In the beginning, as a young designer, I was navigating the fashion world with a slightly skewed perspective. I was growing and learning so much that my taste changed over the course of time. My standards of fabrication, fit, and responsible sourcing became so much more important. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors that taught me how to design more authentically, but one of the brands that made me think more deeply about the business of design was Alabama Chanin.
I became aware of Natalie Chanin’s work about a decade ago when I heard about an event she attended. I heard the story of a woman battling her own issues with the fashion industry and starting her own project of creating 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts. This led her back to her hometown of Florence, Alabama where she posted an ad in the paper for talented seamstresses. She formed amazing relationships with the people in her community who had incredible hand sewing and quilt making skills. Since then she has built a business that revolves around sustainability, creativity, craft, and responsible manufacturing.
I was eager to learn more about her journey and got the opportunity to visit the place they call home. To hear more from Natalie, check out the interview below.
You grew up in Alabama, but as a young adult did you think that was where you would truly land to build your career and life?
Natalie: Like most children, I broke away from my home and family as soon as I could. I never would have thought decades later I would be living, starting a business, and raising a family in Florence. But as it happens, sometimes we must leave home and return to understand it—once we understand ourselves. T.S. Elliot says it best:
When you set out to create 200 one of a kind t-shirts, what was your main goal? Do you think it was well-defined at the time to set you up for success as a business?
Natalie: The 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts began as an art project. Timing, circumstance, chance, and a lot of hard work transformed it into a business.
In returning to Florence, AL did you have any fears or was this purely an exciting time where you felt your vision would come to life?
Natalie: Fear and reservation go hand-in-hand with any new endeavor, but I mostly felt excitement—call it naïve optimism. I was embarking on a new phase in my life, much needed at the time. Making the shirts with my own hands brought me a type of satisfaction that’s hard to recreate otherwise. I knew of a group of women back in Alabama who would love to sew (or so I thought). It turned into a necessity and important act of preserving the history of textiles my community.
I know ethical responsibility was important to you based on your previous design experiences, but in these early stages of design was the lifecycle and environmental effects of a garment heavy on your mind or did this evolve over time?
Natalie: My early intentions were to make things that I wanted to wear, rather than become a sustainable designer. The way I went about doing that shaped my views on design. I began working with t-shirts because that was a material I knew and it was accessible to me at the time. There was a beautiful connection between the upcycled t-shirts I used in my designs and my community—many of them had been sewn in Florence and found their way into thrift store all across the country, then rediscovered and made again in Florence.
As your business grew, one of your biggest challenges was addressing the Department of Labor due to artisans sewing in their own homes, from this what did you learn and what was the final outcome?
Natalie: Over the years we’ve developed a system that works really well for us, our artisans, and our customers. Each of our pieces is hand-cut, stenciled, and packaged for our artisans to then sew and embroider the garments. Alabama Chanin contracts our work to artisans who are independent contractors and licensed small business owners. This model allows them to work from their homes, run their own businesses, and take care of their families.
Our artisan-based production method can be used to improve economic development in other communities. We are currently working with a non-profit, Nest, to develop standards and guidelines for home-based craft work in communities all over the world.
I’m sure there are many variables that could have led you into different directions, but was/is there something that helps you maintain your focus?
Natalie: Materials and community. You need the proper materials to create a healthy process. With the right materials, you can make quality and functional designs. We rely on our community to use these materials to create our designs.
Looking ahead, there is a focus on organic cotton, natural and low-impact dyes and utilizing as many suppliers in the USA as possible. Were there any major challenges or surprises in setting up this supply chain? Is it always evolving?
Natalie: Always. Always. Always. We’ve recently found out the cotton crops in Texas didn’t have a high yield last year so yarn prices are going up. We have to secure a year’s worth of yarn for our fabric and for a small company, this is a huge commitment. Two years ago, the dye house we worked with closed—they were a fourth-generation family owned operation. It was a huge transition to another dyer who had larger minimums and impacted our fabric offerings. There’s always a new challenge around the corner. But we always come up against it and figure out a solution.
What's your take on farm to fashion, do you think it will be as understandable and easy to communicate as the food or beauty industries?
Natalie: People don’t typically think about the clothes that they put on their bodies in the same way that they think about the products that they put on their skin, or the food that they feed their children. Education is key.
Alabama Chanin has been created with a focus on education and transparency in sharing our techniques, methods, and supply chain. Another challenge as a designer is educating consumers about the “why” of high costs. Using sustainable, quality materials to create products in an ethical manner, especially in the United States, almost always has a higher cost. The challenge lies in educating and encouraging people to think more critically about the products that they buy and support and celebrate brands and companies that strive for sustainability.
Due to the nature of your design process do you find that there has to be a limit on production every season in order to maintain quality and life balance for all?
Natalie: While some strides are being taken by large and small corporations to address the issues, the fashion industry has a lot of work to do to improve on how much waste is being produced and stop marketing for over-consumption by making poor quality goods that are not long lasting. Our garments are custom made. Aside from our collection samples and a small stock in our store, all garments are made-to-order. Our lean method manufacturing helps us conserve our materials and resources and is much more meaningful and personal.
Now, you operate The School of Making, Café and also introduced BLDG. 14, can you elaborate on BLDG 14 and what is to come?
Natalie: The name BLDG 14 is a callback to the building that Alabama Chanin is housed in. It was a former t-shirt sewing plant that was in operation when Florence had a booming manufacturing industry during the 1980s and 1990s.
We have created a design and manufacturing operation—a hub for artisan craft—where we can offer our materials and skills and manufacture for companies who wish to use organic fabrics and produce in the US. We create garments for ourselves as part of the Alabama Chanin collection and a host of other home goods in BLDG 14.
If you had one wish or goal what would you like to see happen in the industry?
Natalie: I dream of consumers rewriting how the fashion industry works simply by voting with their dollars.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Natalie: If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be, “Work hard but love your work. Take your time to get ahead. Good things will come and it’s important to take the time to enjoy them when they appear.”
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
Natalie: I love to work in my garden, walk the dogs, play a card game with my daughter. All of this followed by sitting on my back porch with a good glass of wine.
If this has inspired you to take up some hand sewing, check out more here!