers on site use both established sustainable and experimental practices, with the goal of developing a flourishing ecosystem in the heart of a bustling city. They currently grow over 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers and offer their produce for sale on-site and at local farmers’ markets—generating over $45,000 in sales in 2014 alone.
The process of canning and preserving is just one of the “living arts” that we are thrilled to see making a comeback. This year at The Factory Café, we have set ourselves the goal to “put-up” as much of the bounty of summer as we possibly can. (Not to mention my plans for my own backyard.) Our kitchen staff is constantly searching for ways to further source organic and local ingredients. Part of that solution means growing herbs, tomatoes, and other vegetables on-site; canning as much locally grown produce is another.
Last summer we made my Gram Perkins’ recipe for 14-Day Pickles for our café Egg Salad and, unfortunately, ran out of pickles by November. This coming summer we plan to, well, make better plans.
We are starting with the canning calendar below to save our harvest at its peak and preserve only the freshest garden fare. (Please note, the calendar below is tailored for the Southeastern U.S., but you can look for more specific information on your region or zone on The Old Farmer’s Almanac website.)
Being intimate with the obstacles of implementing Slow Design, we are inspired by how the Slow Food movement has successfully encouraged us to pay attention to the food we eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced. And, it’s beautiful—and even more inspiring—how the conversation has quickly moved beyond the concepts of sustainable farming and organic produce to sustainable livestock farming and animal husbandry. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures has been a leader in the crusade to raise livestock using traditional, multi-species grazing rotation, with no hormones and antibiotics since the mid-1990s.
It’s been said that it is not necessary to be a “pig” in order to raise one. These days, our friends at the Fatback Pig Project are proving just that by producing sustainable pork right here in the state of Alabama. This initiative, initially formed as a collaboration among Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q co-founder Nick Pihakis, chef Donald Link, John Michael Bodnar, and Mike Bodnar, is working to create a network of Fatback Farms—farms that produce heritage breeds of pigs.
In March of this year, we unexpectedly received an email with the subject line, “Asante Sana (Thank You) from Kenya!” It was sent by a woman named Nirvana, who is part of a team working to empower rural Kenyans with life and entrepreneurial skills. It seems that their goal is to inspire people to challenge the current social and cultural systems that tend to keep rural Kenyans impoverished. Read part of Nirvana’s first email to us:
Dear Alabama Chanin,
You inspired 39 rural Kenyan women and men to start a tailoring class to learn hand sewing! They thought they had to have a sewing machine to learn tailoring. They also thought only poor people sewed by hand!
My American team and I are living in rural Kenya to teach Kenyans how to move beyond survival entrepreneurship. When so many community members said they wanted a tailoring class, I had to get creative. I knew there had to be a way to empower these youth without having to buy or find at least 20 sewing machines. So I Googled “hand sewing.” Of course, that led me to Natalie and Alabama Chanin!
You’ve probably heard of “farm to table,” but how about “field to garment”? In Alabama, acclaimed fashion houses Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid have a new line of organic cotton clothing made from their own cotton field.
It’s not just an experiment in keeping production local; it’s an attempt to revive the long tradition of apparel-making in the Deep South. North Alabama was once a hub for textile manufacturing, with readily available cotton and access to cheap labor. But the industry all but disappeared after NAFTA became law, as operations moved overseas.
Now, Sue Hanback is again working a sewing machine in a cavernous building that was once part of the biggest cut-and-sew operation in Florence, Ala.
“I’m gonna five-thread this shirt,” she explains, stitching cuffs onto an organic-cotton sweatshirt.
Hanback was last laid off in 2006 when this was a T-shirt factory. Her husband worked in the dye house. She’s been a seamstress all her life.
“Ever since I was 18 years old,” Hanback says. “So that was like, 48 years.”
Previously, I shared the story of my first encounter with Jill Dumain of Patagonia. Meeting Jill and hearing her speak not only opened my eyes to the good work that company was going; it opened my eyes to what is possible. Years of conversation finally resulted in a collaboration between Alabama Chanin and Patagonia, as part of their Truth to Materials initiative. By repurposing garments that have reached the end of their lives into new products—Reclaimed Down Scarves—we create a new product, with a life cycle of its own. We recently had the chance to speak with Jill Dumain about this project and about Patagonia as a company, and she generously took the time to answer some questions.
AC: Your title at Patagonia is Director of Environmental Analysis. That sounds like a pretty expansive area of oversight. How would you describe your primary responsibilities? What issues that you address are nearest to your heart?
Jill Dumain: Yes, it is certainly an expansive area, and that can be a little daunting at times. I think what also makes it especially daunting is that people look to Patagonia to see what we’ll do next. It’s a challenge and an opportunity to meet that expectation. I, personally, look at what we do from a business standpoint and examine how we can be doing better from an environmental perspective. It runs the gamut from evaluating new carpet to bioswale installations to new products to communication on our website. But for me, it’s really about how I do my job and empower people at the same time. I look for the projects that “teach people to fish” versus just giving people fish. It’s thrilling when I’m able to encourage my colleagues and get them excited about bringing environmental work into their lives. It’s good for the company. It spreads knowledge throughout the ranks and gets the greater Patagonia family involved in the process, not just my team. And they’ve really become experts in their areas. We recently switched our catalogue to be printed on 100% recycled content, and that decision came from within our creative department. It’s a huge win to see it work that way!
Eight years ago, and three months after Maggie was born, I stood in the wings on a stage in New York City, waiting to go on and tell the story of Alabama Chanin. I was nervous and jittery, waiting my turn while a woman named Jill Dumain talked about the sustainability work of the company she had worked with for over a decade. It was an unexpected life-changing moment. Instead of thinking and preparing for my own talk, I got carried away by the story of Patagonia and their mission. I had always been a fan, but that day I became a devotee.
My own talk on that massive stage paled in comparison to the sharp wit and factual detail that Jill Dumain offered—the same determination that she brings daily to the job she loves. Jill and I became friends over the course of that weekend, and we stayed in touch over the following years. Two years ago, she emailed me about the possibility of collaborating on a project using Patagonia down jackets that had reached their end-of-life. The “dogs” she called them: jackets that really couldn’t be recycled as usable garments. They were garments with beautiful stories, jackets that may have been down and/or up mountains, weathered many a winter with their wearer, and come to a final resting place in a warehouse. You see, Patagonia takes responsibility for every garment they make—from design to discard method, they are involved.
Any garment you purchase from Patagonia can be returned to Patagonia—at the beginning of its life or at the end of its life. Over the years, the company goal is to extend the life of a garment through good design and great materials, as detailed in their Worn Wear stories. At the same time, Patagonia has implemented buy-back programs for used garments in good condition and have offered initiatives that repair garments, extending their lives beyond one user. Their Truth to Materials initiative is the culmination of this work towards circular design and manufacturing. The ultimate goal is for every product to reflect sustainability from the beginning of life as a raw material, through design, manufacturing, active life, and end-of-life processes. Garments that have reached the end of their lives become an active part of the environment through composting or upcycling into a new form, like our reclaimed down scarves.
Passion. It takes passion to make a difference. When you truly want something, you find a way to make it happen, naysayers be damned. In the moments when it seems your project is doomed for failure, you carry on. You learn to ask for help and to count your blessings. Our organic Alabama cotton is a story of passion.
Our company is built on the concepts of sustainability, ethical production, and using American-made and local resources. Organic materials are an integral part of our mission and our goals. Though sourcing organic materials is easier than when we began working over a decade ago, it is still difficult to obtain American-made organic materials in the quantity that we require.
I have done a bit of traveling and it has been my lifelong habit to observe local fashion trends – what crosses regional boundaries or doesn’t, what I predict will be a passing fad, and what has become a mainstay. In the last couple of years, it has become evident that tweed is reappearing in a big way all across the globe. Years ago, it was considered by many to be an old man’s fabric, representative of a stuffy, moneyed culture. It is refreshing to see that contemporary designers and connoisseurs have adopted tweed and added modern styling touches. Tweed is timeless. And today, certain varieties of tweed are still hand woven by individual artisans in their own homes; a skill that is reminiscent of our own artisans.
Tweed was first crafted in Scotland and Ireland in the 1700s; a coarse cloth woven from virgin wool, it is naturally wind and water resistant and well suited for the local farmers working in damp, cold climates. In fact, surplus cloth was often traded among farmers and workmen – becoming a form of currency in the Scottish Isles; it was not uncommon for islanders to pay rent in tweed blankets or bolts of cloth. There are a remarkable number of types and classifications of tweed. There are clan tartan tweeds, which are used to identify members of a specific family, and estate tweeds, which were used to denote people who lived and worked on an individual estate. Some tweeds are named for the type of sheep who produced their wool (like Cheviot or Shetland); others denote their region of origin (Donegal or Saxony). There are also brand names of tweed – such as Pendleton Woolen Mills and Harris Tweed (the latter being one of the most well-known).
About four years ago (to my dismay), Diane Hall, our head seamstress and studio directress, turned in her five-year notice. However, as her retirement grows closer, it has become evident to all of us at the studio that we will continue to see her around The Factory after her “official” retirement.
Diane has developed a passion for natural dyeing—in addition to sewing, pattern making, etc. She first encountered natural dyeing with indigo during our workshop at Shakerag in 2012. Her experience there with the renowned dyer Michel Garcia left a lasting impression. Last summer, while our entire company was writing a 10-year vision, Diane wrote that she envisioned a natural dye house here at The Factory and volunteered herself as the head dye master after her retirement.
After that simple act of writing our vision, the dye house miraculously began to take shape.
Two weeks ago, our team left New York feeling excited and energized—and with the conversation at The Standard the night before fresh on our minds. This was the third annual Makeshift, held in New York each spring during Design Week. Over the years the conversation has shifted—but our goal of learning how certain themes cross industries (and how they learn from each other and work together) stays the same.
Makeshift began as a conversation about the intersection of the disciplines of design, craft, art, fashion, and DIY—and, on a bigger level, using this intersection as an agent of change in the world. Since then, we’ve explored making as individuals, and how making as a group can open conversations, build communities, and help us co-design a future that is filled with love and promise—for planet, community, and one another.
Sass Brown’s ReFashioned: Cutting Edge Clothing From Upcycled Materials, is the second in a series focusing on the eco-fashion movement. Previously, in Eco Fashion, she examined designers and labels (including Alabama Chanin) practicing sustainability in the fashion industry. In ReFashioned, she features 46 international designers who create using recycled and upcycled textiles. The result is a stunning volume of forward-thinking design that also opens a discussion on the current state of fashion and its many wasteful practices.
Sass is one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful voices in the eco-fashion movement. She considers herself a fashion activist, writing, “As a designer and writer, I like to tell the stories around our clothes, to help revive our material connection to our clothing.” She says, “It became equally important for me to reveal the hidden price tag of fast fashion, as a means to promote conscious consumerism.”
“Don’t throw anything away. Away is not far from you.”
The quote above hangs in our studio as a reminder that each action we take (no matter how big or small) impacts our environment. Designed by our friend Robert Rausch a few years ago, the simple quote was stamped on an event invite as a means to provoke thought about what people use and, consequently, throw away each day. At Alabama Chanin, we are taking strides to become a zero waste company—where the results of one production process become the fuel for another. It is our continuing goal to maintain a well-rounded, (w)holistic company that revolves around a central theme: sustainability of culture, environment, and community.
Not only do we reuse and recycle each scrap of fabric, but we also participate in other sustainable and environmental practices on a daily basis. We recycle paper and cardboard, collect and save glass in the café, compost all food waste, repurpose scrap paper, plant trees, and are even starting a garden at The Factory. Waste not, want not.
Those of you who have followed Alabama Chanin for years know that this company was built around the concepts of expert craftsmanship, beauty, function, and utility. Focusing on using sustainable, organic, and local materials and labor, we have committed ourselves to producing quality products made in the USA.
As we grew, the company developed a life of its own that emerged as a multi-fold organization—while staying true to the original mission and business model. We encouraged organic growth, without forcing ourselves to fit into a traditional mold. We recently began referring to what has emerged as the “Alabama Chanin Family of Businesses”—a heartfelt nod to the Zingerman’s approach and their Community of Businesses. Each of our divisions has individual specialties, yet all fall under the same mission established for Alabama Chanin. Our philosophy guides each arm and we all work together toward the same goal: creating beautiful products in sustainable ways that enrich our customers, community, and co-workers.
From our mission statement:
At Alabama Chanin, we preserve traditions of community, design, producing, and living arts by examining work and life through the act of storytelling, photography, education, and making.
Thoughtful design. Responsible production. Good business. Quality that lasts.
A guide to our growing family of businesses:
Alabama Chanin—the heart and head of our family of businesses—began early in 2000 with the creation of hand-sewn garments made from cotton jersey fabric—and retains the same intention and integrity today. Heirloom pieces are made from 100% organic cotton, sewn by hand through a group of talented artisans who each run their own business, in their own time, and in their own way. The company strives to maintain sustainable practices—across its disciplines—and create sustainable products, holding ourselves to the highest standards for quality. Continue reading →
In the book Eco Fashion, our friend Sass Brown celebrates and examines designers and labels practicing sustainability in the fashion industry, including Alabama Chanin (you might have recognized our hand-sewn garment featured on the cover).
Sass offers several definitions for eco fashion—from slow design and traditional techniques to recycled, reused, and redesigned methods—and explores ecological design and the connection between green lifestyle choices and successful business models.
At Alabama Chanin, we believe in living and creating a sustainable life—contributing in every way we can to the Slow Design movement, growing and reusing existing cotton, whenever possible. In our continuing efforts to become a better company and commit to ecological sustainability, Alabama Chanin ships UPS packages using carbon neutral shipping.
Carbon neutral means that a person or a company reduces carbon dioxide emissions to counter balance emissions made elsewhere. In the case of our shipping method, UPS calculates the carbon impact each transported Alabama Chanin package has on the environment. Then, on behalf of Alabama Chanin, UPS purchases a carbon offset for an emission reduction project somewhere else in the world, like the Garcia River Forestry in California.
When your next order ships from our studio, know that you are supporting carbon neutral efforts, offsetting your carbon footprint, and helping us to build a sustainable environment for work and life.
It has been over three years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast and, in turn, the livelihoods of many. The Alabama seafood industry was practically devastated, but is rebounding with determination and the support of restaurateurs and loyal customers.
Alabama has 50+ miles of coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Add that to our tidal coastline of bays, creeks, bayous, and rivers that touch the tidewater and the coastline grows to 600+ miles. Because of the salty gulf water, Alabama seafood means fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters. The Alabama Gulf Seafood organization has done a great job connecting Alabama fisherman and oysterman with our state’s chefs and seafood consumers. The beautiful images here are of postcards Alabama Gulf Seafood published (and consequently inspired this post).
I recently came across this documentary about the disappearing North Carolina textile industry. I studied design and textiles at North Carolina State University (shown in the video), when the state was still known as the capital of textile production in the United States, and so this especially hit home. But what this documentary accomplishes is to dispel a myth that the industry has completely disappeared. It hasn’t. And there are existing companies that have been in business for decades, as well as new, small production entities run by entrepreneurs who are just opening their doors. It’s a full documentary-length video, about ninety minutes long, but well worth the watch.
We are pleased to welcome back friend and writer, Phillip March Jones, who we have convinced to join us as a regular contributor to this Journal. Phillip will be writing about art, visual design, music, food, and travel.
This week, Phillip shares a photo essay of (and a delicious recipe from) his new favorite restaurant, County Club, in Lexington, Kentucky. This new gathering spot is a stones-throw from Institute 193, Phillip’s gallery. Chef Johnny Shipley’s menu looks mouth-watering and County Club’s Instagram feed has me ready to jump on a plane to Lexington.
Please welcome Phillip with lots of comments below,
Turner & Guyon, a design team based in Lexington, Kentucky, recently partnered with local chef Johnny Shipley, to transform an abandoned cinder block garage into a full-service restaurant and bar named County Club. The original structure, located on Jefferson Street in the historic Smithtown neighborhood, was built in 1974 as a storage facility for the Rainbow Bread factory’s day-old shop. The factory closed in the early 90’s, and the storage building was eventually purchased by a local man who used it as a garage and auto body shop.
Hunter Guyon and Chesney Turner (Turner & Guyon) have both lived within a few blocks of the building for years, and their familiarity with the neighborhood is evident in the restaurant’s interior, which is elegant, sparse, and comforting.
Memory is one of the driving forces behind both the restaurant’s design and menu, which explores new takes on classic barbecue dishes with a special focus on regionally sourced, in-house smoked meats. County Club, which only opened a few months ago, already feels deeply rooted in the fabric of Lexington’s food and social culture.
Alabama Chanin has long looked to Patagonia, and Yvon Chouinard, as the standard for sustainable design, manufacturing, and corporate culture. The recent film “Legacy Look Book” (shown above) is a beautiful reminder of why we love this company so very much.
When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he wasn’t implying that an unexamined life is boring or holds less meaning. He said the unexamined life is not worth living. As difficult as this process may be for an individual to understand and undertake, deciding that a company should live an “examined life” only adds to the challenge. It demands a carefully plotted and specific corporate mission, along with employing people who are willing to work openly, honestly, and for the right reasons.
Yesterday, I wrote about my appreciation of hand-painted signs, inspired by the book Sign Painters, authored by friend Faythe Levinewith 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.”
At Alabama Chanin, we practice Slow Design, which focuses on producing goods in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The intent is to design clothing and home goods that are made from sustainable raw materials using environmentally sound methods, resulting in beautiful, healthy, and long-lasting products. We want to create connections with our customers and for Alabama Chanin pieces to be used and worn for many years, to be incorporated into the life of a customer.
Our business model and method of production is based on sustainable practices. Rather than purchase low cost materials and manufacture products quickly and cheaply, we opt for a Made-in-the-USA approach, using local, artisanal labor sources. To-date, Alabama Chanin items have been made entirely by hand, without any machine work.
We have written before about the rich manufacturing and textile history present in our community. The Shoals area and surrounding communities were working fabric and textile materials beginning in the late 1800’s. Those earlier years were often unkind to the mill workers and their families who worked long hours, lived in factory-owned apartments, and shopped in factory-owned stores. But, as the Industrial Revolution gave way to reform, textile manufacturing stayed in our community and flourished. Eventually, it was something that we in The Shoals were known for, as we were often called the “T-Shirt Capital of the World.”
Terry Wylie’s family founded Tee Jay’s Manufacturing Co. here in Florence in 1976, and in doing so became the foundation for a local industry. Whole families were known to work together, producing t-shirts and cotton products. Typical of our community, the company and the employees were loyal to one another. It was common for an employee to stay at Tee Jays for decades. Our Production Manager, Steven, worked for the Wylie family for years – for a time, working in the same building where Alabama Chanin is currently housed. It was this way until the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tee Jays and other local manufacturers eventually shuttered all domestic manufacturing. It was an undeniably tough hit for a community that had “worked” cotton for most of its existence. Some of those who hand stitch for us once worked in mills and lost their jobs when plants here in Alabama closed and moved to cheaper locations. This move left our building, once a thriving manufacturing center, an empty shell, as you can see from the picture above. Machines like the ones below were moved elsewhere, and the resounding hum of our once busy manufacturing community was silenced.
Here is a bit of information that may surprise you: not all cotton is white cotton. If you are like me, you may not have always known that natural cotton comes in plenty of hues. In fact, there were originally shades of cotton that ranged from many tones of brown, to dark green, to brown, black, red, and blue. These varieties of cotton were widely used by Native American peoples and, occasionally, those who were enslaved and tenant families were allowed to grow small plots of colored cotton because plantation owners considered it worthless. Colored cotton became obscure because farmers and manufacturers believed it too difficult to work with due to its short staple length, which makes the cotton problematic to spin. As a result, the varieties of colored cotton have dwindled. The Central Institute for Cotton Research in India has cultivated 6,000 varieties of cotton, only 40 of which are colored.
The white cotton we primarily see now was created by planting mono-crop, or only one variety of cotton. This type of cotton requires more pesticides than other varieties and the dyeing of this cotton is a massive cause of land and water pollution (not to mention its human impact). According to the ECO360 Trust, nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution results from textile dyeing and production methods. They have discovered at least 72 toxic chemicals that are present in our water system purely due to textile dyeing.
Popular culture, social media, and our peers are all embracing a trend in home gardening across the country (though few of these gardens are as radical as Ron Finley’s median-turned-vegetable-garden project in Los Angeles). A guest for dinner last night mentioned that “even Oprah is on trend now,” having planted her own garden. Here in North Alabama, the home garden is hardly a trend. Most people grow at least a couple of tomato and pepper plants every summer. And if you take a drive down one of our many county roads, you’re likely to see large swaths of lawn devoted to food, with neat rows of summer vegetables stretching over red blankets of Alabama clay.
I’ve had a garden since I moved into my house in 2006. Putting it in might take only a weekend, but the cultivation takes years. However, it’s the week-to-week management that becomes difficult. When temperatures reach 98 degrees in the shade (and stays there for days on end) keeping up with the insects, weeds, the harvest, and watering becomes quite the challenge. Making time becomes stealing time. This is why my generous fall garden was still in the ground in late May, every kale or broccoli plant flowered and well on its way to seed.
Cows were born to roam and graze. Hogs were born to root and wallow. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. According to Will Harris and White Oak Pastures, these are the natural behaviors of animals, making them commonsense tenets of how to raise healthy livestock. “Nature abhors a monoculture,” is one of Will’s favorite sayings.
Five generations of Harrises have farmed a tract of land in Georgia that now raises livestock using traditional, multi-species grazing rotation, no hormones and no antibiotics. But, business was not always done this way. Post WWII, the Harris family farm moved away from the traditional ways of doing things and began raising livestock using more chemicals and fertilizers and blending into the industrialized complex of food production. In the mid-90’s, Will Harris, the current head of White Oak Pastures, made what some called a foolish decision to bring the family farm full circle: moving back to the traditional ways of natural grazing, healthy animals, and respectful butchering.
There may be no more relevant time than now to talk about Slow Design, specifically Slow Fashion, as the body count in a collapsed garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh – a factory that churned out Fast Fashion for American consumers – surpasses 900.
As we prepare to travel to New York for MAKESHIFT 2013 to discuss where fashion, food, design, craft + DIY intersect and how we define and transform the intersection of fashion, food, design, craft + DIY through innovation and collaboration for the better good, we find ourselves asking why MAKESHIFT might be relevant in the wake of the Dhaka, Bangladesh tragedy.
The Slow Design movement’s roots are based on the same premise as the Slow Food movement, both historically intellectual factions often viewed as exclusive clubs. (Penelope Green wrote a great article in the New York Times on Slow Design that brings the concept to a relatable level). Slow Food has become more democratic in recent years, thanks to the many chefs who dedicate their kitchens and menus to locally, sustainably grown produce and humanely raised meat (the fashion industry has a lot to learn from these guys). Planting home gardens and buying from local farmers markets has become a trend and good habit for many of us. We can feel and taste the personal benefits even when we can’t tangibly appreciate the long term benefits on our local economy and farm land.
Ironically, Fast Fashion was established with the “democratic” moniker, where the latest trends and styles on the runway are not just available to everyone, but sold with a bill of entitlement to own them. We buy clothes, wear them once, or until they wear out (too soon), and throw them in the landfill. Not only do we further the demise of our environment and negatively affect climate change, but now we see how our Fast Fashion habits affect innocent workers abroad. According to Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed, only 2% of clothing is made in the U.S. today, down from 50% in 1990. Roughly 41% of our clothing is made in China. Many of those garment factories are unregulated and built illegally, posing grave danger to those reporting for work every day, and for very low wages.
Alabama Chanin is built on the Slow philosophy. Everything we produce is slow. Our fabric is custom dyed, then cut by hand in the studio, stenciled by hand, packaged and distributed to local artisans who hand-stitch every garment from seam to appliqué to beaded embellishment. It takes roughly three to six weeks to produce a garment. The very nature of our process is in direct conflict with the predominant practice for delivering clothing to the masses.
When we hear chefs dedicated to using locally grown products talk about where their produce comes from, they always talk about relationships, about knowing their farmers. Transparency and collaboration appear to be at the heart of the Slow Food movement and it seems natural to expect the same of Slow Design and Slow Fashion. MAKESHIFT was born from the idea of shifting the way we make. In essence, it’s a shift in the way we consume as well. Small, sustainable and environmentally minded businesses can’t compete with mass-produced, low-cost goods, but through collaboration, great things are possible.
We talked to pirate Richard McCarthy last year about cultural assets and Slow movements, and the subject of sustaining local commodities, like food, came up. In the same way locally grown food is distributed through supermarket alternatives, like farmer’s markets, Slow Fashion may also need distribution alternatives. The opportunities for collaboration and innovation appear to be ripe, and necessary.
Our hope is to see the possibilities for collaborative growth and conversations around Slow Design and Slow Fashion become as common as our predilections for locally, sustainably grown food.
I think it is pretty safe to say that midwifery is one of the first DIY skills in human existence. Certainly, the human body knows instinctively what to do when the time comes to birth a child. Still, I can’t imagine that we would have gotten very far as a species without someone learning how to assist in childbirth, give guidance to a mother, provide assistance to a newborn, and generally know how to take care of business.
It appears that learning the art of midwifery is flourishing both in the US and abroad. A recent story on public radio discussed how clinically trained midwives in rural Mexico might be a real healthcare solution for mothers living in rural areas, far from hospital care. Officials are hoping that by training professional midwives in basic nursing, gynecology, and obstetrics, they can not only help mothers without access to healthcare, but ease the burden placed upon the country’s overwhelmed hospitals. Worldwide health organizations have the same hope for other countries where physicians are scarce or far from rural communities.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 350,000 women die every year due to pregnancy and childbirth related complications. Most of these preventable deaths occur in poor, rural, low income regions. They maintain that trained midwives could reduce the risk of both mother and child death during birth. About 1000 women and almost 10,000 newborns die every day due to largely preventable complications that could have been attended to by a skilled midwife. However, more than one-third of all births in the world take place without a midwife or trained health staff member.
For many expectant mothers in the United States, choosing a midwife can mean an embrace of a more natural way of life and a separation from the clinical aspects of childbirth. Some choose midwives to assist in their delivery in order to allow a more personal birth experience. Most hospitals allow midwife assistance as long as a doctor is available if intervention is needed. However, here in the U.S., more and more women are seeking home birth experiences. Often, this experience, when attended only by a midwife, is illegal in the United States – though this varies from state-to-state. Doctors and midwives continue to debate the safety of births assisted only by midwives, especially home births.
Still, stereotypes about midwives are fading. A study done by the US Centers for Disease Control found that one in every eight births in the U.S. was assisted by a midwife. Today, there are more than 5,000 certified nurse midwives in the United States who attend approximately 150,000 births annually, primarily in hospitals. Just about an hour north of our office here in Florence is a midwifery center known as The Farm that was founded by one of the most renowned midwives in the world, Ina May Gaskin. (Gaskin wrote the imperative tome Spiritual Midwifery.)This center has been open for over 40 years and the trained midwives there provide pre-natal care, assistance with delivery, and post-natal care. The center also holds training workshops to educate the next generation of midwives.
In a sense, having a child has – for a woman – always been a DIY experience. But, as trained midwives continue to find a place and fill a need for women, particularly in developing nations, we may be slowly taking more responsibility for our own health. There will always be instances when intervention via physician or hospital is absolutely necessary. But, midwives are an important option for women across the globe. Some women have the luxury of choosing to deliver using a midwife. For others, having a midwife can be the difference between life and death. The women who are studying to be clinical midwives in Mexico and some developing nations are solutions to a critical health problem. Women choosing to care for other women all over the world – re-learning and reinforcing “living arts”, educating, and empowering themselves: real women, indeed.
As readers of our journal, many of you have read about our attempts to grow organic cotton here in Alabama. While researching the process and details of what it means to grow organic cotton, we discovered, to our surprise, that only a small amount of the world’s organic cotton is grown in the United States. We are part of an effort to change that, as are other companies, like Zkano. We must ask the questions – What makes cotton organic? Who makes the rules? And who regulates the whole system?
A food or agricultural product can be labeled as organic, meaning that it was inspected and met the USDA’s established regulations for organic products. Organic products cannot be grown using chemical fertilizers or any type of genetic engineering, among other criteria. The National Organic Program (NOP) oversees all organic crops, including raw cotton fibers. While food crops and products must meet very rigid requirements to be labeled as organic, the same does not hold true for fibers or the products made with those fibers. While the NOP makes rules and manages the process of certifying cotton fiber as organic, it doesn’t make any rules about what happens to the fiber after it has been harvested.
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.
It’s been unseasonably cool these last weeks. Most days, it’s been too chilly to fling the windows wide open and really enjoy the weather. Though we’re only just beginning to see the signs of an Alabama spring season, we’re preparing our supplies to begin the task of spring cleaning. We’ve previously shared some wabi-sabi cleaning tips, but thought we would share another post of our favorite cleaning tips and recipes for those of you who are also in the spring cleaning spirit.
We have been working with indigo-dyed cotton jersey for years now. Between Father Andrew and Goods of Conscience in New York City and Artisan Natural Dyeworks in Nashville, Tennessee, there has never been a need for us to start our own indigo vat. And in the quantities we dye, it’s better to leave it to the experts. However, there has always been this little part of me that covets an indigo bath and I dream of one in our studio for “play.”
Since we set about exploring indigo this week, it seemed a perfect time to also explore recipes for a vat (which Father Andrew says is “very much like making beer”). While investigating recipes, I remembered a text message I received last fall from friends A.J. Mason and Jeff Moerchen about an indigo vat they created in the woods of upstate New York. Here they share the story of their vat:
Perhaps we too often think of women in the kitchen as just that: women (moms, wives) in the home kitchen, baking cookies and making dinner for their families. Whether this is because the “Chef” title has been dominated for so many years by men, or if it’s because we – those of us in the dining room, far away from the heat and toil of the galley – simply don’t think about how many, if any, women are actually preparing our meal, is up for debate (though it’s probably a little of both). Thank you to Charlotte Druckman for bridging an important industry conversation to us laymen and laywomen. There are not enough women in professional kitchens. Druckman’s cerebral, meticulously researched work, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen highlights some of the problems and how (some) of this is changing today.
Women are the minority in most professional kitchens, often the only female on a crew of many. Professional cooking is a difficult, physical job with long hours, weekends and holidays dedicated to work in a very hot environment. It’s more than a job. It’s a lifestyle. As in many professions, women have to make choices between work and family. Societal demands and family responsibilities sometimes curtail how a woman can CHOOSE to do her job. Additionally, women are often subject to sexual harassment, intimidation, and unfair standards—and at times these situations go unobserved and unchecked in the late night environment that surrounds this industry.
This week our Alabama Chanin fitted dress was included (ON SALE!) for the Chris Brown curated Made Collection titled “EXPLORE AMERICA.” If you aren’t yet familiar with the Made collection, it is worth the time to create an account and browse their site. The company, started by Dave Schiff, Scott Prindle, and John Kieselhorst is a self-titled “movement” with an amazing mission.
The company and their simple (fantastic) idea was recently covered by the New York Times:
“The old ‘Buy American’ is get something lousy and pay more,” said Mr. Schiff, 45. Now “it’s a premium product.” All of this touches on what brand changers Partners & Spade called the “Rebranding of America.” Alex Williams in the New York Times writes: “Style bloggers were among the early adopters. “ ‘Made in U.S.A.’ has gone through a rebranding of sorts,” said Michael Williams, whose popular men’s style blog, A Continuous Lean, has become an online clubhouse for devotees of American-made heritage labels like Red Wing Shoes and Filson.”
Last week, a group of friends in our community gathered together at one friend’s home to fill the living room with piles of their unwanted clothing that they then “shopped”. Part of the “Swap, Don’t Shop” movement, these women, friends and family, got together for their bi-annual clothing exchange party called ‘The Big Swap’. Interested in this growing alternative to shopping, we joined the party and brought along some of our lovingly worn Alabama Chanin garments to exchange.
As the days grow shorter and the nights become chillier, I find myself craving an evening around the fire. In my family, I am a renowned fire builder. My patience for building fires was nurtured as a child as we built fires at our family camping spot to roast hot dogs and grill hamburgers; at summer camp, a fire pit meant a night of songs and making “best friends forever.” These days, I love building a fire because I know that it means a night of grilling vegetables, toasting friends, great stories – warmth inside and out. I have spent hours with a friend in our community talking about techniques, fireplace designs, and wood.
To safely** make a fire, I recommend gathering the following:
A SAFE PLACE TO START YOUR BURN. Make sure that you are a safe distance from structures, trees and bushes.
A SOURCE OF WATER. Whether a hose, a bucket, or any other vessel, make sure that you have water to put out the fire or to use in case of emergency.
With the introduction of the Foxfire Book Series on Monday, we began our two week discussion of modern homesteading.
Modern homesteading sounds like an oxymoron; I prefer to think of it as a simple lifestyle adapted to contemporary times. Technology has made leaps and bounds since the 1970s when the Firefox series was written. We do and make things differently now, but often times seek the very same outcome. We have traded in the act (art) of “making” in order to, well, “make” our lives easier. On Monday, we shared an article on Facebook that further discusses (criticizes?) the modern DIY movement.
Apple Butter, like most food, is a good example of this shift from making a product in the traditional way to producing in a more convenient manner. Apple Butter was a staple in my home growing up and my daughter has a new-found love of the spread.
I live in a small house. By big city standards (and the Small House Movement), my 1800 square feet might be considered huge. But, by the standards of my community our home is relatively small. Regardless of the size, my home is perfect for me and my daughter, Maggie, the occasional evening babysitting for my new granddaughter, and a rotating cast of overnight guests.
However, earlier this year, where it once seemed the perfect size, my little house began to seem small. It felt that we were bursting at the seams; my life felt disorganized and it seemed I could never keep up with the constant tasks of washing clothes, feeding our (75 pound and growing) poodle, and the endless dishes to be washed. So, I started cleaning house. This process is still going on today and is executed with the ”William Morris Test”: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
In 1972, I gave my father a first edition of The Foxfire Book as a Christmas present. It came from the local bookstore on Court Street in downtown Florence, where now the Billy Reid store serves as a fashion anchor for our little town. It was common in those days for us kids to be dropped off “downtown” and picked up hours later after we had eaten Trowbridge’s ice cream and spent our hard saved allowances on all sorts of treasures.
I remember that holiday season clearly. Perhaps it was the first year I was allowed to shop by on my own? I would have just turned 11 – laughing, whispering, and scheming with my best friend Wendy. Standing in the old Anderson’s Bookland that afternoon, The Foxfire Book leapt out at me and seemed the perfect gift for my father who loved country life, all things Native American, and working with wood.
Sent: Friday, August 31, 2012 8:58 AM
Subject: Re: cotton field photos
I was thinking of you this morning and took a few pictures at the cotton field so you can feel like you are here this morning. My photos are nothing to these that you have sent, but perhaps you will like to see your cotton babies. I am so happy you found Kacie. She gave Jimmy a business card before he left the field yesterday and gave him the most beautiful garden stakes that she had made!
I had already left the field because I was exhausted. She was a dynamo and pulled weeds on her knees in that hot humid sticky field. She didn’t seem to want any credit for what she was doing. She farms herself in Tennessee.
I just had to take her photo with my phone because I can’t believe she was there and working so hard. I really think she is an angel. I will make a point to go to Huntsville and see her business someday. She will always be a very important part of this little cotton field. She left her mark on the field and in my heart.
I am the cotton scout assigned to north Alabama and middle Tennessee for the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (SEBWEF). I noticed the article in Saturdays edition of Times Daily. My interest in your cotton field is to simply place a boll weevil trap nearby, and monitor it until mid-November.
Cotton growers in the state of Alabama and the Southeast have spent millions of dollars over the past 20 years to eradicate the boll weevil from our fields. The eradication has also reduced pesticide use dramatically, and actually saved several million in costs and increased yield.
The only way to guarantee that we do not get a re-infestation is to monitor ALL cotton that is in the eradicated zones. We receive information from USDA each season to locate each cotton field so that we can accomplish a successful monitoring program. I do imagine that your cotton was not reported to the local USDA Service center because of its nature, but there is a state (AL) and federal law that the cotton must be monitored. I can take care of this easily, but there will likely be a small fee assessed by SEBWEF.
For those of you who have read about (or visited) our cotton field, we’d like to share with you its beginnings and its progress over the last months. These small bolls are more than just crops in a field; rather, they hold a fiber that has shaped the history of our community and, as we have seen in our growing process, binds our community together.
We began our search for organic (non-GMO, non-treated) cottonseed back in March. We worked with Lynda Grose and the Textile Exchange to educate ourselves about the growing process and the many details surrounding the growing of organic cotton. As we pushed forward, we were told by some farmers that March was too late into the growing season to prepare and plant crops. These “magic beans.” as we like to call the cottonseed, were proving very difficult to find. Numerous internet searches and phone calls left us wondering if this endeavor would be possible. But with the help of Kelly from the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, we successfully found a supplier in Texas.
Sent: Tuesday, September 04, 2012 6:58 AM
Subject: It will be alright
Soggy, sopping wet Cocker Spaniels. That is what the cotton looks like right now. It is droopy and matted and dirty with rainwater and splashed mud from the storms we had. When I was a little girl my dearest friend was a Cocker Spaniel, and he and I spent many hours wading in the creek. The creek was over knee deep for me and up to his chin and his beautiful long ears would float out beside him as we walked along in the creek. We would both be covered with sand and mud and creek water, but those times were heavenly to us. The cotton bolls that were white fluffy clouds on Sunday afternoon are a memory now.
Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2012 11:04 AM
Subject: Our first cotton angel
I was at the cotton field this morning when a car pulled up and a tiny young lady got out and put on her work gloves and went to work!! She is still there working!!! I sent a photo from my phone to your phone with her name. Can you believe she drove from Giles County Tennessee to Lawrence County Alabama to work in the hot steamy cotton field!
She is a wonderful person. I hope she will be in touch with you so that you can know her. Jimmy and I were so touched that she came such a long way and is such a hard worker. She is devoted and she is one in a million.
P.S. when I left the cotton field this morning with my pillowcase pick sack, I drove straight to the Trinity Post Office to get them to weigh my pick sack! I walked in covered with sweat from head to toe and carrying a pillow sack with a lump of cotton in it. I’m sure they thought I was on Meth or Crack or something. I picked 2 pounds and 9 ounces of cotton this morning.
Don’t laugh. Imagine bending and stooping and sweating and gnats up your nose and ants biting your legs and stinging weeds with thorns.. It ain’t pretty work, that is for sure. Jimmy informs me that he was paid $3.00 for picking 100 pounds of cotton. Oh my god it makes my back hurt to think about it…..
If you’ve been following our blog, you’ve read about the rollercoaster that has been our first exposure to cotton farming. Having survived the terrible drought, the cotton has been carried through the summer by equal parts rainfall and sunshine. Right now, the bolls are looking healthy, but so are the weeds. Following the organic guidelines, we did not use any chemicals to eradicate the weeds. Lisa and “friend” Jimmy have done the leg, and arm, and back work.
Last Wednesday, the Alabama Chanin staff, along with Lisa and Jimmy, made a trip to weed the field. We arrived to a daunting 6 1/2 acres of beautifully forming cotton alongside big, ugly weeds. The next few weeks are crucial to a successful harvest of the first ever organic cotton crop in North Alabama (that is, since the invention of pesticides and genetically modified seeds). Our plants need ample light, air circulation, and nutrients from the soil to continue to develop and open. We were overjoyed when Lisa sent images on Saturday morning of the first bolls that have opened. But some of the weeds have still got to go. If this crop is to see a successful harvest, it’s going to need more help to survive and thrive.
We left off two weeks ago in search of a two-row planter that will help get our cottonseed in the ground. Fortunately, we were able to find one locally. The planter’s shovels have been adjusted. The soil has been finely chopped. There have been conference calls between the field, the Factory office, and Kelly’s office in Texas. More thanks to Kelly Pepper.
Upon receiving our soil test results, we are determining the proper nutrients needed and the best organic fertilizers for the field. Staff at Auburn University has been helpful answering questions, and we’ve had the chance to learn more about the organic certification process through a local advisor.
As our world continues to evolve and expand, sometimes the origins of things, the details and processes seem to get lost. I’m always curious about where things come from, the story, the people, and the hands that go into each thing that we consume. It seems that wherever you may be, there is someone that can provide you with what you need, locally.
In 2006 the owners of Higher Grounds Coffee Roasters, located in a small town called Leeds, Alabama, gave Natalie a bag of their freshly roasted, fair-trade, organic coffee beans. Since that day, Higher Grounds has been a staple here at Alabama Chanin, something that we look forward to enjoying each morning. When we received that first bag of coffee, it seemed that local coffee roasters in the South were few and far between. Fast forward six years and it seems that everywhere you look there are new and exciting things happening in the coffee world.
Our exploration into organic cotton growing continues. As we brainstorm, discuss, research, and learn all there is to know about growing our own organic cotton, we decided that the best place to begin is with a study of the seeds themselves. So this week Erin–who is new to our studio – dug in deep to learn more about seed supply and just how to find those organic seeds. Here are some of her reflections and discoveries:
While working on some press and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) pages this last month, I came across some texts that date back across the decade of Alabama Chanin. In reading and going over some of these texts, I thought it would be a good series to share on our Sustainable Design Tuesdays. Here is one of those texts about building a round company:
My goal with building designs – as I have built my company – is to make a sphere. I strive to create a well-rounded, (w)holistic company that revolves around a central theme: sustainability of culture, environment, and community.
It has been over a decade since I started working on the company that Alabama Chanin has become today and I am often asked how I had the foresight to start a company based on the principles of sustainability and Slow Design. To this comment, I laughingly reply that I never intended to start a sustainable design company; I simply stumbled into it like the fool falling off the cliff. When I cut up those first t-shirts, I was doing something that I felt driven to do. I didn’t think of those garments as the basis of a business; they were simply pieces of clothing I wanted to wear and, perhaps more importantly, make. However, when I look back today, it all feels like a seamless and directed adventure into the realms of becoming a sustainable designer and manufacturer.
I am often invited to speak about this process and our resulting business model, as it has developed into an unusual one. However, truth be told, I have simply taken inspiration for our model from farmers and strive to build a zero waste company where the results of one production process become the fuel for another.
Our primary work is the business of designing and making clothing. And whether a dress calls for recycled t-shirts or locally grown, certified organic cotton, the designing and making of that product spurs our model. It was developed not by intention, but through process.
After a few months and a busy holiday season, I’ve finally begun to process the experiences of my momentous trip to Oxford, Mississippi, for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. I left the event full of delicious food and copious amounts of knowledge. More specifically, Elizabeth Engelhardt’s talk, “Tales from the South’s Forgotten Locavores,” filled my hungry mind with questions on how I can contribute to the preservation of heirloom fruits, vegetables, and plants.
There was a time – not so long ago on humanity’s calendar – that sewing was not considered “women’s work,” but rather a tool for survival.
Hunter/gatherers looking for food on a cold winter’s day, some miles from their camp, might have a shoe wear through and break – and their ability to sew that shoe back together in a simple repair stitch might have meant the difference between safe return to the camp, the loss of a foot to frostbite – or an even worse fate, death.
It is thought that healers began to sew human wounds back together in ancient Egypt – formed as a unified state around 3150 BC – and most likely before. Over 5000 years ago, sewing was taught, not as craft, but as a survival skill necessary to human life. In fact, a heavy-duty needle and thread for repairing clothing and equipment (and sewing one’s own flesh) is still included in first aid and survival kits today.
Sewing was an invention that greatly aided our advancement as a people and it is believed that needle and thread existed as early as 15,000 years ago.
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.
Our friend Rinne Allen has been photographing our work for the last few years and shot pictures for our upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design. Her work is beautiful. She also just completed the cookbook A New Turn in the South with her friend Hugh Acheson – and it’s a beauty. The combination of type, hand written notes, the lovely photographs, and the rich approach to making beautifully simple food took me aback the first time I opened the cover. This book just feels different. I gave a copy to a friend for the holidays and she said to me over lunch a few weeks later, “It is so casual, beautiful and comfortable.” I agree. Hugh has a great love for one of my favorite vegetables, the Brussels sprout. His recipe “Not Your Mama’s Brussels Sprouts” from page 207 begins like this, “Brussels sprouts are the hated vegetable of my generation and I am hell-bent on changing that.” You have to love a man who thinks like that.
Rinne took a few minutes to talk with me about her work this week and shared a few of her favorite photographs:
AC: I know that you have been shooting food for quite a while, but is this your first cookbook?
RA: Prior to working with Hugh, I had photographed one cookbook called Canning for a New Generation. It came out in August 2010. The author, Liana Krissoff, also lives in Athens, Georgia, so I was lucky to work with her on such a fun and endlessly beautiful topic. We actually just finished another project together that will be out in the fall of 2012…and hopefully there will be more projects with Hugh, too!
In follow-up to our EcoSalon post last Friday on Punks + Pirates, Alabama Chanin (AC) held a Facebook chat with Richard McCarthy (RM) of Market Umbrella to explore his interesting perspective on cultural assets, punks, pirates and the Spanish Armada. I was first made aware of Richard’s work at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last October.
I have been revisiting our Wabi Sabi posts as I move into the holiday season and start to get my house ready for a slew of visitors. I am so excited to be cooking up a storm from all of our new holiday cookbooks, playing games, and laughing – but, first, my house needs a good cleaning. While I love the Wabi Sabi Cleaning Cupboard, I also enjoy splurging from time-to-time on my favorite Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon Verbena cleaning supplies. June put together a lovely cleaning kit of all my favorite supplies, with some of our organic cotton scraps to use as rags for my deep clean. Perhaps I really don’t like cleaning but I do get great satisfaction from taking my time, touching every surface, and relaxing at the end of the day in a house that just smells good. All is right with the world. From Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi Sabi House by Robyn Griggs Lawrence: “Homemakers in the Depression era knew wabi-sabi (even if they never uttered the phrase). In their homes, things were patched and mended but scrubbed and clean, handmade or chosen and paid for with care. Their linens may have been thin from many washings, but they were crisply white from lemon-juice treatments. Floors may have shown the wear of many feet, but they were clean and warmed up with a rug that had faded gracefully from brilliant red to pale rose. Wood had scratches, but it was polished to show off its grain. For those indoctrinated to believe that anything less than perfect should be replaced, our ancestors’ hands-on frugality is enlightening – welcome respite in our prosperous age of planned obsolescence.” Indeed. xoNatalie
I planted my fall garden last weekend – perhaps about a month late but nevertheless, it is in the ground. My daughter has finally reached the age where she is a willing participant most of the time. In fact, she planted about half a row of garlic before scurrying off to uncover the peas I had just planted and to bury the little ceramic garden gnome that keeps watch on the birds who are eating our carefully planted seeds. That little antique gnome, a gift I received 20+ years ago while living in Vienna, has traveled the world with me, gone to every new home, and overseen each new incarnation of my life. He has always reminded me that a garden was waiting in my future.
The morning I decided to plant, I woke up in my own bed after returning home the day before from a trip that included three stops in two and a half weeks. I arrived home with a head cold and the desire to lie still for another two weeks. But, my daughter and I got up that morning and raked and hoed and planted. It felt good. I sighed, and relaxed and smiled as we settled into an afternoon of working and playing side-by-side.
I admit that I am not the best gardener in the world. This fall garden should have been planted a month ago; my rows are a bit wobbly as they move down the length of my backyard plot. I am certain that when the lettuce and spinach begin to sprout, there will be sections of the rows where too many seeds were strewn too closely together, and other sections where nothing will come up.
This is much like the story of my life and business.
A business owner recently said to me, “You are so successful, you wouldn’t know about the difficulties we have had in trying to build our business.” I couldn’t help but laugh. There are beautiful aspects to what we do at Alabama Chanin every day but there are also carefully planted rows that don’t come up, sales that don’t happen, frustrations and disappointments.
I recently came across an essay I had written in 2006 for Leslie Hoffman at Earth Pledge titled, “What Does Planting Tomatoes Have to Do With Fashion?” It seems at first blush that the two would have little to do with one another. The gist of the essay was how coming home and re-learning how to plant a garden had connected me to my community, my business, the greater art of sustaining life and, consequently, to the fashion industry at large. As I look back over the essay, it feels like such a long time since I wrote those words. Our first book had not yet hit the shelves. My separation from my former company was still new and the wounds were fresh. When I re-read that essay, I could sense my fear, my hopes and my determination between the lines.
What that essay also reminded me was that while my rows today might still be wobbly, the birds-eye view of the garden is straight as an arrow. My path has been crooked, but the mission that I set for myself so many years ago is alive and growing.
So, what I really wanted to communicate to the business owner that day was not laughter – as if it were a silly question. I meant that laughter to mean: I am in the same garden! As a business, we experience the same ups-and-downs, the same excitements and the same disappointments, and in spite of it all, we are still here and we are still gardening.
Today, as I sit and look at my wobbly rows, my garden feels like my business. I realize that the wobbly row is a perfect analogy for my own process. We plant rows that flourish; we plant rows that putter along. We water, we nurture, we pick, we grow. But the real beauty of it all is not in the harvesting but this moment of sitting in the sun waiting for the first sprouts to poke through the earth.
The point is to watch the little plants grow and to savor the laughter that will come when I finally discover the buried garden gnome that my daughter has left for me as a present.
In 2006, Leslie Hoffman asked me to write a short paper for inclusion in their Future Fashion White Papers. I recently came across the volume while browsing my library and the essay stirred up so many memories from that time. As the last of my tomatoes drop to the ground, I wanted to (re)share my thoughts on tomatoes and fashion.
When I think of the philosophy of wabi-sabi, Burning Man and a Mustang Convertible are not the first things that pop into my mind. However, it is this sort of dichotomy that seems to define Robyn Griggs Lawrence… environmentalist, mother, writer, maker, visionary, mover, and shaker. Robyn has been kind enough to share a bit of herself and work as we continue to explore all that is wabi-sabi.
Below you will find some answers that Robyn graciously agreed to supply. They appear in their original unedited form, her prose was too lovely and thoughtful to alter.
Mending is not something we – as a culture – spend a lot of time doing these days. Fast fashion and mass consumerism has taught us to simply throw older or imperfect items away and replace them with newer versions. I am all for the “Sewing Schoolyard” – let’s teach ourselves and our kids to mend – a satisfying task.
My favorite, 10-year old tea towels have seen better days; but, I just can’t find the perfect replacement. I use our Alabama Chanin Tea Towels for most kitchen tasks but these have just given me so much kitchen love that I can’t bear to part with them.
In perfect wabi-sabi style, Olivia – our Studio Assistant (and budding pattern maker) – mended my old tea towels using scraps of our organic cotton jersey and Button Craft thread. Using applique in combination with seed, whip and eyelet stitches, she repaired the holes and covered the stains. Perfect.
So, how is it that I made it for half-a-century without owning my own tire gauge? Until last year, there was a full-service gas station that would graciously check my tires after a fill-up. Now, it is sadly closed. My Prius has a little sensor that tells me when my tires are not just right. I dread when that little light pops on. It seems like a major ordeal to find a shop or mechanic that will check them for me. Last week, I drove around the entire week with the tire light shining – nervous each time I glanced down.
I know it’s silly; but, it’s times like these I yearn for a man around the house.
Now, I am the proud owner of my very own tire gauge. I can’t tell you how empowered I felt when I pulled up to the free air dispenser at my local gas station, whipped out my tool, and filled up my own tires. You should have seen the looks (and heard the calls) from the cowboys in pick-up trucks.
Yes indeed, a girl needs a good tool.
P.S.: Did you know that you get approximately 4% better gas mileage with properly inflated tires?
Biographies, philosophy, design, recipes, and all the subjects in-between are the stuff of my dreams. I would venture to say that I’ve found a treasure beginning with most library call numbers, and, of course, do my best not to judge any book by its cover. To say my love affair with reading is an important part of my life would be an understatement.
Our library at The Factory and the stacks of books throughout my home are growing at alarming (and satisfying) rates. I wish that time allowed me to discuss in detail all of the fabulous books that my friends, supporters, and my publisher have chosen to share with me. Robyn Griggs Lawrence’s Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi Houserecently landed on my desk. The simple, unassuming (wabi-sabi) cover almost went unnoticed in the big stack of books I’ve been eager to conquer.
“Despite the prevalence of green in nature, no single plant produces a color-fast, deep green dye. Until the invention of synthetic dyes in the 19th century, people around the world typically combined indigo blue with various yellow dyes to create green textiles.”
(Be sure to browse the entire online catalog as it is very informative and beautifully written.)
Perhaps this fusing of colors – or ideas – is what it is going to take for us to eventually really come into fulfillment of the “Green Movement.” As I walked through the exhibition today, a green war is beginning in my own state.
Detail from the above exhibition signage by Gyongy Laky, Apple tree cuttings, grapevine, nails, wire; improvised.
Back in the studio today after almost a month of working from home, the holidays, an amazing trip to Taste of the South and a few (beautiful) snow days. It was a great luxury to have some time to read over the holidays and I have savored many a volume (both trash and treasure).
Wild Card Quilt by Janisse Ray is such a beautiful, soulful story of coming home. It speaks to sustainability of community, of people, and of the plants, foods and stories that tie us together. I find the stories especially moving a decade after I made the leap to come home – a move that changed my life.
This year Taste of the South featured a fantastic talk by Gary Nabhan (Coming Home to Eat– another wonderful book). Gary spoke gushingly of Janisse Ray (and read a portion of the essay below) while my dear friend Angie leaned over and said, “I just LOVE Janisse Ray.”
In my quest to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume as a family, I have finally succeeded in making my own toothpaste. After collecting the simple recipes for a couple of months, I played with the ingredients to make a paste that is to my liking.
I lived in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina for almost 10 years of my life. In fact, I lived at one time or the other in just about every one of the cities and my son, Zach, was born 28 years ago when I lived in Durham.
Shortly before Zach’s arrival and in teenage rebellion style, I left Alabama at 18 with my best friend (and a whim) heading towards Chapel Hill. Our first house in the area – rented for $50 a month – was in the middle of a tobacco field and you could literally see the sunset through the kitchen wall. I remember telling my mother, “This is paradise.” The memories of that first summer still make me laugh but at the arrival of winter, I found more suitable “paradise” where the heat from the wood stove actually warmed the house.
However, I can still smell the rows of tobacco being worked by migrant farmers that drifted through those walls. And from time to time, I feel the sense of driving down the streets of Durham with the overwhelming smell of tobacco infusing the entire community.
How lovely to read this article today in the New York Times about how the greater Durham/RTI community has been able to make the leap from traditional (and chemical ridden) tobacco farming to sustainable local cuisine. I especially love the story of Neal’s Deli where the son of famed chef Bill Neal carries on the family tradition.
It is heartening to think that the fields on the outskirts of our little town may one day be bountiful again.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we only brought products (things) into our homes that we wanted to keep for the rest of our lives? And when those products and things become old, we simply recycle them into our own lives.
So it is with this coat that one day no longer suited my life but is now one of my favorite pieces. I am continually stopped in airports, shops, and restaurants and asked, “Where did you get that coat?”
William Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
I would say it this way: “If you want to make a difference on the planet, this is it: Have nothing in your home or life that you do not know to be useful, believe to be beautiful or know that you will strive to keep in your life forever.”
**Photo of my (not yet finished) coat in our studio taken by me.
While I love a good apron and The Gentle Art of Domesticity, cleaning has never been a particularly sexy task around our house. However, I loved the article below that ran in our local paper on Tuesday of this week.
It makes me happy that living clean is going mainstream.
Maggie loved mixing the ingredients with me in the kitchen last night.
BUT, I still swear by Mrs. Meyers Lemon Verbena for washing our clothes…
*Make your own apron like the one above with the Bloomers Pattern available as a pull-out from our Alabama Stitch Book.
Adam Werbach’s book offers a great list of Nature’s 10 Simple Rules for Business Survival. In this list Adam draws from nature a tough bottom line for sustainable business. “Nature is far harsher than the market: If you are not sustainable, you die. No second chances and no bailouts.” I’m not usually a fan of rules but these ten make sense to me. They are big-scale – forest-scale. Ocean-scale. Planet-scale. I’ve jotted down my own thoughts on each one. I’ll share them with you here – five this week and five next.
Nature’s # 1. Diversify across generations. This idea has certainly inspired me to write a number of posts here that I’ve called Stella’s World. Of course they are about my and Ro’s first grandchild but they are also about what change across generations can really mean. How few companies have that aspiration! In principle we all want our businesses to thrive across generations, but how few succeed. Adam tells me that fully one-third of the companies profiled in Jim Collins’ Built to Last as out-performers, are now under-performers. Think Ford and Citibank. They lost the juice of excitement, wonder and delight and got lost in expectations and self-obsession.
I keep thinking, over and over again, about this quote that I read on Treehugger.com in the midst of the Earth Day celebrations:
“Writing in Mother Jones,Joel Makower waves the white flag. Green consumerism, it seems, was one of those well-intended passing fancies, testament to Americans’ never-ending quest for simple quick, and efficient solutions to complex problems. It’s only a matter of time before… the public recognizes that for every pound of trash that ends up in municipal landfills, at least 40 more pounds are created upstream by industrial processes – and that a lot of this waste is far more dangerous to environmental and human health than our newspapers and grass clippings.
At that point, the locus of concern could shift away from beverage containers, grocery bags, and the other mundane leftovers of daily life to what happens behind the scenes – the production, crating, storing and shipping of the goods we buy and use.”
It also reminds me of The Story of Stuff and that, as designers and consumers, it is our responsibility to consider the impact of each and every decision in the design, development and manufacturing process.
As I told a group of students at SCAD last week: For a very long time, designers have been at the core of the problem, creating product, after product, after product without regard to the consequences. It is time for us as designers to solve the problem and design the solution.
On Saturday afternoon, I had the honor of touring the Edible Schoolyard and having lunch in the new Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Dining Commons. Alice Waters, the Chez Panisse Foundation and a team of others are working towards changing the way we see the school lunch program in America.
The program was inspiring, delicious and beautiful and I am committed to bringing this philosophy into the life of my own daughter.
There are countless definitions of weeds, ranging from the hardheaded one necessarily observed by farmers, that a weed is any plant that interferes with profit, to the aesthetic (a popular gardener’s definition of a weed is “a plant out of place”), to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sanctimonious assertion that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
Photo: Richard Barnes for The New York Times Posted at 6:36 am
I grew up riding horses with my father and grandfather on our family farm in North Alabama. And although I still bear the scars from my first pony, to this day I have a deep, spiritual love for these majestic, beautiful, powerful creatures.
An excerpt about Eight Belles from “The Last Lap,” Time Magazine, (May 19, 2008), Page 13, by David von Drehle:
…”But it’s only fair to point out that breeders aren’t a solitary priesthood. They flip horses the way real estate speculators once flipped condos. With dollar signs in their eyes, they savor 2- and 3-year-old horses, exactly the way the fashion industry looks at long-stemmed 14-year-old girls, exactly the way the celebrity culture gazes on Britney and Lindsay and Miley, exactly the way shoe-company reps scrutinize boys on basketball courts. Horses, fashion models, teen stars–they’re all produced for maximum profit.
Every market needs buyers as well as sellers, and that’s where the rest of us come in. If horse breeders have stopped raising animals that are sound for the long run, it’s because the audience for mature racehorses–like the audience for maturity in general–has vanished. Seabiscuit, over his 89-race career, drew huge crowds season after season. By contrast, this year’s Derby winner, Big Brown, will command the public eye for two months at best, retiring after the Belmont Stakes in June. Provided he lives that long.”
We have choices in what we purchase, consume and choose to support every day. We vote with our dollars for the brand of clothing we like, for the types of food we want to eat, for the toys we buy for our children. This letter, from a former colleague, reminds me to think before I spend. The impact of our dollars cannot always be measured by what we bring home in our bag:
I work as a designer for a large corporation and recently had the opportunity to travel overseas to see production of some of our products. This was my first visit to India and first time being in a factory this size. It was mind blowing to see the amount of consumption that takes place on a daily basis. I had no idea the number of garments being produced. The company we do business with operates around 46 factories in India and constructs 3 million garments every month! This is just in one country.
We were also able to see a large wash house where garments are washed with enzyme finishes and other chemicals to give a softer hand feel to the fabric. They are capable of washing 100,000 pieces every day with a variety of chemicals and finishes. Inside, stacks of pants piled in to huge bins were waiting to be washed in oversized washing machines. I can’t imagine the amount of power and chemicals used to accomplish their daily quota.
This trip changed my view of how much we consume. Seeing every size of every garment that’s going to every store really put this industry in a new perspective for me. At the company I work for, we move so fast and produce so much that we don’t take the time to ask ourselves what the customer really wants or needs and more importantly how much power and material we consume every day to make our products. For me, I will take from this experience a new outlook on consumption and begin asking myself how I, in my own way, can try to make a difference.
I took my flight back from New York very, very, very early this morning and, consequently, did not get to make my morning coffee before leaving for the airport. Airport coffee, no matter the brand, is just not as good as my homemade cup. The entire trip, I dreamed of my little espresso machine, steamer and my favorite cup at my kitchen table. Everyone in my community has become addicted to my homemade coffee—made with The Factory Blend coffee.
And be sure to read Coffee: The Fragrant Cup Revealed from friend and colleague Michelle Krell Kydd. This is the best post about the smells of milk and coffee I have ever read.
After seven years of living, working, laughing, sewing and growing in this house at Lovelace Crossroads, we are moving past “The Crossroads” and on to “The Factory.”
Our new building, originally built in 1982 for Tennessee River Mills, sits in the heart of the industrial community that was a hub of textile production from 1976 to 1994, when NAFTA was signed. That textile community hung on through the year 2002, when the last vestiges of production were sold, closed down or moved overseas.
Steven, our production manager, once worked in the very room we will be occupying.
So, it is like a sweet homecoming to move up, move beyond and to finally have room to work on fabric yardages, new collections and other upcoming projects. A flagship store will be opening in The Factory very soon.
All of our contact information remains the same, only the location has been changed to incorporate our growing family:
Alabama Chanin @ The Factory
462 Lane Drive
Florence, Alabama 35630
I had the opportunity to visit all the folks at Patagonia yesterday. What an amazing group of people, an amazing place, and an amazing company. From the ladies in the sewing room to their organic cafeteria, I was floored at the knowledge, care and passion that infuse their lives.
Patagonia has long been an inspiration to me because 1) it grew from an artisan/hand work base 2) they make clothes to fit the body, not clothes that you have to fit your body to 3) they make products that are designed to stand the test of time and don’t forget the fact that you can also climb mountains and swim seas in the things they make.
And aside from the fact that it is a GREAT company from the product side, it is even more outstanding from a perspective of social and ecological responsibility. The first things you see as you pull into their parking lot are the solar panels that run the offices and the playground for the daycare center.
Their mission statement could be a guideline for life:
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
As I recently learned at the Textiles Futures Salon2, there is still a long way to go to understand the materials that we use and consume. We have been using organic cotton for the last year and plan to make the switch to 100% Organic by the spring of next year. And although this is just a small part of the picture, it is a good place to start.