Q & A with Natalie “Alabama” Chanin, author of Alabama Stitch Book: Projects & Stories Celebrating Hand-Sewing, Quilting, and Embroidery for Contemporary Sustainable Style
Why did you decide to write Alabama Stitch Book?
The products we create at Alabama Chanin, especially the clothing, are extremely expensive because they are handmade. Each piece is cut, painted, and stitched completely by hand and some garments can take up to two months to complete. I wanted to write Alabama Stitch Book in order to document our techniques and share them. Hopefully, readers will enjoy reading about the spirit of community, sustainability, and tradition that guides us and by making the projects will become part of what we do.
You’ve lived and worked everywhere from South America to Vienna to Manhattan—what brought you back to Alabama?
Although I have traveled and lived all over the world, home has always been very important to me. However, it was not really my intention to move home. I returned to Florence, I thought temporarily, to make a documentary film about old-time quilting circles in and around the Shoales community (of which Florence is a part) and to find stitchers to make my first T-shirts. Those projects developed quickly into a career change, life change, and, of course, the book. It took me about two years to realize that I actually “live” in Alabama again.
You talk a lot about sustainable design. What does that mean and why is that important to you?
The term sustainable design was first used to describe a way of manufacturing with materials and methods that have a low impact on the earth. It has since evolved to include the idea of sustaining traditions. It’s related to the Slow Food movement, where people try to grow food of the highest possible quality while simultaneously respecting and nurturing the earth. Initially, I worked with recycled T-shirts because I loved the way they felt and looked. I was shocked when I realized how many T-shirts were out there and how wasteful it was to put them in landfills. I decided I wanted to do something to change this, to be part of the solution to the problem.
The center of fashion and design in the United States is New York, and hundreds of designers migrate here every year to be inspired in their work. What about Alabama continues to inspire you?
The nature and landscape of my community is an ever-changing source of inspiration--the light, trees, fields, and colors. My work is rooted in all of these things as well as local traditions like growing cotton, stitching, and storytelling. l still travel, but I always love to come home again to digest my experiences and incorporate them into our collections. I can be as inspired by a local farmer walking around town in a pair of worn-out overalls as I am by the most beautiful streets, fashions, and museums in the world.
Robert Rausch, who photographed and designed Alabama Stitch Book, is another Alabama native. How do you think his roots in Florence influenced the book?
Like me, Robert grew up in Florence, then left and lived all over the world before settling back down here. We worked together a lot before starting this book so had the luxury of time to test out our ideas. We both wanted Alabama Stitch Book to be rooted in community. Our models are our neighbors. Robert took the photographs in our backyards and at our neighbors’ farms and studios. The design of the book reflects the simple, straightforward aesthetic that infuses so much of our work.
You and the stitchers you commission make almost everything in your collections by hand. What do you think you have learned from that process that you might not have learned if you had your collections produced by machine?
I believe that the slow, methodical way we work gives us time to contemplate what we are doing and how we are working with people. It also allows our stitchers, who are primarily women, to create their own businesses, work from their own homes, and build the lives that they want to have. I am very proud of that.