Alabama’s Old, New, Slow Industry

[imgbelt img=songbirds.gif]A designer comes back to her native rural region and marshals the skills of textile workers into an industry that’s à la mode.


[imgcontainer left] [img:songbirds.gif] [source]Alabama Chanin

From the Songbird clothing collection
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.