A designer comes back to her native rural region and marshals the skills of textile workers into an industry that's à la mode.
You can go home again, and sometimes when you do you see it through new eyes. Assets and possibilities that were there all along suddenly become visible. That is the experience of Natalie Chanin, who grew up in Northern Alabama but itched to get away. She left first for North Caroline to study textiles and fashion, and then got away even farther, working in the fashion capitals of Europe.
But she came home to Northern Alabama for an extended visit, then to do the documentary Stitches, about the quilting and sewing traditions of the South. Then, to her own amazement, she decided to stay.
Northern Alabama was once known as the Tee-Shirt Capital of the World. Its textile mills employed thousands. That industry is all gone now, a casualty of globalization, but many of the skilled hands that worked in the mills remain. Natalie Chanin realized that these skilled workers were assets; they could make things – just in a different way.
Natalie Chanin had always customized her own clothes, taking a simple shirt and adding her own hand stitched patters or appliqués. The business she started ten years ago that is now Alabama Chanin uses this “slow design” value to reinvigorate an old – and very rural – cottage-industry model of production. “We used to be a production society, but we’re not anymore. We need to change that.”
Natalie and a partner design the patterns and secure contracts for orders. She then bids out production runs to a network of up to 40 artisans she refers to as “stitchers” who bid based on the purchase cost of materials and patterns supplied, and the selling price for final products. Stitchers live within an hour and a half radius of the Alabama Chanin location, in Florence, Alabama. Because each product is made by hand, no two are identical. Each garment is signed by the primary individual who makes it.
“ This is a modern adaptation of a very old cottage industry method of production. It allows a great deal of flexibility. Some of our stitchers work full time, others work just part time. One woman sews on the lunch breaks of another job.” In a written response to the growing inquiries about the company, Natalie notes that “contemporary cottage industry style production allows our artisans to work from their own homes, run their own businesses and be in charge of their own lives and families. It has always been a part of our mission as a company to bring as much work as possible into our community and to our artisans. This is an issue that we strive to achieve every day.”
In a telephone conversation Natalie noted that she is growing the company as slowly and organically as possible. “Have you read Michael Pollen’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma? My model is Polyface farm up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They integrate their waste into their production stream,” Chanin says. (Polyface, Inc. is a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach organization.)
Indeed, Alabama Chanin is taking a deliberate lesson from the slow food movement and creating a model based on slow design, where value is placed not on mass production, but on individually designed and created products that are locally made.
Natalie Chanin writes, “The techniques we celebrate have been passed from hand to hand, from generation to generation and kept alive through commitment to quality and beauty. It is our goal to refine traditional methods in order to create exemplary contemporary pieces. Our philosophy centers on the celebration and preservation of uniquely American traditions while building a sustainable business model. We strive to source materials locally when possible and to reuse, or ‘upcycle,’ materials at every turn.”
Natalie goes to great pains to say that Alabama Chanin’s model is not for everyone — not the solution for every community. It is, however, an adaptable model. For example, in other craft traditions such as hand made wood items. the individual artisan does the design and production, and the finished product is marketed by a cooperative broker.
What is fascinating, however, is that Alabama Chanin’s model is a good mix of building on regional branding (Alabama), local assets (skilled artisans) and a flexibility in the production network that meets the income-generation needs of rural individuals who otherwise might not have the opportunity.
Rural entrepreneurship advocates might want to see other individual businesses spin off from the stitcher network – and it would be fascinating to talk more with them to see if that potential is there or already happening.
Alabama Chanin has created considerable buzz in the fashion and lifestyle press. And she is starting to get attention on the business model. She arranges workshops several times a year on the design and creation of hand stitched clothes, and occasionally individuals come simply to learn about how the production process might be adapted and transferred. “We had an extension agent from Nebraska come to the most recent workshop,” Natalie relates.
“I sort of fell into this like a fool off a cliff,” she admits. Sometimes when life takes us over a ledge like that, we fall back where we came from. We see long standing rural assets with new eyes. We can creatively adapt modern methods to preserving and enhancing the old ways, and bring what we love and cherish about rural places into a future one would want to come home to. Natalie Chanin is right; it is not the answer for everyone. But we can applaud an entrepreneur who asked the right question: “How do we recognize and reinvigorate the assets we have?