The Maker: Natalie Chanin, Alabama Chanin, Florence
Not all of us will make a T-shirt by hand to attend a party.
Natalie Chanin did a couple of decades ago, and has continued to make them.
I walked into the Alabama Chanin headquarters in Florence, and I lost sense of time and place. It could have been New York, Paris, or Milan. But in the Muscle Shoals area, on a two-lane road, past pastures and general stores, is one of the most celebrated fashion design and manufacturing facilities in the world. In the back of the spacious showroom, a café greets visitors with the chef, her son Zach. The place also offers ceramics, pillows and throws, and pottery – all made in Alabama.
When I met the famous Natalie Chanin, I noticed she had this deep comfort and confidence. She had lovely white hair pulled back and soft, pretty features combined with an inviting demeanor. Perhaps that explains the soft cotton she makes her fabrics from – organic and grown with artisanal sensibility. She began with the T-shirt story.
She was invited to a party when she lived in New York City. For a reason she is still unaware of, Chanin made a homemade T-shirt to wear to the party. She still remembers sewing it slowly with needle and thread. The reaction at the party was phenomenal. She particularly remembers being happy and thrilled with her friends’ comments.
“It was exciting because people really seemed to respond to the shirt. What deeply affected me was that process of making it, which made me really happy. I woke up the next morning, and I made another T-shirt and another and another. That’s what brought me on this 20-year journey. That is Alabama Chanin,” Chanin said.
We sat in the back near a huge room full of seamstresses sewing beautiful garments by hand. That is her signature. Chanin goes against the grain in many ways, but doing her couture by hand is what made her an icon in the fashion industry.
I asked her why she has located in Florence. She smiled big.
“I don’t have to be here. I could be someplace else, but I want to be here. This is a great place to raise my children and my grandchildren. It’s the community of my birth, but it’s also been a community of great inspiration and support. This business is alive today because of the people who have supported it,” Chanin said.
Chanin offers workshops and classes to teach the slow design and making of garments. Her passion for the artisanal craft has inspired many to help her produce a truly unique line of clothing. She loves to create with her hands, and hopes the handcrafted movement is here to stay.
“In the beginning, it was that sense of making something with my hands that was so powerful, even after being a designer and stylist and a costume designer,” Chanin said.
She took me on a tour of the plant, and I watched seamstresses sewing one stitch at a time, sitting around a table, chatting and creating. Chanin does have a machine-produced line, but her hallmark is the sweat and equity of those women who have become her family. Now she hopes the legacy of the artisanal craft she has pioneered in Alabama will last.
“As I get older, I love that we have some talented young people who have grown up in this business. I feel a sense of responsibility to them and the employees who work here. It feels like an important thing to sustain in our community, which has a deep history in textiles. My grandmother worked in textile mills for a long time,” Chanin said.
Next time I go to a party, I may attempt to make a T-shirt by hand. Or I could just buy one from Alabama Chanin.
I think I will defer to the second option.
The Product: Hand- and machine-sewn garments and goods.
462 Lane Drive
Florence, AL 35630
Alabama Makers explores the artisans, crafts people, carpenters, cooks, bakers, blacksmiths, designers and others making original and extraordinary items in our state. If you know an Alabama Maker, let us know at [email protected]