“Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
When visiting the Shoals area, or anywhere in Alabama for that matter, you should take time to visit the Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama. Nestled among otherwise ordinary Southern homes, this gem of craftsmanship and architecture is a perfect example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style of design and is the only home he built in Alabama. Constructed nearly 60 years ago, the house was inhabited by the Rosenbaums (the home’s sole occupants) until 1999, when the family donated the property to the city of Florence. The home has been completely restored to look exactly as it did when the Rosenbaums lived there. Walking through it, you can feel the life and love that seeps from it still.
In 1938, Stanley Rosenbaum, a young Harvard College graduate who lived in Florence and worked in his family’s movie theater business, married New York fashion model Mildred Bookholtz and brought her home to Alabama. As a wedding gift, Stanley’s parents gave the newlyweds two acres of land and a small sum of money with which to build a home. The couple optimistically turned to world famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, known for his innovative design approach and affordability. The Rosenbaums asked Wright to build them a home with three bedrooms, two baths, a large kitchen, a study, a living room large enough to accommodate Mildred’s piano, and all for the sum of $7,500. To their surprise, Wright agreed.
Music has always been an integral part of The Shoals. We are placed along the banks of what the native people have long called, “the river that sings.” W.C. Handy, The Father of the Blues, was born here; legendary producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, is also from The Shoals. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the influential style of music known as the Muscle Shoals Sound emerged from this same musically rich place.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we had an abstract idea of the big sounds being produced all around us—but no one ever made a fuss about it. Sure, our neighbors made music for a living, but those neighbors certainly weren’t famous, were they? (Were they?) And so it wasn’t until years later that many in our community began to understand exactly what was happening around us while we were growing up.
I’d wager that every native, and recent guest, to The Shoals would urge future visitors to set aside time for lunch at Trowbridge’s Ice Cream Parlor and Sandwich Shop. The universally beloved local eatery is a backdrop for so many of our memories, and it has managed to serve up simple, delicious food for decades, while keeping its unpretentious charm. The green awning and the window advertising “Sandwiches, Ice Cream, Sundaes” are as iconic to residents as any official logo or state seal.
The little shop was opened in 1918 by Paul Trowbridge and is still run by his grandson. The story (as it was told to me) says that in 1917, Mr. Trowbridge was traveling to North Carolina for a dairy convention and stopped in Florence on the way. He loved the lush area and the town enough to move his family from Texas to Florence and opened Trowbridge’s shortly thereafter.
This post is the first of our new travel series; look for side trips (and side bars) on your way to and from The Factory—and from here to there. With this series, you’ll find some history, a bit of folk art, good diners, great bars and splendid adventures. Pack your bag, plan your road trip, and come for a visit.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller
The South loves to claim people as our own. Just as many northern and coastal cities proudly label every barn and bedroom where George Washington supposedly slept, we are equally proud of our musicians’, artists’, and politicians’ southern roots. In fact, Mississippi-born Elvis Presley has no fewer than 5 “homes” across the region. Many visitors are surprised to learn that The Shoals houses the birthplace and childhood home of blind and deaf activist, thinker, writer, lecturer, and philanthropist, Helen Keller.
The Keller home, known as Ivy Green, sits on a quiet lot on North Commons street in West Tuscumbia. Initially, the 1820 Virginia-cottage style house sat on a 640-acre parcel next to a small bridal cottage, also known as the birthplace cottage and school house. The property, now only 10 acres, enshrines the life of the extraordinary woman who broke through the restraints of her physical limitations to become one of the most astonishing women of the early twentieth century.
The entire estate has such presence. The moment you step foot on the property, you immediately want to sense the place the way Helen Keller did. You close your eyes; you hear the wind through the giant trees, the sticky dew evaporating in the morning sun, the smell of early autumn and a tingle in the nose give hints at the way she may have known Ivy Green. It’s hard not to touch everything knowing it was all touched by Helen Keller.
The work of Project Threadways continues. We’ve been busy planning for the inaugural symposium in the spring and collecting oral history interviews from textile workers in our community. With the expert help of our friends at Nest and support and funding provided The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, we’ve developed a survey to help us reach a wider audience and gather more information about the demographics of the workforce within the textile industry.
If you worked in the textile industry in our region, or know someone who did, follow this link to fill out our survey. All information will be kept strictly confidential and will only be used in combination with information collected from other respondents. Your name, or any other personally identifiable data, will not be used. Any and all feedback is helpful, so feel free to share the survey with friends, family, and neighbors. If you’re interested in participating in an oral history interview, send us an email at email@example.com. Our oral historian will be in touch; we can’t wait to hear your stories.
We’ve created a Facebook page for Project Threadways, so you can follow along with all updates there. And as always, check back on The Journal for more notes from the field.
Over the years, we’ve shared some of our favorite spots to explore here in The Shoals. We intend to keep expanding on that series, letting you in on local hidden treasures, like the truly unique Rattlesnake Saloon. Located on the outskirts of neighboring Colbert County, the Old West-style bar and restaurant is situated under a purportedly 6-million-year-old rock slab and truly must be seen to be believed.
The land has been owned by the same family, The Fosters, since 1935—and over the years they’ve transformed its use from farming to entertainment. In 1990, owner Danny Foster got out of the farming business and opened the Seven Springs Lodge on several thousand of his family’s acres. A few years ago, Danny and his son, William Gordon Foster expanded the hunting lodge’s campground and horse trails into a one-of-a-kind lodge and saloon. Rattlesnake Saloon opened for business in 2009, and the novelty of dining in a cave—surrounded by vines and waterfalls—continues to attract many guests.
When you arrive on the property, take some time to visit the lodge area. There are stables, a garden, and the gift shop—Sidewinder’s Trading Post, where you can purchase camping supplies or souvenirs. From there, guests have the option of walking to the saloon, but we highly recommend waiting on the Ford F-250 Saloon Taxi for the full experience. One-by-one, visitors climb into the bed of the taxi until every space is filled. Then hold on. Although the ride is less than a minute, it is thrilling as it bounces down the steep wooded path.
Once you arrive at the saloon, seating options include the saloon, patio, cave or overlook—but we recommend finding a spot in the cave, if possible. Keeping with the western-style saloon theme, all menu items have kitschy names like Skunk Rings and Snake Eyes and Tails. Those seeking a challenge can order the Most Wanted two-pound burger. If you finish by yourself in less than 45 minutes it’s free. At all times, children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. At 5:00pm, the saloon starts serving beer to those 21 and up.
There is a large dance floor situated in the middle of the cave for those who want to dance. The saloon offers Karaoke on Thursdays, and live music on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s likely you’ll have plenty of opportunities to join at least one line dance.
On a final note: when deciding on footwear for the evening, remember to wear shoes suitable for walking in dirt and on gravel. And remember—you’re outside, so dress appropriately.
1292 Mount Mills Road
Tuscumbia, Alabama 35674
This year’s schedule is no less impressive, with appearances (and reappearances) from some of the South’s most respected chefs. We have long hoped to convince Scott Peacock to co-host a dinner, and this year his schedule will allow him to join us for 2017’s first event on April 15th. On June 24th, Ashley Christensen will return for her second dinner, and on August 24th, we will welcome Atlanta-based chef Asha Gomez to The Factory for the first time. (Learn more about Asha on the Journal tomorrow.) All proceeds from the Friends of the Café Dinners will once again benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Look for more information on the featured chefs in the coming months, and purchase tickets now in our online store.
The Shoals is an area rich in folklore, dating back to the 1800s. And this time of year, that folklore comes alive in tales of souls haunting historic homes and spaces. Fifteen years ago, local historian and author Debra Glass was inspired to create a ghost tour that would tell some of the forgotten stories of the Shoals’ haunted residents: the Haunted History of the Shoals Ghost Walk.
Those interested are asked to meet just before 7:30pm—8:00pm for the late tour—beside the eerily disproportionate statue of W.C. Handy at Wilson Park. We recommend grabbing a cup of Rivertown coffee to stay warm throughout the 90-minute walk. Glass begins the tour by recounting personal experiences at her office with the ghost of Jeddy Ryan, a benevolent spirit, and then walks the tour to the corner of Tombigbee and Court Streets to tell the tale of “Mountain” Tom Clark.
Clark was an outlaw during the Civil War, whose gang robbed, murdered, and menaced area residents—murdering at least 19 people, including a child. He was eventually caught by authorities and jailed. On September 4, 1872, an angry mob took Clark from jail and hung him. Glass says that while alive, Clark’s most famous proclamation was: “No one would ever run over Tom Clark!”, which is why the citizens of Florence buried him underneath Tennessee Street, one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the city.
A few paces down from the location of “Mountain” Tom Clark’s hanging is Trowbridge’s, an ice cream bar famous for orange pineapple ice cream and for being haunted by Charles Daniel Stewart. Before the restaurant was built, the land belonged to the Stewart family, who situated their antebellum home in the same spot. Like many men of the time, Stewart was called away from home due to the Civil War and was chosen to carry the Confederate banner into battle. Stewart vowed to protect the honor of the banner, which was made by his mother and other local women. However, Stewart was severely wounded at the Battle of Manassas and was brought home to die on August 16, 1861. Over the years, Trowbridge’s employees have seen the phantasm of a young boy and experienced other strange events.
The tour continues down a section of Court Street Glass refers to as “Ghost Row.”
We don’t want to give away some of the tour’s spookiest tales, but on this stretch, you will hear stories involving some of the area’s most famous residents, a scorned wife, and a mysterious girl and her phantom dog.
At the end of Ghost Row the tour heads towards one of its more gruesome sites, Pope’s Tavern. During the Civil War, the tavern was converted to an infirmary for Confederate and Union soldiers. Many soldiers—including the 32 who died at the tavern—underwent surgery or amputations in the building’s back right room. In 1988, the first archeological dig at the site was underway when bones and bullets were discovered in the courtyard just outside the amputation room’s door. Claims of unnerving experiences increased in the years following the discoveries.
Miss Glass shares several other stories, which also serve as a partial history of the area and its residents. After the tour wraps up, Glass stays for a more intimate meet and greet where you can also buy her books, which expand upon the many ghosts believed to haunt the Shoals area.
John Paul White spent years of his life on the road. Formerly one-half of the prolific duo The Civil Wars, it was not unusual for him to spend 300-plus days a year on tour. Once that project came to an end, White returned home to Florence and began a period of centering himself, settling in as a father and a husband—and eventually as a producer and owner of a record label. He told Paste Magazine, “I made a conscious decision to focus every bit of my energy on being a good dad, a good husband, and that segued into becoming a label partner and a studio owner. So everything has kind of been me, following my nose, but me paying close attention to what was within 20 yards of me, me pulling in the reins and staying connected to what’s within arm’s length.”
John Paul and his partners Ben Tanner and Will Trapp of Single Lock Records have spent the last few years focusing on helping less established artists find a foothold in the music industry. He and Tanner built a recording studio in White’s back yard, and John Paul has been one of the most prominent voices speaking out for and supporting artists in our community. But, he has done all of this with the understanding that being present for his family is his priority. It’s been quite a while since John Paul White has considered re-entering the world of writing and recording his own music… And yet, here we are.
John Paul says that he initially resisted the urge to go back to songwriting, even as songs began to come to him—uninvited. He did not want to be pulled away from his family and this time and this place, but the songs kept finding him. “Songs that a lot of me tried not to write,” he said. “Songs that wouldn’t leave me alone. Songs that moved me enough to want to share them.”
“Honestly, I tried to avoid them, but then I realized the only way I was going to get rid of them was if I wrote them down. I got my phone out and I’d sing these little bits of melody, then put it away and move on. But eventually I got to a place where it was a roar in my head, and that pissed me off.” Due to his experiences as a gun-for-hire in Nashville, White was reluctant to romanticize the creative process, to turn it into a spiritual pursuit. “Then one day I told my wife I think I’m going to go write a song. She was as surprised as I was. I went and wrote probably eight songs in three days. It was like turning on a faucet.”
The songs on Beulah range from folk to country, to 90s-influenced rock. You can hear The Secret Sisters’ beautiful harmonies on songs like “I’ve Been Over This Before”, and White’s familiar acoustic sound emerges in songs like “Hate the Way You Love Me.” But it’s hard not to immediately gravitate toward “What’s So”, a hard-driving song that reveals both his Southern background and his love for swampy rock and roll.
White says that “Beulah” is a term of endearment in his family, comparable to calling someone “Honey”. It’s what his father called White’s little sister, and it’s what John Paul calls his own daughter. But it’s hard not to also see connections to the Beulah of poet William Blake—a place in the subconscious—not quite heaven, but the source of inspiration and dreams. John Paul White seems to agree. “[Blake’s] Beulah was a place you could go in your dreams. You could go there in meditation, to relax and heal and center yourself. It wasn’t a place you could stay, but you came back to the world a better place.”
Listening to Beulah, you are transported to another place—sometimes familiar, other times unkind and uncomfortable, but you always return home changed, and for the better.
Grab a copy of Beulah for yourself here. And listen to “What’s So” from Beulah, by John Paul White below:
As our home in The Shoals area continues to grow and expand, so does our list of things to do and see. Downtown Florence has been flourishing in the past few years, and new shops are popping up alongside tried-and-true mainstays. Ye Ole General Store, one of those longtime favorite spots, sits at the corner of Tombigbee and Seminary Streets, between a cycling shop and business offices.
The shop, which opened in 1947, has known two other names: Darby’s and Killen’s. When current owner Gordon Glasscock’s grandfather bought the business in 1973, it was rechristened Ye Ole General Store. Originally Glasscock never intended to take over the family’s business. But in 2006, after years of working as a chef, he was given the opportunity to take over the store; the idea of changing pace and working in a store of his own design was too tempting to pass up. Ten years in and Glasscock continues to curate a unique shopping experience for his guests.
Outside, a mannequin that Glasscock calls Rosie, welcomes you to the store. Over the years, her wardrobe has varied (though she almost always models one of the store’s many available hats), but these days she sports a t-shirt boasting Muscle Shoals’ music history. Once you take a step inside we recommend allowing at least an hour—if not more—to browse with intention.
The Civil War-era hats and modern-day Auburn University beanies highlight the juxtaposition of old and new seen throughout the store. If you’re looking for overalls, Glasscock will gladly find your perfect size, as he has done for generations of loyal customers. And while the store stocks a variety of hats and American-made work wear, it is an actual “general store”, selling cast iron skillets, albums from local musicians, old-fashioned men’s shaving tools, and an array of varied, useful items.
One of Glasscock’s favorite things about the store is that it allows him to meet interesting people from all walks of life—so take time to strike up a conversation with him. He’ll tell you about how he came to possess some of the biggest Levi’s jeans ever made (they measure 76 x 45) and about his most prized item in the store—an original print by Tommy Wright of Linda Ronstadt singing. That image is one of many Glasscock has collected over the years to create a visual tour of the area’s music history. Framed images of Donnie Fritts, David Hood, Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay, and other musicians tied to the Shoals are hung throughout the store.
Ye Ole General Store allows Glasscock a platform to show off what this community means to him. When you eventually find your way back to the front of the store don’t forget to say farewell to Rosie as you leave.
Regular store hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays (though they keep seasonal hours, during certain times of the year).
Ye Ole General Store
219 North Seminary Street
There is an abundance of things to see and do right here in The Shoals, but as our travel series expands, so does our list of nearby attractions—nearby meaning within driving distance from The Factory. We’ve previously highlighted Birmingham, the city about 2 hours south of here that was built around the iron and steel industry. One of the metropolitan’s most iconic (and historical) landmarks is Sloss Furnaces.
The site, most commonly referred to as just ‘Sloss’, can be found on the outskirts of downtown Birmingham. It is hard to miss—the looming blast furnaces, boilers, factory buildings, and water tank will surely catch your eye.
The industrial boom that took place in Birmingham and the surrounding areas occurred in the years following the Civil War. Colonel James Withers Sloss was one of the entrepreneurs who helped found the city of Birmingham in 1871. At that time, our country was rebuilding itself and continuing to make connections across the land with railroads. Iron ore and coal deposits were plentiful in this area of central Alabama. As a railroad man, Colonel Sloss also played an important role in securing that the completed South and North rail line (built by L&N Railroad) pass through the burgeoning town. A decade later he established the Sloss Furnace Company, and in the spring of 1882, the furnaces went into blast, producing thousands of tons of pig iron.
Colonel Sloss retired and sold the company to a group of financiers in 1886, and over the next few decades the company (now known as Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron) experienced rapid growth and expansion. By the First World War, it was the one of the largest producers of pig iron in the world. The onset of World War II broadened the market for iron and steel, and in turn, created jobs for the Birmingham area labor force.
The furnaces went through many updates over the years—and though nothing remains of the original furnace site, the oldest building on the site was constructed in 1902. Sloss shuttered production in 1971 and remained a sort of industrial graveyard until it reopened its doors in 1983 as a museum and historical landmark.
Most folks know other stories about Sloss Furnaces—a darker sort of history. It could be a dangerous place to work, and many laborers died on site. Even more were gravely injured. It is believed by some that these lost souls haunt the factory grounds—earning Sloss the reputation as one of the most haunted places in America. The tales have proved so eerie and compelling that the furnaces have been featured on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures as well as the SyFy network’s Ghost Hunters. Sloss Furnaces even hosts a haunted adventure experience each Halloween.
Sloss Furnaces also offers a wide range of events throughout the year, including tours, concerts, festivals, and workshops. You can learn a new skill (or perfect your craft) at one of the many on-site public workshops. Subjects range from blacksmithing and welding, to cast iron sculpture and casting. So, the next time you find yourself traveling through Birmingham, sign up for a class and/or tour the historic facilities.
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.”
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.
Just two hours north of The Shoals lies Nashville, Tennessee—also known as “Music City”. Travelers visiting The Factory often fly into larger nearby airports (like Nashville or Birmingham) and make the drive to Florence. Lately, perhaps in part due to the eponymous television show, Nashville has blossomed as a tourist friendly city—one that we recommend for all of our visitors with a little extra time to explore.
The city of Nashville was founded as Fort Nashborough around 1780 and is actually older than the state of Tennessee. During the Civil War, Nashville was captured early on by the Union army —who used it as a depot; this ultimately helped solidify the city’s infrastructure and ensured it would survive the war largely intact, unlike most other large Southern cities.
In 1925, a local insurance company founded a radio station in Nashville—calling it WSM, for “We Shield Millions”. Disc jockey George Hay produced a barn dance style show called “The Grand Ole Opry”, which was listened to by those in Nashville and in surrounding towns and communities. Musicians began traveling to the city in hopes of being heard on this treasured radio show. The Opry, still staged live every week, is America’s longest-running radio show.
For those with a love for music history, Nashville has no shortage of must-see stops. Visit the newly opened Johnny Cash Museum or Hatch Show Print, a historic letterpress shop that produced—and still produces—some of the most famous concert posters of all time. (Look for more information on Hatch soon.) Nearby is The Country Music Hall of Fame, which takes up an entire city block and presents artifacts like rhinestone costumes, guitars, and memorabilia from musicians of all generations. Also part of the Hall of Fame is RCA Studio B, where thousands of famous country and rock and roll songs have been recorded. Elvis alone recorded over 250 songs at Studio B.
We highly recommend touring the beautiful Ryman Auditorium, known as the “Mother Church of Country Music.” Originally built as a house of worship, it was home to the Grand Ole Opry until 1974 and now hosts shows for musicians of all genres.
Opry performers were known to sneak out the Ryman’s back doors between sets to have a drink in one of Nashville’s famous honky tonks, located on lower Broadway. Visitors now frequent establishments like Legends Corner and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which offer modern country alongside throwback country and western. For those interested in the songwriting side of Nashville (and fans of the ABC television show), you might consider a visit to The Bluebird Café, where many songwriting legends were discovered—and continue to visit. But visitors should know that venues like the Bluebird are classic Nashville “listening rooms” —and you will be shushed if you make too much noise.
Nashville is also an important stop for many vinyl enthusiasts, as well. United Record Pressing, operating since 1949, is located downtown and is one of only four remaining vinyl manufacturers in America. Musician Jack White also moved his record label, Third Man Records, from Detroit to Nashville—and they release hundreds of albums and special releases on vinyl. The Blue Room, a venue located inside, is capable of producing a vinyl master recording in real time, direct-to-acetate.
The city is also becoming (rightfully) known as a food destination. One of Nashville’s best-known culinary innovations is “hot chicken”—supposedly created by a scorned woman seeking revenge on a cheating boyfriend. Prince’s Hot Chicken is our preferred stop. There are too many “best” restaurants in town, but among our favorites are: Sean Brock’s Audrey, Tandy Wilson’s City House, and Arnold’s Country Kitchen, for a classic meat and three. (Barbeque in and around Nashville can’t be contained in one post—more on that coming soon.)
As you can see, a flight to Nashville with a two day stop before heading to The Shoals is highly recommended. Look for more upcoming posts from our Travel series, highlighting some of our favorite cities and attractions—from here to there (and most everywhere in between).
My initial introduction to up-and-coming Alabama chef Rob McDaniel came through my son, Zach. Years ago, Zach was traveling home from a Doo-Nanny celebration and stopped for brunch at a restaurant along Lake Martin in south Alabama. The unimposing atmosphere and spectacular meal he found at the SpringHouse restaurant had him hooked. He raved for weeks about his meal—and said that he wanted to return there someday to work and study with the executive chef, Rob. (And about a year later, he did.) Since that time, Chef Rob has become a friend to both our immediate family and to the Alabama Chanin family. In fact, we hosted a One-Day Workshop at Springhouse a few years ago.
Rob is a graduate of Auburn University, and honed his culinary skills at the New England Culinary Institute. He has worked alongside Chris Hastings at Hot and Hot Fish Club, and with the folks at Jim ‘N Nicks BBQ. As a sous chef, Rob learned to apply his culinary know-how to southern food and its methodology. In 2009, he became executive chef at SpringHouse and began to create his own southern food story. Rob has been named a James Beard award semifinalist twice, and in 2014 SpringHouse was named one of the Best 100 Restaurants in the South by Southern Living magazine.
Be it food or fashion, we share similar views on sustainability, supporting local economies, and the art of taking things slow. We also share a love for the good things happening at the Southern Foodways Alliance. Rob will be creating the menu for our next “Friends of the Café” Piggy Bank Dinner at The Factory on August 27, benefitting the SFA. The dinner is also serving as the kick-off for Billy Reid’s annual Shindig here in the Shoals.
The menu for the evening includes field pea fritters, tomato gazpacho, grilled okra and eggplant, and Chilton county peaches. Needless to say, we are excited to kick off our dinner series once again.
Barbeque lovers are often staunch proponents and defenders of their favorite preparation, favorite meat, and favorite sauce—or lack thereof. Just as there is an entire range of styles of barbeque (everything from pulled pork with slaw to smoked chicken to a plate of burnt ends), there is a whole spectrum of barbeque sauces. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of sugary red sauces; but as an Alabama native, I must wholeheartedly profess my love of our native white barbeque sauce.
Many of you may be unfamiliar with this particular variety of sauce, as it is a North Alabama specialty. But, it is a staple of almost every barbeque restaurant in the area and has found its way to our tables and local grocery store shelves. White sauce is a tangy condiment made of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and pepper. While that might sound a little odd to the uninitiated, those in the know are evangelists for the stuff.
While white barbeque sauce has been served in the area for years, local lore suggests that Bob Gibson of the legendary Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, invented it in 1925. Bob worked for the L & N Railroad Company, but would host barbeques on the weekends, smoking meat over a hickory pit in his backyard. Eventually, his food became so popular that he quit his job at the railroad and opened a proper restaurant.
Those traveling to The Shoals often ask for the best routes into and out of the area. I’m not sure what your definition of “best” may be, but I personally love to travel visually interesting routes, when time allows. For those that have the time and inclination for a scenic drive, I always recommend taking part of the journey on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile historical path that travels from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, and connects the Cumberland and Mississippi rivers. It follows a geologic ridgeline that prehistoric animals followed in search of new grazing land and water sources. The Trace connected tribal homelands of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Native travelers used the same pathways repeatedly, creating natural sunken sections in the ground.
Two hours south x southeast of The Shoals lies the metropolis of Birmingham—that’s how I have it in my childhood memory. It was the 1960s and 70s and we rarely made the trip. At that time, it was a place of strife, and violence, and steel, and, for a small child, the great unknown. It wasn’t until I returned to Alabama in the year 2000 to settle back into my home state that I came to know—and began to understand—this city that lies in the heart of Alabama.
One of the three closest airports to The Shoals is here, in what is called the “Magic City”; many guests who visit our studio choose to fly or take the train to Birmingham and make the two-hour drive through the Southwestern Appalachians to Northwest Alabama.
Officially founded in 1871, Birmingham built itself around railroad transportation and the railroading industry—which is still in operation today, but the major industry that spurred economy and growth was iron and steel production—hard work for strong people. While the manufacturing industry is still recognized as a large presence, other businesses and industries, like medical technology and banking, have strengthened and added growth to the area in the past 50 years.
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.
“From a scientific point of view, it can be said he [Thoreau] documented for the first time how ecological succession works … The mechanism was animals and weather. Squirrels carry acorns so oak trees replace pine when the pines are cut down. And pine seeds blow over to replace the oak.” – Richard T. Forman
I started writing this piece about two weeks ago. I was talking about succession over trend with a colleague and she asked me to put down my thoughts about how that worked. And so I started…and as I was writing, the question of trend began to appear in the press and this story seems on one hand less important and on the other hand more important. I’ll let you be the judge. In any case, thank you for coming here. Thank you for reading:
There is a small stop at milepost 330.2 on the Natchez Trace Parkway called Rock Spring Nature Trail. I’ve been going to this spot on the Natchez Trace since I was a little girl. Perk, my maternal grandfather, used to take me (and all of the cousins) there en route to Colbert Ferry park on the “other side” of the Tennessee River from our home. From there, we would launch his small fishing boat and run the trotline of baited hooks for catfish (more on this boat and Perk’s trotline coming soon).
Rock Spring is a natural aquifer that merges with Colbert Creek where this nature trail now stands. The creek is a small, meandering stream of rare beauty (see the photo above)—named after George Colbert—who ran the Ferry that crossed the Tennessee River along the Trace before the days of a bridge.
“It is scientifically impossible to leave here unsatisfied.”
-Staggs’s Customer Taylor Smith
Less than five short miles from The Factory is a diner so well known in the Shoals community, locals simply call is “Staggs”—no elaboration is necessary. It is a place where social and economic barriers are ignored or discarded; everyone eats at Staggs, from mayor to millworker.
Staggs Grocery is located in East Florence, Alabama, an area that was once proud home to a booming textile district. The same family has run the market for generations. Taylor Wylie established the business as a meat market over a century ago, but the building was destroyed by fire. It was taken over by Wylie’s son in law, Lester D. Staggs, Sr., and his brother Webb Staggs and revamped into a meat market and grocery catering to families and workers in the textile district. Lynn Staggs, who currently owns and operates Staggs with his wife Pat, took over management after the passing of his father, L.D. Staggs, Sr.
At almost any workplace, you can hear employees talk about their co-workers with a closeness and familiarity; after years of working alongside one another, your officemates can (in some cases) begin to feel like family. In the past, that has actually been the case here at Alabama Chanin. Studio and dye house directress Diane Hall has worked alongside her daughter—who has also been one of our artisan stitchers. Some of our other artisans have been sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, cousins, and almost any other combination of relations. And all these years, it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to work with my son, Zachariah, known by everyone here as “Zach.”
The company that has become Alabama Chanin started in New York City, first in Brooklyn Heights and then at the Hotel Chelsea on 23rd street, in a borrowed apartment that was my first hand-sewing studio. The apartment was three rooms and a tiny kitchen. The front room, looking out over 23rd street, housed my bed, ironing board, and sewing center; the middle room was Zach’s. In those early days, he was enlisted to carry wet fabrics to the laundromat around the corner, keep me company on jaunts to the 26th Street Flea Market, and generally assist where needed.
I guess I should have known that he would eventually come to assist me in my design efforts. In fact, at my graduation from the School of Design at North Carolina State University, they asked Zach to stand, as he had completed most of my college education with me. He stood to a round of applause as the youngest “designer” to graduate from the program. (He is blushing as I write this…)
As our new travel series expands, we realized that we have never laid the groundwork by adequately defining and describing the community that we call “The Shoals.” Since Alabama Chanin’s inception, love of community has been the cornerstone of our inspiration, design philosophies, and production practices. Shared stories of our region’s history, our neighbors, and our food, have inspired our work and brought visitors from afar. Reflecting on how much we talk about our home—The Shoals—I thought we should (finally) explain exactly what that term means.
“The Shoals” is a reference to the low-lying shoals of the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama, at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, along which the cities of Florence (where The Factory is located), Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Tuscumbia are situated. The name “The Shoals” is also a shorter way of saying the Florence-Muscle Shoals Metropolitan Area—also known as the “Quad Cities”—which spans two counties and is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 people. Before each city was named, the region was called the “Muscle Shoals District”; it was supposedly named such by Native Americans who found that navigating the strong current of the Tennessee River in this area almost impossible—and paddling upstream required a great deal of “muscle.”
It is believed that prehistoric Native American tribes crossed into North America during the Ice Age and followed herds of buffalo into the Northern Alabama region. This area was settled by what became the Woodland Indians (1000 BC – 900 AD) who built several ceremonial and burial mounds in the area. The largest in the area—tucked away between the local farmers co-op and the scrap metal yard—holds artifacts dating back over 10,000 years. I’ve been told that this holy site is believed by many to be part of a chain of important spiritual points in North America and has been visited by holy people of many different tribes across North and South America. Our friend Tom Hendrix’ wall is a living testament to the spiritual nature of our ancient Indian community.
About two hours south of The Shoals is Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city. It is a city built on railroad industries and iron and steel production. Birmingham has been called “The Iron City” and “The Magic City,” and it has a contentious past as a central player in our nation’s civil rights struggle. But today’s Birmingham has much to offer in the way of history, art, food, culture, and nightlife.
One of our favorite spots is The Garage, run by our long-time friend Kay Woehle. Kay’s father, architect Fritz Woehle, bought the building that houses The Garage in the 1970s. Back then, the former garage (pictured in the old, bent black and white photos shown here) was being repurposed as storage space.
Fritz converted part of the building into a design space and leased the remaining space to other artists and small business owners. The Garage—known for years as The Garage Café—was opened in one of these spaces by Jimmy Watson in the mid-1990s. After Jimmy passed away earlier this year, the Woehle family took over management of the bar.
No matter where Phillip March Jones finds himself, he takes photographs of the extraordinary ordinary, the peculiar still life: unusual signs, unfinished fence projects, garden rails, giant farm animals, and confusing natural anomalies.
The music that flows through our community is nothing short of amazing. I’ve written many times about the rich musical history of The Shoals area—and I’m proud of all the up and coming artists, producers, and managers that strive to create great music in our hometown (including members of the Alabama Chanin staff).
Our graphic designer, Maggie, and her husband, Daniel, are gaining attention with their new rock ‘n roll band Daniel Elias + Exotic Dangers. Below, they share how they got involved with music, along with some of their favorite songs.
Name(s): Daniel and Maggie Crisler
Band: Daniel Elias + Exotic Dangers Instrument(s) you play: Daniel – guitar, harmonica, vocals; Maggie – electric organ and percussion
Hometown: Daniel – Florence, AL; Maggie – Sheffield, AL
Presently residing: Florence, AL
AC: When did you start playing music?
DC: I remember my pop first teaching me a couple of chords on the guitar around age eight. I learned the piano, as well. The Blues was and is my first musical love, so that’s what I learned, forming the foundation for everything I play—no matter what the style is. I played (and still do) in the church band for many years before writing my first song or playing my first rock ‘n roll show.
MC: I’ve always loved music. When I was growing up, I heard a lot of Motown and classic rock because that’s what my parents listened to. I started playing piano when I was six and took lessons for about ten years. In that ten years, I also learned to play violin, clarinet, and bass guitar. I picked up the keys again when Daniel bought me a vintage Farfisa organ and asked me to play with him in a new project (which developed into this band).
Phillip March Jones says, “Seeing is everything. But it takes practice.” Expanding our collaboration with Phillip, we asked him to take a look around our studio as part of a new and ongoing travel series—and an extension of his daily photo blog Pictures Take You Places.
“During my last trip to Florence, Natalie asked me to take some pictures of the re-imagined Factory with its new shop, café, and production facility. I spent an afternoon wandering around the building, amazed at what they had accomplished but also bewildered by this seemingly impossible marriage between a literal factory and the sophisticated, comfortable aesthetic that is Alabama Chanin. Chandeliers hang below fluorescent tubes, soft pieces of dyed cloth are hung to dry against corrugated metal walls, and plant shadows grow over the cracks in the asphalt. I love the idea of this great big metal building in Alabama, all dressed up and ready to go.”
“Two years ago, I found myself knee-deep in a field in rural Alabama, picking organic cotton by hand. A few hundred other pickers were there too, bent over the rows of white cotton with bags at their hip, repeating the same hand-to-plant-to-bag motion over and over again. It was a picking party hosted by Natalie Chanin, the founder and creative director of the clothing line Alabama Chanin, and the fashion designer Billy Reid to celebrate and harvest their first homegrown, organic cotton crop.”
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.
“Where the Tennessee River, like a silver snake, winds her way through the red clay hills of Alabama, sits high on these hills my hometown, Florence.”–W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues
We have written many times of our community’s rich musical legacy. The Shoals has a very notable place in modern music history; but, that history reaches much further back than many realize. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was born and raised here in Florence in the late 19th century. Discovering a love of music at a young age, he took up the cornet and participated in a cappella vocal lessons while attending grammar school. Later, after receiving his degree from the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, he became a teacher and briefly worked in a piping company before ultimately pursuing music as his true passion. His contributions in shaping the blues were influenced by the African-American musical folk traditions he experienced during his travels across the South, with “Memphis Blues” marking the beginning of his musical career.
For over 30 years, The Shoals community has hosted the W.C. Handy Music Festival. “Handy Fest,” as the locals call it, provides a few moments of unrivaled fun – in the middle of what can be a long, hot summer. Many of us anticipate the event all year and even the most confirmed homebodies spend multiple evenings out and about, listening to live music, visiting with friends, and exploring the community during festival week.
Doc Dailey is a longtime friend of Alabama Chanin and a talented musician making music right here in our community. He and his band mates weave together music that has a universal appeal, with the distinct flavor of Muscle Shoals. Below, he shares some of his favorite summertime pastimes and songs.
AC: When did you start playing music?
DD: Some of my earliest memories are of singing along to the radio and old 8-tracks; so, in a way, I’ve been playing around with music since I was a toddler. I started playing the saxophone in 5th grade and picked up the guitar and started writing songs in my teens.
Barbecue is a territorial dish. Every region, every state, every city thinks that they have the best restaurant with the best recipes. We have never been much for arguing about barbecue because, at the end of the day, most of it is delicious. But, all who have ever eaten at Bunyan’s Bar-B-Q will attest to the deliciousness of their pulled pork and hot slaw – which absolutely cannot be replicated, though many have tried.
Bunyan’s has been a local staple since 1972, when it was founded by John Bunyan Cole. Its tiny outpost on West College Street is a frequent stop for my family. They keep a “wall of fame” posting photos of some of their favorite regular customers – and you can find my granddaughter Stella’s photo hanging there. Like all locals, she was weaned on Bunyan’s slaw.
For April’s playlist, we’ve gathered some of our favorite songs to share with you. These artists are on constant rotation at the studio (and in the store and café), and serve as daily inspiration for us as we work.
We believe these musicians are producing beautiful work and we know you will love them as much as we do:
St. Paul & the Broken Bones – “Call Me” A new favorite, from their recently released (debut) album, Half the City. (In case you aren’t familiar, St. Paul and The Broken Bones is a soulful band, recalling the sounds that put Muscle Shoals on the map.)
Pine Hill Haints – “How Much Poison Does It Take” Alabama “ghost music,” from one of the longest-running bands of the Shoals.
Rosanne Cash – “A Feather’s Not a Bird” The beautifully- composed opening song on Rosanne’s latest record, which follows her from Florence, Alabama, to Arkansas. In it, she sings of “going down to Florence, just to learn to love the thread.” Read more about Rosanne and The River and The Threadhere.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Alabama Pines” This song by Shoals native Jason Isbell has become an unofficial Alabama anthem.
Lauderdale – “Dressed Like the Devil” Southern rock with strong Americana influences, Lauderdale has been making music in the Shoals for nearly a decade.
Dylan LeBlanc – “If The Creek Don’t Rise” Singer/songwriter Dylan LeBlanc collaborated with music legend Emmylou Harris on this beautifully haunting track.
You may have read recently about dear friend, advisor, and co-worker, Jennifer Rausch. As I recounted then, I have known Jennifer and her husband, Robert, since returning to Alabama. After moving home from New York (and after years abroad), I felt a little shy and out of place in my own hometown. It was a relief when Robert reached out to me, seeking artistic alliances. We were both looking for a relaxed camaraderie—someone to relate to in a somewhat unfamiliar world. After years of friendship and collaboration, we have Southern roots, design, sustainability, and family in common.
In those early days, Robert approached me and asked if I would speak to his university photography class about living and working as a fashion and photography stylist. Shortly thereafter, we became fast friends. It wasn’t long before Robert was helping me with projects for my first company. And since those early days, he has been a part of designing and creating images and photographs for the Alabama Chanin website, catalogs, the Studio Book series, and any number of other materials. We have co-hosted dinners, picnics, and events together over the years. We have raised kids, shared a dog, and talked design.
In 2002, Robert bought and restored a historic building in our community, which is now called GAS Design Center. He shares a deep love of sustainability and healthy living and this was evident in his approach to renovating the space and building the business. Every reusable board was repurposed and natural elements were invited in whenever possible. Natural light is perfectly harnessed in the GAS photography studio, to often-breathtaking effects. In fact, our first Alabama Chanin Workshop was held in Robert’s repurposed space—a comfortable place to launch what was then an intimidating venture for Alabama Chanin.
My love for cake, from traditional layer cakes to simple pound cakes, has been well documented over the years. While I delight in the homemade sweets of the South, one of my favorite cakes comes from a local bakery here in the Shoals called Sugarbakers.
The family owned-and-operated bakery opened over twenty years ago in nearby St. Florian. A few years ago, the main location, which focused on baked goods, closed and the bakery operation moved to a restaurant called “The Drink Box,” which serves up delicious milkshakes (Maggie’s drink of choice) and chicken salad, as well as old Sugarbakers favorites and layer cakes.
As a Southerner and a cook, I often find myself included in lively debates about regional cuisine, long-winded discussions of the dozens of types of barbecue preparations, cornbread recipe swaps, or conversations on the perfect biscuit dough. Those of us who love food treasure the dishes we were raised eating and love to swap recipes and tips.
In my travels, I have done my fair share of boasting about my hometown’s specialties. One dish that I speak of frequently, that is such a big component of The Shoals’ local food culture, is chicken stew. And almost every time I mention it (outside of my home region), no one else in the room seems to know quite what I’m describing.
“Is it like a vegetable soup?” Not exactly. “A Brunswick stew?” Hmm. Not really.
So, I gradually came to understand that this dish—that was as ubiquitous to every neighborhood kitchen as cornbread or tea—wasn’t a staple meal for the rest of the world. In fact, it really doesn’t exist much outside of our small region of the Tennessee Valley.
Truthfully, the origins of chicken stew cannot be traced. And, no one can explain exactly why it is so specific to this region. I remember being told by an aunt that, once upon a time, chickens were kept for the eggs they produced. By the time a family killed a chicken for its meat, it was a “tough old bird,” only suitable for stews and other slow-cooked dishes. As with many rural households, you made the most of what you had and, logically, a stew fed more mouths than one fried chicken. Most likely, as with most regional foods, the recipe was created when poverty crossed paths with farmers, native people, and West African-style dishes. The result, in this case, is a dish that’s similar to existing recipes but that remains explicitly exclusive to one place. Continue reading →
Shortly after my move from New York to Alabama, I was sitting alone at our local Italian restaurant, reading magazines. After a while, a couple who’d been sitting across the room approached and introduced themselves to me. That couple, Jennifer and Robert Rausch, quickly became fixtures in my life; they’ve remained integral members of my Alabama family since that day.
These days, you can find Jennifer overseeing the day-to-day operations of the new flagship store and café at The Factory. She agreed to work with us at just the right time. The company was growing and I needed someone I could trust to help me make decisions that were thoughtful and confident. Growing a company can make one feel vulnerable; having an old friend there for support (especially one with an incredible work ethic) put me a bit more at ease.
She moves effortlessly between tasks and has a real desire to connect with everyone who walks through our door. This genuine approach, coupled with her wicked, infectious laugh, drew me to her initially and continues to make me smile, calm me, and draw me out of my shell when I become too introspective. She is practical and doesn’t hesitate to offer her opinion, even to play devil’s advocate in tough situations.
Recently, Building 14, our new Design + Manufacturing Services division, produced the Grist in collaboration with our friends at Billy Reid. This raglan style men’s t-shirt is made with our 100% organic cotton and features an antique button snap pocket.
Read more about our team, the manufacturing collaboration, and Building 14 on the Billy Reid Journal.
My love of books is no secret. I still have a decades-old public library card, probably obtained when I was about 8 or 9, printed on card stock and housed in a small, paper envelope. It was one of my most prized possessions as a child. Today’s library cards can be scanned and swiped, but obtaining one is still an important rite of passage for so many.
In the past, we’ve explored the emotional responses that a love for books and for libraries can elicit from anyone who shares that same admiration. Our local library, the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library, is a wonderful example of how a brick and mortar building can grow into a community of sorts, adapting to meet the needs of the public at-large, and embracing new technologies while reinforcing the importance of learning. This library, like many modern public libraries, has special initiatives geared toward younger children and teens, but also has a strong local history and genealogical research team. They are creating interactive experiences for the community through classes, meet-ups, and year-round programs. I am proud to see what an important part of our community the public library remains.
Looking back at what we have accomplished this year at Alabama Chanin, I feel nothing short of overwhelmed. With the help of many friends, Alabama Chanin has grown in ways I only imagined. Our company is the best it has ever been, and will only get better. Over the summer, and on the heels of Camp Bacon at Zingerman’s, I wrote a 10 year vision for the company—a peek into what I wanted for the future of our family of businesses. Many of the things I envisioned happening years from now were accomplished by this year’s end, with much hard work, dedication, occasional pains of labor, trial and error, and the true grit and determination of our team. All this growth and success doesn’t come from nowhere, after all.
It is hard to believe that so much has happened in the past year. While we are busy wrapping up our year-end Inventory Sale here at The Factory, it is nice to take the time to reflect on all the projects, people, and places we have experienced in just twelve incredible months.
If you visit our studio here in Alabama, you will arrive to find that we are housed in a sturdy, industrial-style, metal building which we call “The Factory.” Our community was, for generations, home to textile mills that employed an incredible number of area residents. This industrial building where we work and spend hours of our lives has seen thousands of workers pass through the doors over the years; it has heard the hum of machines running and the voices and laughter of employees passing the day away. This building is part of Alabama Chanin’s history, but, more importantly, it is part of our community’s history—a symbol of economic boom, hard times, and community rebuilding.
I told someone the other day, “Books saved my life when I was growing up.” And they did. I have spent days/weeks/years with my nose in books and, consequently, in libraries. As a designer, I find inspiration, and sometimes escape, inside of a library; as a business owner, I find critical information that has helped me grow who we are as a business and who I am as an entrepreneur. As Alabama Chanin (and my skill as a designer) has grown, so has my personal library (just ask our accountant). I have stopped dating certain men because of the absence of a library in their life, and my daughter believes the library is part of her own living room.
Ask almost anyone to describe their feelings about libraries and each person you speak to has a vivid memory of their own childhood library. I’m sure part of the reason for this is that, once upon a time, there were fewer ways to occupy yourself as a young person, and you had to actually check out a book to read it. An actual book – something that had weight, and pages you could turn, and needed bookmarks to hold your place. Ask someone about their smart phone or their Kindle and they will probably tell you how much they love it, how convenient it is, or how many features it has. Ask someone about a book, about a library, and people will tell you their memories.
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.
Louisa Murray is the face of one of our favorite local bands, The Bear. She shares the stage with her husband, Nathan Pitts, each of them writing and performing their own respective songs, and the two are backed by a talented band. Their newest album, Overseas Then Underwas produced by local indie label, Single Lock Records, co-founded by Ben Tanner, who plays keyboards for The Bear, as well as for Alabama Shakes.
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.
The music industry as we once knew it has been forced to evolve rapidly in recent years, as technology has grown faster than established business models. Major record labels struggle to maintain control of the radio waves, music sales, artist development, and our ears; meanwhile, established artists like Radiohead and Beck have embraced the Internet, a one-time enemy to record sales, by offering their work at pay-what-you-want prices, or occasionally for free. Other artists, like Jack White with Third Man Records, have taken control of the entire creative process by starting their own indie record labels, effectively surpassing the gatekeepers of yesterday.
Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and The Bear, John Paul White, and financial advisor, Shoals native, and friend Will Trapp, are bringing some of that anti-Old Guard attitude to our community with their indie label, Single Lock Records. The Shoals has a rich music history, thanks to Rick Hall, Muscle Shoals Sound, and many others who helped establish the recording industry here during the 1960’s and 70’s. Hall’s FAME Studios, with its talented roster of studio musicians, attracted diverse recording artists, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Cher, Paul Simon, and even the Osmonds. Some of these artists created their best work here. Later, Muscle Shoals Sound opened, recording the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Bob Dylan, among many others. These days, the music flows OUT of the Shoals, not INTO it.
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.
Rivertown Coffee Co. has been a staple in our community for almost 10 years. In this video series called MadeInTheShoals, owner John Cartwright talks about how he experiences coffee, the importance of community, and what it’s like to own a business.
These days, you don’t think twice about hearing a woman’s voice on the radio. There are surely female deejays or journalists on your local station. NPR broadcasts the voices and stories of women like The Kitchen Sisters or Terry Gross among others. Alabama Chanin favorite, Elizabeth Cook has her own show, “Apron Strings,” on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country. But, once upon a time, it wasn’t so common to hear a female voice over the airwaves. For those in the Shoals area, Becky Burns Phillips was one of those first voices to be broadcast.
In 1942, Rebecca “Becky” Burns Phillips met her future husband, Sam Phillips, while they were both working at WLAY radio station in Sheffield, Alabama. They were both in high school. She, 17, had a radio segment with her sister where they played music and sang; he was a 19-year old radio announcer who was on his way to making rock and roll history. The Kitchen Sisters, in an article honoring Becky, quoted Sam as saying, “I fell in love with Becky’s voice even before I met her.” Becky described her first encounter with Sam to journalist Peter Guralnick: “He had just come in out of the rain. His hair was windblown and full of raindrops. He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen. He sat down on the piano bench and began to talk to me. I told my family that night that I had met the man I wanted to marry.”
The two were married in 1943. Sam worked feverishly to establish Memphis Recording Service and, later, Sun Records. It is said that, during that time, he suffered two nervous breakdowns – which Becky gracefully helped him through. Becky and Sam had two sons, Jerry and Knox, but motherhood never took away her desire to work in radio.
Sam proudly spoke about how Becky’s talent inspired him to co-found WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts, referred to as “The First All-Girl Radio Show in the Nation.” He would say that he wanted women, wanted his wife to have a chance that no one had ever given them before – and he co-founded WHER with the money he made from selling Elvis Presley’s contract. He would say, “Becky was the best I ever heard.”
Her son Knox remembered that, at the time of WHER’s conception, women weren’t even allowed to attend the Columbia School of Broadcasting. “But, because of my mother,” he said, “when Sam started the station (WHER) he made it all female: all female air talent, all female executives and sales staff,” he told The Commercial Appeal.
At WHER, Becky was able to shine – writing scripts, organizing segments, managing the station, and presenting in her own beautiful way. She was in charge of approving each record that was played. Though her husband was a rock and roll legend, there were no rocking records at WHER. And there were NEVER to be any curse words allowed over the airwaves. Over the years, she hosted a number of radio shows and carefully curated every day’s segments. Becky told the Kitchen Sisters, “I played music to work by – all the beautiful music like Jackie Gleason and Doris Day, and I gave household hints.”
Phillips broadcast on the radio for over 40 years, until the mid-1980’s, always with her distinctive sign-off: “A smile on your face puts a smile in your voice.”
Mrs. Phillips died in September of 2012 at the age of 87.
Becky Burns Phillips carefully preserved WHER’s record library for well over 40 years. Many of those recordings can be heard on the Peabody Award winning segment by the Kitchen Sisters, “Lost and Found Sound: 1000 Beautiful Watts.”
Listen to Becky Phillips talk about her husband, Sam, and WHER Radio for the TV Segment, “The Lives They Lived” here:
There were few like her, a true pioneer in her field. Her fearlessness and her devotion to her family and her profession are inspirational. We are proud to be part of a community that fostered a woman like Becky Phillips, a pioneer in spirit and part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
P.S.: I never met Becky Phillips. After moving back home in 2000, I was “busy.” Building a business and sorting through my own life, closed me off to some of the great treasures (and families) of my own community. My loss. Resolution: take time to work less and belong more. xoNatalie
*Photo above found on The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee
This post – part of our new “Real Women” series – is dedicated to two of the most “real” women I know: Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters. Without their dedication to telling the “real” story, I would not be the designer, or the person, I am today. Lost and Found Sound changed my perception of storytelling in the Autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks: in the third story of a rented house on a green square in Savannah, Georgia. Boom. Life changed.
Ira Glass said of their work, “The Kitchen Sisters have done some of the best radio stories ever broadcast. I know people who got into radio because they heard Nikki and Davia’s work, and had no idea anybody could do anything like that on the air.”
These women are my heroes. (Along with a slew of others you will meet this year.) They continue their storytelling on real women with their series: The Hidden World of Girls, and a new series entitled: The Making of…
Through a Peabody Award winning Lost and Found Sound broadcast, The Kitchen Sisters spurred my interest in this relatively unknown, yet groundbreaking group of women.
“1000 Beautiful Watts.” This was the slogan for WHER Radio – 1430 on your AM dial in Memphis, Tennessee. In October 1955, Shoals native and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips and his wife, Becky, took an original concept and made it reality: an all-female radio station. Though the station wasn’t technically the first female station to exist, it proudly referred to itself as the “First All-Girl Radio Station in the World.” As such, WHER broadcast for 17 years in the Memphis, Tennessee market.
The musical legacy of our community is rather incredible; you don’t have to look hard or far to find a wealth of talent in the Shoals. Dive bars, back porches, and BBQs are all likely places for impromptu jam sessions. If you were living here during the 60’s or 70’s you probably have a story about the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon, Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or any number of the musicians that recorded at FAME Studios or Muscle Shoals Sound (shown in the photo above at 3614 Jackson Highway in Muscle Shoals, Alabama).
In the 1940’s, you may have heard Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, DJ-ing on the Muscle Shoals radio station, WLAY. Phillips has credited the station as inspiration and influence on his later work.
This once legendary music scene has experienced resurgence recently with artists like Bettye LaVette, the Black Keys (see video below), Band of Horses, and Alicia Keys traveling to the Shoals to produce, record, and work. And while we love that our great history, amazing engineers, and studios are attracting big names, it is our local musicians that we adore – the hometown heroes that are pursuing their dreams and doing what they love, all while dealing with the daily grind. We will begin highlighting some of the incredible local bands and musicians that call the Shoals home, starting with the very near and dear Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil.
Those of you who are frequent visitors to our blog may have read about the incredible Tom Hendrix and his beautiful tribute to his great-grandmother, The Wichahpi Commemorative Wall (known around here as simply, The Wall). Tom not only built an incredible monument for his great-grandmother, but he also took the time to tell her story in his book, If the Legends Fade. All proceeds from his book benefit his great-grandmother’s people, the Yuchi Nation.
All of us here at Alabama Chanin spent some days in the last months in a cotton field, picking our organic cotton. The work is difficult, repetitive, and, at the same time beautiful in that it brings out a meditative state. Though I was hot and tired in the field, I felt a stillness much like what I’ve experienced at The Wall. While cotton is much lighter than stone, I think I understand Tom’s mission in a way I never did before. Slowing down and being conscious of your actions can be a way to honor the past. So often we are swept up in modern convenience that it is almost impossible to appreciate the struggles our ancestors endured.
Tom, his vision, and his actions constantly inspire me. I hope that, like each stone that he places on The Wall, our work is part of something larger. I hope that our efforts create beautiful and sustainable things, while honoring those that came before us.
Many years ago, a Yuchi woman inspired Mr. Hendrix to begin this wall, saying, “One step at a time, one stone at a time. Lay a stone for every step she made…We shall pass this earth. Only the stones will remain.”
Like our ancestors, we, too, shall pass this earth. What will we leave behind?
May we each spend some time today pondering what we are thankful for and what we want to leave behind.
Giving thanks for all of you…
From all of us @ Alabama Chanin
We can’t thank everyone enough for coming out to the field on Saturday to help pick (and celebrate) our organic cotton. The skies were blue; the fields were alive with eager hands; we were standing in high cotton.
More and more volunteers continue to visit the field. Bolls are opening by the day. In addition to weeding, we’ve begun harvesting the cotton. In the studio, we are preparing for the quickly approaching Picking Party (and field work day). Look for details soon.
I took a trip out last weekend with my daughter Maggie, my friends the Champagnes and their four kids. In just a couple of hours of laughing, talking, and picking we had a pile that amounted to almost 70 pounds and the funny thing was… it was FUN. As I wrote in an earlier post, it is fun for those of us who know we can leave in a few hours, sit down for breaks as we feel like it, and laugh with our kids while working. There have been times in this county when “cotton work” was very different and we wanted our children to know and understand that. So, the few hours were filled with looking for bugs, talk of seeds and pods, and the life of farming. The kids were amazed to see how much cotton comes from each little boll. Our eight year old friend Joe kept saying, “Look how much was on this one!” and holding up his harvest proudly.
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: Monday, September 03, 2012 6:47 AM
Subject: Dayum (Georgia word for Damn) Rain
The rain and storms yesterday evening continued to send rain until this morning. About 5:00 am the rain was coming in waves and it sounded like the ocean. It is odd to me that Mother Nature that gives us so much beauty, can wave her hand and destroy so much. Anyway, I’ll be taking a row boat to check our little cotton field as soon as I get some coffee. Yesterday I was picking the beautiful first bolls that have opened on each plant. It was so light and fluffy and gorgeous.
This morning the words “as soon as it rains on the open bolls they start to deteriorate” are causing my head and my heart to ache. In review, lets us all remember that the little cotton field was planted May 10 and got one light rain 3 days later and then the 6 week record breaking drought in Alabama began. The cotton struggled to grow and survive without a drop of water for 6 weeks. In the final days suddenly one night it rained 6 inches and flooded creeks in the area and roadways. The rain brought forth giant weeds but it brought the cotton from knee high and shriveled to waist high and loaded with bolls! Now we are faced with the fact that cotton doesn’t open out all at once.
The first blooms on the lowest branch are the first bolls to open, and then the next level (node) of branches will have their bolls open and then the next and so on. The first bolls are the ones that receive the most nutrients and are the best. The top of the plants have blooms that will probably be killed by frost before they ever open into cotton. People who picked cotton always picked a field twice. The large machinery that harvests cotton picks once and leaves a tremendous amount on the ground.
Coffee is ready; I’ll shut up now. I’ll keep you posted,
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.
Wednesday morning, Alabama Chanin closed its doors for half the day and made a trip out to the cotton field to visit (and weed with) Lisa and her husband, “friend” Jimmy (as he jokingly refers to himself). Jimmy and Lisa have been the determined and loving caretakers of our cotton these last months. Living near what we understand to be the FIRST privately owned organic cotton field in North Alabama (if not the entire state), they stop by each day to keep a watchful eye on our crop and monitor its progress.
Jimmy grew up less than a mile from the site of the field. His strong determination and easygoing personality, paired with a true farmer’s work ethic, have made him invaluable to the establishment of our field. Recently retired, and a friend of K.P. and Katy McNeill of Billy Reid, Jimmy was interested in finding a way to occupy his newly acquired free time. He offered to plow, plant, and cultivate the cotton field. He and K.P. have spent many weekends in Trinity this summer, discussing and working the land. Having chopped and picked cotton growing up, Jimmy expressed (with some disdain) he did not want a role in those later processes. He knew better.
I was driving through the desert of New Mexico en route to Taos talking about our cotton. I can’t remember a summer as scorchingly hot as this one–and there were some hot ones in the late 60s and early 70s. In the last weeks, temperatures have consistently been over 100. If we have a few more summers like this one, our landscape might morph into something more like the desert. While a desert can be a beautiful landscape, it is much different from our home here in Alabama.
I’ve always been a little obsessed with parades. I scoured the internet trying to find out where parades originated, or why. What I’ve found is this: nobody knows. There are cave drawings from over ten thousand years ago that depict prehistoric men marching wild game home to cook in a wild and celebratory manner. Perhaps it is human nature – a group of people with a common cause just tend to rally around one another and rejoice.
When you think about the concept of people, musicians, floats, horses, waving pageant queens – it seems as though one would be overwhelmed at having every sense stimulated all at once. But, I’m not.
Last Friday, before we left for New York for an inspiring week of MAKESHIFT, we received wonderful news: the cotton seed had been planted. The week before, Jimmy, K.P., and I met early in the morning at the site of the cotton field, prepared to spend the day planting. However, the soil needed to be broken up more finely in order to allow the planter to properly cover the seed. This set us back a few days, but after another day of plowing to break the soil, Jimmy was finally ready to plant.
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.
Yesterday, a well awaited package was delivered to the Factory: organic, or “black” cottonseed, as I’ve learned it is called. In our effort to grow organic cotton, we’ve taken a step-by-step approach. We started with the seed, and now we move on to the land. We are learning as we go, and taking every experience to heart.
The search for seed began and taught us some of the important facts of organic cotton and cottonseed. Organizations like Textile Exchange and Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative lent their support and gave us direction in our search for non-GMO, non-treated cottonseed. In our conversation with Lynda Grose at Sustainable Cotton Project, Lynda shared her thoughts on organic, sustainable textiles, and the importance of knowing and working with your local farmers.
Thanks to Ari Weinzweig at Zingerman’s, I have been working on a “Vision of Greatness” for Alabama Chanin over the last few months (well, closer to a year to be more exact). However, over the last few weeks, I feel that I made real progress and worked out a growth chart and mission statement that is a good fit for both me and for our staff (more on that soon). Part of our Alabama Chanin growth mission includes committing ourselves to education on all levels and to finding even more ways to give back to our community.
Last month, we found a company – just around the corner from our own factory – who is doing just that.
As Alabama Chanin has grown and evolved, we have built a business model that I strongly believe in. Many of you have been with us from the beginning, and many of you have found us along the way. On a daily basis, we receive a bounty of emails, phone calls, and letters. Here we have compiled a list of our most frequently asked questions. Included are the mission and some history of Alabama Chanin. We invite you to explore, share, and of course let us know if there is something that we missed.
We sincerely appreciate every email, query, and compliment that comes our way; we look forward to continuing the conversation. While our FAQs is not meant to replace old-fashioned interaction we hope it gives anyone interested the opportunity to learn more about our company, just as we hope for opportunities to learn more about all of you.
At the Factory, we play music to help set an inspiring tone for our work environment, and sometimes to just get us through the day. At any given time, you will hear a range of genres including folk, classical, rock, country, and independent artists. We don’t usually pick favorites, but The Civil Wars’ sounds are often heard floating through the shelves of organic fabric in the studio.
Joy Williams and John Paul White’s soothing and harmonic melodies have provided the soundtrack to many FULL workdays. The songs are sometimes bluesy, sometimes haunting, and always powerful. Their voices simply sound natural and right together. Perhaps we’re partial to them—not only because of their poetic music—but also because they are rooted in the Shoals; The Civil Wars are a vital part of our artistic community. But, we also feel connected to the band because of their approach to making, or “crafting” music.
Organic cotton is the heart of Alabama Chanin. It binds all aspects of the company: sustainability, fashion, DIY, and craft. All of our garments- couture or DIY- are made with these naturally grown fibers. We have examined the influence cotton has had on our community. We have thought about its global impact. We have voiced our concerns.
I have spent countless hours contemplating major business decisions because I feel it is vital to my own ethical truths and the philosophy of our company to buy and sell only organic cotton. But, we have our own supply chain issues that affect commitment to organic cotton (more to come on this very soon). Continue reading →
It is no secret that I feel a commitment to my community; it is equally evident the role that growing up in Florence, Alabama, had on my development as a designer. Textiles – the growing, picking, spinning, knitting, cutting, and sewing – were a part of the vernacular of small southern towns from the late 1800s until the signing of NAFTA. My community has been no different.
This textile history is present in our studio today and we are surrounded by friends, colleagues, and families who have worked textiles, their parents worked textiles, and their grandparents worked textiles. My great grandmother “worked socks” at the Sweetwater Mill in East Florence. Continue reading →
I used to go sit at Tom Hendrix’ wall to think, particularly on days when I thought I couldn’t take running my business anymore. I would ask Mr. Hendrix over and over again, “Where do you find the passion and will to continue creating 25, 26, 27 years into your work?” He would patiently listen to me, laugh, and tell me to go sit in the prayer circle. It always worked. Eventually the wall came to change my entire life – but that is a story for later. Come back in a few weeks to read the rest. This is the story of “The Wall,” as I know it.
Most of you who follow this blog (or our 21 years retrospective) know that when I returned to Alabama in 2000, I didn’t have a grand plan to build the company that is now Alabama Chanin. Any plans I may have had seemed to fall away into something far larger than I ever anticipated. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in such a position and I readily admit that, at times, I was incredibly overwhelmed. However, as the initial “project” morphed into a business, I learned how to run it on the fly—one day at a time. I have often said that I am not a quick learner, but I finally realized that my community has such a wealth of knowledge as to the workings of cotton AND manufacturing. These two things had been part of the vernacular of this community for a century. So while it took time for me to understand, I finally realized I just needed to “go to the well” to draw upon that information. Here in Florence, Alabama, that “well” was Terry Wylie.
I arrived in Alabama from New York on December 23rd, 2000, to start the project that has become Alabama Chanin.
When I was writing the proposal for the project, I called my aunt Elaine to ask if she might help me find a house to rent near her, in the community where my grandparents had been raised. She had just moved back herself, after years of living and working abroad and I thought – who better to help?
My aunt was living in my maternal grandparents’ home. As a newborn baby, I was brought home to this house. It has been the only constant in my life since my birth. Growing up, I spend a LOT of time with my grandparents and knew their land like the back of my hand.
For a decade, my work at Alabama Chanin has been made possible by our artisans. Without them and our amazing staff, there would be no Alabama Chanin.
Many of the artisans working with us today are the very same women who sewed those first deconstructed t-shirts. I want to express my deep gratitude. Wielding needle and thread for a decade, they have brought beauty, laughter, amazement and joy to my life and company (not to mention all the garments, home-furnishings and projects along the way).
Over the decade, they have ranged in age from 20 to 80; among them have been secretaries, students, former textile mill employees, retired school teachers, and single mothers. They are mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, husbands, wives and friends but above all, they have proven talented, committed and proud to do the work they do.
Thanks to each and every one of you who has passed through our door- it has been a wonderful (and still growing) adventure…
Also, a GIANT shout-out to Shonna Tucker (more amazing than everyone raves) of the Drive-By Truckers for stories, laughter, good food and company… we can’t wait to photograph Shonna for the upcoming Songbirds catalog.
And we are all looking forward to seeing the Truckers @ the Shoals Theatre in the near future..
Thanks to Traci @ Thirty Tigers and Logan @ Lightening Records for making it all happen…
American Routes takes a trip through the music of the Yellowhammer State–Alabama. Visit the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and find out what’s in the water around “The Shoals” to make it a historic hotbed for R&B hits by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and more. Also, a trip through Hank Williams‘ childhood home in Georgiana, and W.C. Handy Music Festival in Florence. And music from Shelby Lynne, the Birmingham Sunlights and the Delmore Brothers.
Our weekend workshop was a beautiful mixture of women from all walks of life. It was wonderful to hear our studio filled with laughter, chatter and, from time to time, the quiet hum of concentrated fingers at work. All of the projects are lovely and I am certain that the participants will be showing off their garments over the course of the next months.
Our Sunday morning was enchanted by a serenade of Alabama Song by singer, songwriter, and designer, Allison Moorer. Allison is an amazing woman and I was inspired by her fearless choice to make our 16-Panel Swing Dress with all-over rose reverse applique.
I cannot wait to see her on stage in the piece and feel grateful to have found a new stitching sister so close to home as Nashville is just a hop, a skip and a jump up the Natchez Trace from Florence.
“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” Helen Keller
Helen Keller was born and raised in Tuscumbia, Alabama, just across the Tennessee River from my home in Florence. Every year, my Grandfather Perkins would take us to see The Miracle Worker. My cousins and I always looked forward to going – not because of the content of the show – but because it was summertime and we were happy to be together. It is only since I am a grown woman that I understand the true accomplishments of this remarkable person.
This year, as part of our Alabama Studio Weekend, we will be hosting a dinner on the grounds of Ivy Green. Storytellers from around the south will grace a stage where, long ago, a small girl challenged the world, against all odds, with the steady guidance of her teacher, mentor and friend Annie Sullivan.
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