Natalie Chanin has taken hands-on creating to a new level and a wider audience with Alabama Chanin and The School of Making. By emphasizing sustainability, open-sourcing and ethical practices, she has built a community of makers.
Did you have a “gateway craft” as a kid? Which creative projects led you to the work you do today?
I have always been drawn to creating with my hands. This remains true today. As a child, I would use every opportunity to crochet, paint or play in the dirt. My grandmother was an excellent seamstress. I would work beside her (mostly distract her, I believe) at the dining room table that was her sewing studio from Monday through Saturday, and cleared each week for Sunday dinner. Those moments did make a great impact on my life and creative process.
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Why textiles? Why fashion? How did you get started?
I received my degree in Environmental Design from North Carolina State University then moved to Europe to work as a stylist. After ten years abroad, I returned to New York City on a sabbatical.
One evening I cut apart a t-shirt, sewed it back together and wore it to a party – and the next morning I woke up with a feeling of satisfaction. I had forgotten how good it felt to make something with my own two hands.
Over time, I wanted to create a collection of these handsewn pieces, but I found that the techniques I was in search of couldn’t be recreated in New York. I was using quilting stitches that I had learned from my grandmother and great-grandmother in Alabama, so that’s where I went to reconnect with an entire community of sewers and seamstresses.
From there, I joined with friends and made 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts and a short documentary about old-time quilting circles. Those first 200 shirts evolved into the business that has become Alabama Chanin.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe that everyone is creative. Creativity presents itself in many ways. For those who feel more confident navigating with their left brain, this spark may take the form of creative solutions and problem-solving. Everyone should have a seat at the table and a safe space to explore their own process.
What is it about the South that calls artists home? What were the stops along the way of your round trip?
For so many, the South is a place of wonderment. It’s a deep, wild, complicated, rich land that fosters immense creativity. Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to travel and study around the world. These experiences allowed me to come back home and truly immerse myself in the roots of my community.
Your business model for Alabama Chanin is the antithesis of the fast, cheap, disposable emphasis in modern clothing production. What inspired you to take a different path?
I began my work as a sustainable designer somewhat accidentally, and long before it was called “sustainable fashion”. In my earliest days as a designer, I traveled across the world working in other manufacturing factories. Experiencing these harsh working conditions first-hand truly affected me. My intention was never to become a sustainable designer, but rather to make things that I wanted to wear in an ethical manner. The way I approached this mission shaped my views on design.
All of our garments are sewn by artisans who work from their own homes or on-site in our factory and combine new, organic and recycled materials. Our products, including our machine-manufactured goods, are made by hand using 100% organic cotton, grown in the US. We use a lean manufacturing method to eliminate excess stock and reduce environmental impact.
Our focus – now and for the foreseeable future – is to create using the principles of sustainability, paying fair wages and providing growth through economic development in our local community and beyond.
A lot of people would have let it all ride after developing a successful, exclusive, handmade clothing brand. What was missing that pushed you outside of that box?
The decision to open-source our techniques and materials grew from our commitment to sustainability. The School of Making allows us to make living arts accessible to all consumers. So much time, skill and love goes into the making of a garment. Once someone tries the work themselves, they begin to truly appreciate the garments they own.
What advice do you have for artisans who are tempted to undervalue their creations when potential customers compare original work with mass-produced merchandise?
At this moment, we are facing such uncertainty. I have great hope that our society will rise from these unprecedented times and begin seeking out small business owners, manufacturers and artisans in support of the craft. I urge you to continue following the path of slow design and production. Your way of working is the future of our industry.
The School of Making encourages others to try their hands (so to speak) at the slow clothing mindset. What are the different facets of The School of Making, and why is it important that you share them?
The School of Making is our educational initiative that aims to preserve this way of making. The initial decision to open-source our techniques and materials grew from our commitment to sustainability. This decision has developed into The School of Making as we see it today, which intertwines design and craft with inspiration, as well as the tools and materials needed to build your wardrobe by hand.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from The School of Making book series?
It is proven that making with your hands can stimulate the same parts of the brain as meditation. I hope that readers are able to reconnect with themselves as they work through projects from each book – whether that be practicing stitches, sewing or cooking the recipes we have included.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
Our website is an extension of the collections that live within Alabama Chanin and The School of Making. I hope that visitors feel inspired in exploring this carefully curated digital landscape. We also have a Journal where we tell stories and share inspiration, ideas, projects and more. The Journal has been living and growing with our company for almost fifteen years and is a vast archive of things that energize, motivate and inspire us.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I believe that the story that lives within each garment makes our designs so unique. Our garments are crafted by someone’s hands from beginning to end. Each piece requires time, patience and has a story to tell before it’s even met the one who will wear it. This has been the manufacturing process for our garments since I began this work in 2000.
With the demands of running a business, are you still able to find time to pick up a needle and thread? Do you have a go-to just-for-fun project? How do you squeeze that in?
Truth be told, I am actually not the best sewer, but I do enjoy it. I prioritize some time for making every week, whether it’s sewing, practicing yoga or working in my garden. My favorite project is our Long Skirt in Magdalena.
What is your advice for someone starting out in fashion?
The most important step of your career is showing up each day. Although some days will be harder than others, every day that you show up and do the work takes you another step forward in your life’s work.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you create with the intent to send a message?
I find that inspiration can come from anywhere: a book, a walk, shopping at the grocery store. Inspiration doesn’t have to be an out-of-body experience… although that can also happen. There is no intent to send a message, but instead to create beautiful fabrics and garments that I want to wear. Each new design lives in harmony with our growing body of work from the last two decades.
How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?
I believe in cleaning the house about twenty times before settling in for creative work. Perhaps that is more like avoiding the work until everything is in seeming order?
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
It takes a village to carry a collection from concept to completion. Our team at Alabama Chanin and The School of Making is better now than ever before. The work is a deep collaboration between pattern making, fabric design, and our hand and machine artisans.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Fabric stacks, good scissors, rolls of paper, 6” metal ruler, mechanical pencil, and plenty of erasers.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I alternate between silence, music, audiobooks and podcasts. Here’s a small sampling of this past month:
- 99% Invisible
- The Moth
- The Kitchen Sisters
- Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me
- On Being
- Articles of Interest
- The Genius Life
- This American Life
- Poetry Unbound
Recent Audio Books:
- Mythos, Stephen Fry
- The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton
- Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
- The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
And an eclectic music mix:
- Electronic, Trip Hop, Jazz, dance mix with some samba inspired beats: Kruder & Dorfmeister, Koop, Bebel Gilberto, Tosca, Club des Belugas, Jay-Jay Johanson, Thievery Corporation, and with a bit of Christine and the Queens for good measure.
- Everything Glen Gould
- John Prine, Rosanne Cash, John Paul White, and Gillian Welch
Interview posted May 2020
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