Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Alabama Chanin: Hand-Sewn in America

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Alabama Chanin: Hand-Sewn in America

Slow fashion is gaining pace. This may sound like a bit of a conundrum – but the reality is that an increasing number of fashion and textile businesses are adopting slow values. Take Esthetica as an example. The green arm of London Fashion week is now an established fixture on the fashion calendar with twenty-eight labels showing last year. But British designers aren’t the only ones to start taking stock of their own fashion and textile waste. While America tends to struggle with its green credentials, slow fashion there has grown from experimental projects into established businesses. Alabama Chanin is the perfect example of this. The lifestyle label is the creation of Natalie Chanin, a filmmaker who returned to her hometown of Florence, Alabama a decade ago to establish a fashion company based on slow values. The company philosophy is deceptively simple: use local materials and local skills to create garments that can meet the ambitious biography of ‘hand-sewn in America’.

After her move home, Chanin first created “Stitch” a short documentary about the region’s quilt making traditions. “I always make the joke that I am a filmmaker who is posing as a fashion designer,” she recently blogged.  “I did work in the film industry for ten years prior to starting my work with Alabama Chanin and in this time, I fell in love with documentary films and films that tell stories.” Chanin began by telling the stories of those left jobless when the region’s textile industry moved overseas in search of lower material and labour costs. Now her company is responsible for a new story. Alabama Chanin’s production takes place in the homes of women who live within an hour and half radius of Florence, Alabama – a modest car journey by American standards. And materials are farmed or sourced locally, which means that ‘grown to sewn’, the catch phrase coined to refer to this localised approach, is hard at work.

The collection makes no attempt to mimic mechanical production. Instead it makes the most of design elements that require hand sewing: edges gently fray, knots behind stitches are integrated into the surface of the design, and the one-off potential of stitching by hand is highlighted rather than concealed. Even the initials of the seamstress are included in the garment’s label – the antithesis of faceless sweatshop labour. Chanin is optimistic that the public is increasingly aware of the need to change the way textiles and fashion are manufactured: “I believe that the work we have done and continue to do has helped to draw attention to the loss of textile related skills.  However, I do feel that there is a collective consciousness happening at the moment where the world is starting to appreciate all of the living arts, whether it be sewing, cooking or how we live our lives on a daily basis.”

It would be a mistake to see these changes as purely revival. The collection is designed to use hand sewing to its best advantage, but combines local skills with techniques that have come to be known as part of the label’s signature. “Quilting and embroidery have always been a part of rural communities everywhere since the beginning of time,” Chanin explains.  “However, the cut work – reverse appliqué – that is our signature style at Alabama Chanin was something that we added to the skills of the community, along with techniques like couching and relief appliqué.  The combinations of these traditional techniques reworked in a contemporary way is at the core of our style at Alabama Chanin.”

Employing local skills has provided, on a modest scale, desperately needed jobs to a region suffering from the demise of a once thriving conventional textile industry. But scale continues to remain key to the success of the business. Many popular approaches to slow design, such as upcyling (a term first used by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things to refer to the recycling of materials that results in an increase rather than decrease in value) remain impractical on a large scale. Chanin reflects on the limitations some slow design ideas face when attempted on a large scale noting that “upcycling in textiles works brilliantly on small and focused projects but does not scale up for wider distributions.  Issues of shipping and dyeing became a real problem with the work I was doing. However, I still believe and try to incorporate upcycling into our business model anywhere possible. Upcycling works perfectly on a local basis and our focus should be to incorporate these practices into the smaller-scale workings of our businesses as a whole.”

The downside to this business model is that the product comes, understandably, at a cost. Chanin concedes, “Many of our garments wind up in museums and private collections”. Efforts to make the collection more widely available now include workshops, how-to books and DIY kits that encourage us to pick up needle and thread and follow the patterns ourselves. “Our books Alabama Stitch Book and the newly released Alabama Studio Style hopefully support a larger audience in making decisions that in turn support the resurgence of the skills at the core of living arts,” Chanin explains of her decision to publish. For those without the time or skill, the company also suggests commissioning individuals in our own local communities who posses the skills to follow the patterns. This open-source approach (more commonly used to refer to free computer soft wear accessed via the Internet) is a real test of how education may impact the future of consumer behaviour. “I am proud that Alabama Chanin has chosen to take this route,” Chanin comments. “And honestly, it was a very difficult (and scary) decision to make and was not met with positive feedback from my industry colleagues. What is interesting is that after the publication of the two books and embracing this open-source philosophy, many people finally understood why our garments are worth so much.”

Embroidery Magazine (July/August 2010: 16-21)