Natalie Chanin: From Field to Fashion

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

I have always believed that as human beings, we are all born designers. We decorate our notebooks in grade school and our lockers in high school; we carefully select and arrange products for our first apartment, select an outfit for a special date, make a wedding dress, or prepare a nursery.  We work at our job – and whether we work in a grocery store or run a high fashion boutique, we look for ways to make our job easier, to facilitate customer experience, or just to make our desk a little more “ours.” We are born designers.

As a designer, I always thought that making our garments was very simple and straightforward – that is, until I started writing instructions for our Alabama Studio Book Series.  I was pouring over texts for hours and hours, trying to describe and outline the steps in producing one of our garments when I realized that the amount of steps to doing anything well are many.

What I learned from writing those books is that over the years, my design and manufacturing process had become second nature which was the reason why the books were so difficult to write. What seemed nothing to me – like selecting a fabric or a color, became intricate tasks when asked to reproduce them with words.

I’ve been asked many times to describe my own creative processes, so I will attempt to describe them here:

At Alabama Chanin, we work solely with 100% organic cotton jersey. Over the years, we have tried to incorporate other types of fabric but our clients keep coming back to the cotton jersey over and over again.
The cotton fiber that we are using this year went into the ground as a seed in the spring of last year. In a best case scenario (which was not the case last year), we are able to purchase fiber that is grown in Texas. Cotton has a relatively long growing season and is harvested in the fall of the year.  Farmers who make the commitment to organic are modern day heroes in my opinion.
From the field (wherever that might be), our fiber goes for ginning, then on to spinning in North Carolina, knitting in South Carolina, and back to North Carolina for dying. After dying, the finished fabric arrives in our studio where we keep about 52+ colors of medium-weight jersey in stock and a growing array of colors of light-weight jersey.

I use travel, books, exhibitions, newspaper articles, interesting philosophies and people to inspire a theme for each season. I cut out pictures, mix colors, paste them together and let them sit. I may totally rearrange and start over. Over the years, I have learned that sitting quietly and listening to what the images have to say is the best way to start a collection. A simple color swatch or an intricate process may determine the first step in my creative decision making, but the whole process that follows determines the end result.

Looking at my inspiration board, I choose colors that reflect my thoughts and feelings. However, I also consider what I want to wear, what color I want to see on our clients, and what colors look good on the skin. I normally sit very still for a morning and play with swatches of colored fabric and paper to narrow it down to 10 colors that I love. The end result may contain only a small part of what I started with.
The same process goes for texture. Do I want to create texture for a particular collection or would I prefer that the designs are sleek and smooth? Again, this is not based on scientific measure but on what I want to wear, what I feel our clients would look good wearing, and what suits the theme of the collection.

At Alabama Chanin, we work primarily with stenciling techniques to apply patterns to our fabrics. These stencils are developed in our studio and the first ones are cut by hand with an X-Acto Knife and Pennant Felt. We use these prototypes to test how any given design will work with our fabric, the colors that we have chosen and the texture we want to achieve.

Pattern, color and texture are combined in this step to create our final fabric designs. This is where the incredible talent of our Alabama Chanin team comes into play. Swatch after swatch is sewn both in our studio and by our artisans working in search of the best combinations of threads, embroidery flosses, stitches and beads and sequins for every collection. Our artisans help me determine what works best for each piece and each design.

Our studio team then takes my sketches and translates those into finished patterns and garments. We often create several versions of each garment in order to work out the kinks and arrive at a final piece that we all adore.
After this collection of garments is completed, we start to combine our favorite fabric designs with our favorite garments for a finished collection.

Once we have found the perfect combinations of garments and fabrics, the collection is cut, painted-by-hand and sent out to our artisans for embroidery and garment construction.

All of the completed garments are then hung together on a rack to see what looks good together, what we would want to wear and/or photograph together. After fully merchandising what we want to include in a collection, the individual garments are priced and taken to market where we write orders for the stores.

After orders have been taken, it’s our job to come back home and manufacture all of the orders. This is the bulk of our work and where our team excels. Zac Posen once said, “It takes 5 minutes of designing and 5 months of selling and manufacturing.” He is right. It can take months to complete an order. And after that wonderful order is completed, we package and ship.

This is the best part of the process. The part where people get to try, take home and enjoy the garments that we make. Knowing they have purchased something that was made with heart and soul makes people happy.

Interested in knowing more about the design or manufacturing process? Click HERE to join us today, November 17th from 12:30 – 1:30 pm CST on the Alabama Chanin Facebook Page for a chat about Design Process + Manufacturing.  See you there!

Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).