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Monday, March 4, 2013

Natalie Chanin: Founder of Alabama Chanin

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Started by artist Natalie Chanin, clothing line Alabama Chanin has grown steadily for more than 10 years and her strong personal beliefs in employing local artisans, sustainability, and uncompromising hand-made quality still form the foundations for everything they produce. Read about how it all got started, not with a business plan, but a creative impulse to just recycle.

To start, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in a 1940s era brick house in my community of Florence, Alabama. It is filled with love, noise, laughter, and usually, biscuits, due mainly to my daughter, Maggie, and our rambunctious Standard Poodle, Pree (short for Prince). Since I grew up in a rural community with an appreciation for the land, gardening, and food, I find it relaxing to spend time tending my garden and bringing that (little) bounty to the table. (There is something therapeutic about cutting vegetables.) As a family, we try to eat dinner at our table every night. Try, being the key word.

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Sustainable or “green fashion” is becoming more popular, but Alabama Chanin has been more than 10 years in the making. How did it all get started?

Some people may have heard the story of our history, but for those who have not: In 1999, I took what I intended to be a four month sabbatical from my work in Vienna, Austria. At the end of those four months, I went to New York City and stayed longer than I’d planned. While there, I cut apart and reconstructed a t-shirt that everyone seemed to compliment. Out of that t-shirt, this company was born. I had an idea to create 200 one-of-a-kind shirts to sell during Fashion Week. This idea brought me back home to my community and to the concepts of community-based fashion, of crafting by-hand, and of focusing on organic and recycled materials.

It seems like a blink of the eye since that first t-shirt and I am still here in Alabama cutting things apart and putting them back together again. In those years since I began Alabama Chanin, I often get asked what my plan was and, I must admit, initially I didn’t really have a long-term plan. I was doing something that I felt driven to do and never intended to start a sustainable design company. It’s amazing where life leads you when you follow your heart.

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Each Alabama Chanin garment is sewn by hand by US artisans and the materials are either all organic or recycled. You’ve also talked often about paying real living wages and cottage industry employment. What would you say are the guiding principles of Alabama Chanin and why are they so important to you?

Alabama Chanin is based upon the idea of quality design of beautiful products made ethically. Our desire is to have a positive impact upon our community by employing talented artisans using a cottage industry-style of production. Each piece is made by-hand, by someone in our community and that person runs their own business and is in charge of the amount of work that she wants to do. It is important to us that we keep our production local and try to make an impact in our own community.

We also strive to keep all aspects of our production process in the United States. Most of our fabric starts as seed in Texas, and then travels to South Carolina for knitting, then moves on to Tennessee or North Carolina to be dyed. We try every day to make sure that our products are Made in the USA. This has also meant trying our own hand at growing organic cotton and soon an attempt at machine production. It is a constant process of learning, growing, learning, growing, learning…

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Finally, organic cotton is really at the heart of what we do at Alabama Chanin. It embodies the aspects of sustainability and fashion. I grew up surrounded by cotton and my family picked cotton. In effect, my whole life has been surrounded by cotton. At Alabama Chanin we use only organic cotton because we firmly believe that it is healthier for the wearer and user because no chemical means are used to produce the product. We believe that it is healthier for the land when there are no harmful chemicals incorporated into the soil and, ultimately, our ground water. We want to provide sustainable and beautiful options for our customers.

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In addition to Alabama Chanin, you’re also an artist and filmmaker. What are your biggest inspirations and interests?

I used to always joke that I was a filmmaker posing as a fashion designer. Some days, I feel that is still true. I worked in the film industry for a decade before I began Alabama Chanin and I really fell in love with documentary films and films that can tell a real story. My family is full of storytellers, so I guess telling stories through film was my way of expressing that aspect of my personality. My inspirations are – in life and in film – the characters. I produced a short documentary film, Stitch, focusing on traditional southern quilt-making. Each woman in the film was a “character” in my story, a person with something to say about life and struggle and friendships and living in a specific time and place. So, in film and in life, I’m inspired everyday by the nuances and characteristics of every person I meet. Everyone has a unique story.

How do you use Pinterest?

Pinterest has become more useful the more that we explore its depths. You really can spend hours going from one page to the next, looking for inspiration. We have used Pinterest to post our own designs, look for color and texture inspirations, post photos of our favorite designers’ work, even search for recipes for our weekly studio lunches. I now have a “secret” board—which I love. I’m sure that we will continue to find more uses for Pinterest – and spend more and more time exploring. I also see Pinterest becoming more and more a place where people can collaborate by sharing boards with one another. I love the growing conversation of the medium you’ve created.

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You’ve led workshops and of course authored DIY books such as Alabama Stitch Book. Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s interested in picking up a handicraft or learning a new skill?

It is easier than ever to learn a new skill. The world of online learning is expanding and making education of all kinds more accessible. Our goal at Alabama Chanin is to promote open sourcing, or making ideas available to everyone, so that we can form connections and begin conversations about making. So, look for books that pique your interest, or delve into the online world. Perhaps start with Alabama Chanin’s courses at Creativebug or Craftsy.

Thank you Natalie for taking the time to share your story! To find out more about Alabama Chanin, visit their website, amazing blog, or Pinterest boards.