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.