Behind the Curtain

Knowledge. Now everyone knew exactly what went into every single garment. Material costs. Skill set. What kind of labor. And more importantly, how many hours. Hours and hours and hours.

Behind the Curtain

I’ve been a very big fan of Natalie Chanin since she began Project Alabama in 2000 (and of which she is no longer a part).  I can’t remember now how exactly I found out about her, but it was probably in a magazine article.  She is now the force of nature behind Alabama Chanin.

My Alabama Chanin DIY poncho
My Alabama Chanin DIY poncho

With Alabama Chanin, in developing her line and her marketing stragegy, Ms. Chanin has given everyone involved, from designer to maker to client, an incredible gift – one that keeps giving back. The gift of information.  She has resurrected the educated clothing consumer.

Alabama Chanin is beautiful, distinctive clothing and home dec made from organic American grown cotton.  Fabric is dyed in small lots, patterns individually cut, stencilled, hand embellished, hand sewn.  This work is performed by people close enough to the Alabama Chanin studio, located in a retired t-shirt factory in Florence, Alabama, to drive in, pick it up, and take it home to finish, as it is quite time consuming.

Perhaps increasingly frustrated by the comments on how expensive her clothing is – everyone I know who makes anything by hand hears these rather constantly! – Ms. Chanin began to educate.  Today it is entirely possible to purchase her patterns, her stencils, her fabrics, her paints.  She sells the thread.  She has published four books elucidating exactly how one would go about the process of making any given item in her line.  I suppose some people thought she was giving it away.

But exactly the opposite of what you’d think would happen did happen – her line began to sell even more.  Sales increased in both her custom and DIY lines.  Ms. Chanin now has factory tours, makers’ days, workshops.  She teaches an absolutely incredibly in-depth Craftsy class (I signed up!).  Her workshops and tours are so popular they have even added a factory eatery and evening events including speakers.

Exactly what happened here?  And how does this directly benefit you and me?

Knowledge.  Now everyone knew exactly what went into every single garment.  Material costs.  Skill set.  What kind of labor.  And more importantly, how many hours.  Hours and hours and hours.

No more instant disposable clothing that “magically” appears in stores!  And there aren’t rows and rows of identical items – most everything is made to order.

And even Chanel and Dior are beginning to open the doors to their previously guarded back rooms.  Perhaps they too are feeling the need to educate a little?

[The shawl in the photo was purchased as a DIY kit from the Alabama Chanin website and completed from the pattern in her book.  It took me about 6 weeks of working on it 3-4 hours at night.  My ASG guild in Atlanta, CityWide Couture, was very complimentary but when I told them how long it took me there was a collective sigh.  It was then that I realized they had probably not made many quilts!  I love this and wear it a lot.  Totally worth the money and effort.]



Improvisational quilt top
Improvisational Piecing

It’s that time of year again – summer “vacation”.  Somehow I have come to equate that with the urge to go on a retreat, sort of like summer camp was years and years ago, but a bit more focused.  Well, a LOT more focused, actually.

It took a long time for me to actually go on a retreat.  I had lots of excuses not to – expense, time, worrying my family couldn’t get along without me (wishing it, more likely), not knowing anyone else, fear of flying.  Just about any excuse would do.

Then I went on my first one.  Ten whole days of nothing to do but practice new skills, meet new and inspirational people, and see up close and personal the most amazing work I’d ever seen.  Ever.  I went home with my brain on fire.  And did some of MY best work, with a ribbon to prove it!

One of the challenges I’ve found with classes is the supply list.  Seems no matter what I take, or how much of it, I never have exactly the “right” piece of fabric, or color thread, or “inspirational photo”.  I’ve had to learn to improvise and make decisions within the parameters of what is on hand, which is actually a very good skill for me to practice.  I think it is this ability to improvise that makes vintage quilts so very very interesting, and it inspires my process and exercises my creative muscles.  (Once, a participant showed up for a 4-day master class pulling a trailer, into which she had packed her entire sewing studio.  She probably paid for her trip selling fabric from the back of her car!)

Last year I went with a talented and patient friend to MISA, in Wisconsin.  It was a great change of scenery with a great program.  This year I’d like to stay a little closer to home, close enough to take my own stuff.  My own sewing machine for starters.  I’d like to spend less time actually getting there.  And I’m feeling quite lucky as there are so many really good choices close to me – John C. Campbell, Penland, Arrowmont – just for starters.  This year has its own special challenges, all personal, and I’m not feeling quite so “free” to take off for a couple of weeks.

I’m also finding that the studies that interest me are rather unexpected, and I’m not sure if that’s a distraction or a new path.  But I am finding that I do want to dig a little deeper into my own process and expand my ability to get my “voice” out.  That excites me, but also scares me just a little.

What do you do to excite (scare) yourself a little?  Have you been on a retreat?  Which was your favorite, and would you try to recreate that with friends or mentors?

And does it only have to be summer camp?

Let’s Be On Good Terms

Let’s Be On Good Terms

For a quiet hour
For a quiet hour

Organic.  Environmentally friendly.  Responsibly made.  These words show up a lot these days, and sometimes I see them used in ways that seem diametrically opposed.  What do they really mean, exactly? defines organic as  “noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.”  The word “organic” is thrown around a lot these days, especially when it comes to food, only for me to discover it doesn’t always mean as “natural” as “organic” is in my mind.  “Environmentally friendly” is another term I’ve learned to mistrust and investigate further, especially when it comes to fibers, as the term often can refer to only one of the many processes involved to bring plant to textile.  And “responsibly made”?  How far down the chain does one need to go to be “responsible”?

When I started this venture, I really wanted to use fibers that don’t use up a lot of water, or deplete the soil, or make the people who grow, harvest, or process the fibers unhealthy.  My family farmed cotton for at least 3 generations, and pesticides are not good for anyone: farmer, neighbor, animal life.  As a child I remember seeing people in the fields when the crop dusters would fly over, poisoning them along with the crops.  A lot of cotton now is even grown with the poison inserted into the seed, so that it is actually part of the fiber itself – there is no separating it or washing it out.

Finding these “environmentally friendly” fibers is not as easy as one would think!  That’s why I chose hemp for my first product.  Hemp is not presently grown in the US, which is another story, but it is grown without the use of pesticides or even a lot of fertilizers, simply because there is no need.  It’s rarely irrigated.  Once grown, the stalks are cut and laid in the fields for several days, turned and left to dry in the sun, during which time the fibers fall away from the woody central stem.  They are then collected, put into the ditches and ponds in the fields, and left for several weeks to separate further.  They don’t need chemicals to break them down further to be spun into thread which is then woven into cloth, unlike wood or bamboo rayon, which both use a lot of chemicals and are terrible for the water supply (which is also why they aren’t produced in the US, by the way).  Hemp is very strong, silky, long-lasting, and has a beautiful natural color.  My hemp is undyed and unbleached, just the color the sun and rain made it.

I am committed to finding fibers that are grown without the use of pesticides or industrial fertilizers that accumulate in our water supplies, minimally processed, and printed using low-impact dyes that also don’t contribute to runoff into our water.  It’s more difficult that I imagined, and I upped the difficulty level by wanting to use fibers grown, milled, spun, woven and printed in the USA.

So.  The hemp I use in the electronic envelopes is grown in Romania, without chemicals or pesticides, and brought over by sea to minimize the carbon footprint.  It’s digitally printed in North Carolina, using fiber reactive dyes that cut waste and water usage to the bare minimum.  It’s cut, sewn and finished in Athens, GA, using a lot of human power (which is, contrary to what we tell each other some days in the studio, completely renewable).  The closures are aluminum, die stamped in Minnesota using a minimum of 30% recycled material.  The artists are paid for the fine work that they do, receiving a percentage of sales as well.  The sewists are paid a living wage, too, and I’m proud to call them my friends.  We ship in 100% recycled polyester envelopes, to keep the products clean and dry, made in the USA, and using a minimum of packing materials.  This is the best I can do to be “responsible.”

I am always on the lookout for great fibers and textiles that are home-grown, milled and dyed in the US, and any suggestions you have will be explored.  But I just wanted to be sure that we understand each other when we use these words that are increasingly used more for marketing than truthtelling.  Because it’s important to me that you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy from Cambridge Lane.