That’s right, this year I’ve got one of those big birthday’s coming up so I decided to give myself the gift of doing something I’ve always wanted to do, go to an Alabama Chanin workshop. I have to say, probably one of the best presents ever. Three days of celebrating creativity, compassion and courage.
It was funny, as my sister and I were driving to the Factory on Friday noontime I had a queasy feeling, what if it was not all I had hoped. When following the directions on my cell phone’s map, I questioned, is this right? Can my mecca really be on this country road? But as we pulled into the parking lot it became clear; the red awning, the greenery in galvanized tins, the cool ladies getting out of their car next to us, yes, this is the place.
My queasy feeling quickly turned to nervous energy and excitement. Here were the clothes I’ve been admiring from pictures on the website. Up close and in person. I can touch the intricate stitching, feel the weight of a jacket on my shoulders, try on pieces I’ve coveted. But it’s not just the clothes, everything in the factory all shares that same message; creativity, compassion and courage.
We are greeted by a lovely young lady named Rachel who is the workshop coordinator. She shows us to the back room where our work tables are and gives us our welcome tote which includes a notebook, a tape measure and our own pair of embroidery scissors wrapped on a string of jersey so we can wear it as a necklace. In the back room, there are sample sizes of all Alabama Chanin’s DIY patterns in plain jersey, as well as samples of the current DIY kits available on line, already embroidered in the various techniques we can choose from.
It’s a bit overwhelming but as we met the other ladies from the workshop and from the factory, and as we swapped stories, tried on things, tried on other things, we slowly realized we had to pick just one item as our workshop project. I went there thinking I was going to pick the Classic Coat in Black/Navy Facets but when I tried on the walking cape I became a convert. I stuck with my color story but I went with medium polka dots – it has that same graphic nature but it would be a great chance to try something new – backstitch in embroidery floss. Spoiler alert – I couldn’t pick just one so I bought an additional kit – the tank dress in Navy Facets. Actually, each work station had a laundry basket underneath so that we could gather everything we wanted to purchase over the weekend in the basket – mine overflowed. I bought quite a bit of fabric, thread and embroidery floss as well. Oh, and some pieces of clothing, and some kitchen items, and …
They led us on a tour of the factory and showed us the areas where they create the designs and the patterns, where the sew the machine garments, where they cut, where they stencil. I have to admit, it’s a bit smaller then I imagined, but I like that about it. It all felt very personal and very warm.
After the tour they fed us some wonderful snacks. Turns out Natalie’s son, Zach, runs the café and he put the same warm and personal feeling into his work. He explained how each treat was made including his grandmother’s recipe for pimento cheese (which I had never tried before .. but liked), and he had some wonderful carrots and turnips he had been fermenting for months. Add a little Prosecco and I was in heaven, southern style.
On the second day I got to meet my idol, Natalie Chanin. We were having a breakfast of homemade granola and yogurt with berries and the best biscuits you’ve ever imagined. When she walked in her first remark was, “I can feel the positive energy in this room.” And she was so right, we were sixteen women from all over the country all there sharing our passion and our stories. It was special.
The agenda had Natalie teaching us the physics of sewing. She explained to us about the cotton plant and her commitment to keeping the “seed to shelf” process all organic and in the United States. She described the process of spinning the cotton to make threads and how they are woven. She shared how to care for your thread by “loving” it. She spoke about needle types, the lessons that the Alabama Chanin artisans have learned about which needles they prefer and how to pull the thread. Basically, she conveyed a sense that each garment that is made using her method is made with compassion for the environment, for the materials and for the eventual owner (or several generations of owners). She didn’t go into all of the pitfalls that the “fast fashion” industry has had on the environment, our culture and working conditions around the globe, but she didn’t have to. We all know the cost.
After lunch we met with Diane who taught us all about the stitching and beading techniques the Alabama Chanin artisans use. I’d been intimidated in the past trying new stitches but she patiently walked me through the chain stitch and the rose bud. She stayed there long after she had to and even shared her email with us if we had any more questions. I need to practice a whole lot more before I try these stitches on a garment, but now, I will try them. Beading might take me a little longer
On Sunday, Zach outdid himself with brunch! While we all ate way too much while Natalie told us about the history of the company. I’m not going to repeat the whole story here. She gave us some good sources for that:
What she did exhibit was the courage it took to take hold of this opportunity even though it was not her career plan, her clashing heads with the government over employee labor laws, the difficult times it took to get the right people – having to retrain in some cases as the factory had been closed for so long, and struggling to try and serve more markets while not diluting the brand. She spoke of some of her financial concerns and the company’s relationship with Nest, who just helped Alabama Chanin complete the first artisan audit in the U.S.A. She has had the courage to do remarkable things, not just bringing manufacturing back into the US, but championing others who are doing the same, selling many lifestyle products that share her philosophy.
She ended by sharing some new things in the pipeline. She’s got a new book coming out Spring of 2017, “The Geometry of Stitches,” and she’s working on an Embroidery stitch-a-long. Build a wardrobe will continue in 2017 with four new patterns and four new stencils. One of the things I admire most about Natalie is her willingness to share her intellectual property and designs, and she is working on finding ways to continue to make it easier for each of us to become makers ourselves. A lot of discussion was had about the future of Alabama Chanin, manufacturing in America, the political climate and much more, but I loved the way she wrapped it up, “This is our time … we’ve got this”