Natalie Chanin’s American-Made Enterprise


Photograph by Elizabeth Suzann

If you have ever wondered what it would take—and what it would cost—to bring textile and garment construction back to the United States, designer and ecological visionary Natalie Chanin has some ideas for you. After a career as a garment designer and stylist in New York, she headed back to her home town of Florence, Alabama to launch a new kind of textile industry.  She had the idea of hand stitching clothes from left over tee shirts—in essence making treasure from trash.  Adding reverse applique, embroidery, and embellishments to her hand made garments meant that she could sell them at a price that could keep the small business going.

What started as a way to add value to simple garments expanded into a multi-faceted industry called Alabama Chanin. The surviving tradition of hand quilting in the South gave her an initial labor force.  When she needed more workers, she trained them. When production expanded, she sourced organic cotton from Texas and had it milled and dyed in North Carolina. In order to provide consistent quality, she wrote guidebooks. And when her methods attracted interest from home sewers, she published pattern books and sewing guides, in essence “open sourcing” all her techniques.

Now her company consists of a network of hand sewers, a factory producing lower priced knit garments, a school where Chanin’s methods are taught, and a restaurant.  Books and sewing kits provide additional revenue streams. She has also added an indigo dye shop using locally grown indigo.  It’s no surprise that her new clothing line is in shades of blue.

Chanin’s clothes are expensive.  A handmade blazer I admired was over $1200; a handmade tee shirt around $250.  Even a machine made tank top costs almost $70.  Why so pricey? The organic cotton is grown, processed, and dyed in the US.  All workers are paid a living wage.  And since each item is produced only when orders come in, there are few economies of scale.  This means less waste, but higher costs.

I heard about Alabama Chanin through sewing blogs, but a wonderful interview on the podcast Love to Sew gave me so much more admiration for her achievements.  She has brought work back to her hometown, invigorated the US textile industry, and taught thousands of women the joys of hand sewing.  Interested? Try a class on Bluprint.

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4 Responses to Natalie Chanin’s American-Made Enterprise

  1. Once I saw the work of Alabama Chanin it was such a lightbulb moment for me. For a long time I would have always tried to make good anything that was being discarded – out of habit, and after seeing her work I wanted to see if I could fully apply this to sewing.
    I love the timeless-ness of her clothing, while not fully my style, the styling itself is truly irresistible.
    Amazing woman – I am looking forward to listening to the interview.

  2. JS says:

    Sorry, but I have extremely mixed feelings about Alabama Chanin, based on the first few books. It is a truth universally acknowledged that every indie garmento enterprise must have a compelling backstory and hers is about the so-called New South. Yet, her version of that place did not contain any black people, which is absurd. There was not a single black person in her first book. In the second or third book, all I could discern of people of color was a brown arm in one photo, seriously, not even a whole person. One of the books had what I recall as a scarf or banner project that was supposed to commemorate civil rights, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out the connection, not from the design, and especially since again there were no black people in the book. I believe that later books finally featured some black models, but by then I’d lost interest.

    In the books, much was made of the sustainable, natural quality of the materials used on the projects, but they included the use of a black Sharpie pen for the embellishments. How is that natural? I’m not a purist, but if you’re going to pretentiously tout how natural you are, you shouldn’t be using Sharpies. The projects are interesting, but at the same time, they often look homemade and primitive compared to traditional folk embroidery. There were unlined cotton jersey dresses that looked suitable only for an Appalachian barbecue with barefoot participants. The price of the materials and kits is quite high for what you get.

    • Lizzie says:

      Ekk! “Appalachian barbeque with barefoot participants”? Your prejudice is showing. Your point about the lack of diversity in her early books is well-taken, but it should not be at the expense of a highly marginalized culture group.

  3. Katrina B says:

    I got kind of interested in her a few years ago when I heard she was supporting organic cotton farming. I know cotton is still grown in a lot of parts of the US, but growing it organically has to be an incredible challenge. Arizona is a cotton state, and just judging by the pests I have to fight off of my small garden on a daily basis, I don’t know how you could raise any large-scale crop organically. Anyway, the measures taken to protect the plants while maintaining organic status are going to contribute to the very high costs of the fiber.

    I took one of her Bluprint classes and I enjoy looking at her new pieces every season just to admire the handiwork and creativity, but overall it’s not my style and definitely far out of my price range.

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