Natalie Chanin: Board by Board

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.

This is a conversation that played out in my head countless times this last week:
“I need to sit down and write the EcoSalon column.”
“The laundry really needs to get done.”
“I NEED to sit down and write the EcoSalon column.”
“Maybe, I should go weed the garden.”
“I NEED to SIT DOWN NOW and write the EcoSalon column.”
“There is that bird pecking around in the yard, I could go stare at it for a while.”

It is Thursday afternoon and the post is not done. We have ALL been in this situation before. It’s the story where the work ahead seems daunting, or maybe we have done so much work recently that we don’t have the mental capacity to think, or maybe it’s just that our children are away and the house is silent – something that happens very rarely. For whatever reason, we pause, sit, stare at the wall, and then go make a tea.

As I sit and drink my tea, my mind wanders back to a day eleven years ago when I arrived in the city of my childhood, Florence, Alabama, to start the “project” that has become Alabama Chanin. As many of you my already know, years ago, I had a dream to create 2000 one-of-a-kind t-shirts. I wrote a proposal, raised the money (thank you Lisa), and prepared to come home, and arrived on December 23rd, 2000.

My mother’s sister had just purchased a home that was built by my father’s father, next to one she was living in that was built by  their father. She phoned me in New York a week before I was to arrive and asked: “Would you like to rent the old McCorkle place?” “YES,” I replied.  So, I rented the house – sight unseen – and headed home to the Shoals Community for what I thought was to be four weeks. Eleven years later, I am still here.

The house my aunt had just purchased had been empty for quite some time as the former owner had moved to a nursing home. In the south, an entire town can disappear in two years or less when left unattended. Vegetation thrives, animals root, and anything left for abandoned soon begins to melt back into the earth. This is the power of nature.

Days before I arrived, my aunt and her husband had cut their way into the backdoor with a chain saw. They opened up the house, took a quick order of affairs, and provided a mattress for my first night.  On that cold December day, sometime around dark, I arrived in a New York City rental car to a house that smelled like a combination of old fried chicken bones, a family of cats, and something vaguely reptilian. (In Alabama, when you catch that whiff, you automatically assume snakes.)

While I was grateful for this opportunity to be able to realize my dream project, I laid down that night in the middle of an empty room, and cried.  It seemed I had made a very bad mistake. My dream wasn’t quite so dreamy after all.

My mind raced around the fact that I had ABSOLUTELY no idea how I was ever going to make this project come together. I had been winging it all along and was not competent enough to pull this off. I had a film crew arriving from Austria in ten days to shoot a documentary film about old-time quilting circles, and I didn’t have a place to make them a cup of coffee. If I were to realize my plan of presenting 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts during New York Fashion Week in six weeks, I was going to have to start working the very next morning to get them done. Lying on a borrowed mattress, I sobbed, whined, and beat myself up, while I constantly kept watch for the movement of anything wild – be it bug, reptile, or otherwise.

I am not sure when I fell asleep but I did finally sleep a few winks and woke up without snakes (who are known to seek out human warmth). I sat up, red-eyed, and assessed the situation. The sun was shining. I was sleeping in a heart-pine paneled room circa 1950s style that was a kitchen/open living room. Bright yellow and green vinyl tile a la 1970s crossed the space to the back door that looked out to a scrub forest which was really just an over-grown back yard. I don’t remember a sound.

I sat there in the silence as my mind continued to race:
“I really should get up and make some coffee.”
“I should just lie back down and stare at the ceiling.”
“I really should get up and get started.”
“Well, there is that bird pecking around in the yard, I could go stare at it for a while.”
Sound familiar?

To make a long story short, I got up that morning – Christmas Eve – and made some tea in a borrowed pot. And after the tea was done, I filled the kitchen sink with water and took one of the rags my aunt had so generously left and started to clean.  My thought was to clean a section of the kitchen counter that I would have a place to sit back down.
I proceeded to clean the whole kitchen.

When the kitchen was finished, I looked around. The room – and my life – felt completely overwhelming; however, I decided that I could clean just one of those heart-pine boards. As I began to wash that first board, underneath its black patina, a beautiful pattern emerged. I looked at that 300 year old piece of wood, and I cleaned, and I stopped thinking. When the first board was finished, I realized that every board in that room must be just as beautiful, and I cleaned a second one. By the time the sun started to go down behind that overgrown backyard, I had washed every board in that room – one board at a time. Finally sitting down, I realized that I had the stamina to do anything that needed to be done to realize my dream. In that moment, I knew in my heart that board-by-board is the way we get things done in life.  All we need is the focus to see one board at a time.

In this New Year, when I think of running my business, raising my daughter, writing a post for EcoSalon, or that really overwhelming thought of making a difference in a fast-fashion world, I will remind myself that we are assured a better place – and real change – if we keep at it board-by-board.

P.S. With the Vienna film crew who did have coffee in my kitchen after all.


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).