Alabama Chanin’s Natalie Chanin on Working Her Own Organic Cotton Fields

Walking the talk in sustainable fashion.

Last week, the Alabama Chanin team, along with our friends Lisa and Jimmy, took to the organic cotton field  we share with the team from Billy Reid. With rubber boots, loppers, and gloves in hand, we were there helping our organic cotton bolls survive after a long summer of drought and heat followed by excessive rain and weed growth.

We walked the rows, hoed, chopped, and pulled until the sun and heat forced us out of the field. Hard to imagine the days in Alabama heat where people were not allowed out of the field. Makes me think about how things were, how things are, and how things will be.
Nine of us barely made a dent in the work that needs to be done. As we documented the day with black and white images, it looked so romantic and felt like a moment from a Willa Cather novel. But the reality behind the black and white is a sordid, ugly history. I can’t pretend that I didn’t think about those that did this work because they had no choice. But I live TODAY and I WANT to grow organic cotton in the state of Alabama TODAY.

Chapter 1 in the Alabama Stitch Book is about the history of cotton in our community and it was my goal to embrace that history with open arms, understanding the ugly past while hopeful for a more beautiful future. The beauty of the outdoors, the detailed shots of our cotton bolls make me proud. This is not glamorous work; it is hard work, and for some people, it once was the difference between life or death – without which, their families may have starved. My family worked cotton, grew small plots of cotton, and lived next to people who made their entire livelihood from this white fiber.

In an age where technology and convenience rule, our trip to the field served as a great reminder of the importance of creating things that last, leaving a legacy for families and communities, alongside our environment.
This community has a strong heritage in farming fields – by machine, by hand, by any means necessary. Images of the “Old South” come to mind as I re-read that sentence, but as I have come to learn, those stylized movie images didn’t reflect the reality of the south.

In the real “Old South,” my family and their neighbors were busy “scraping out a living.” My mother’s father worked a “good job” at the Tennessee Valley Authority AND farmed. My father’s father built houses AND farmed AND raised cattle.

As our group made its way through this beautiful new cotton field, many parts of that heritage came up in conversation. Stories, personal accounts of our parents and grandparents growing up in the fields and working with bloodied hands were shared as we, ourselves, walked rows of weed-ridden cotton. This work, these stories are a part of our souls; they are also part of our company.
At Alabama Chanin, we strive to connect the past with the present. Our company is based on age-old techniques; history is woven into every garment we create. It’s important that we understand the significance found in “modern old-fashioned” ways of doing things, from sewing to farming.

By putting ourselves in the cotton field, we found a deeper understanding of the entire manufacturing process, from planting to production. Sustainability begins with the soil in which we plant those tiny cotton seeds and continues through the dying process of our garments.
Lisa tells us that the local farmers thought we were crazy for planting organic cotton. They think we are especially crazy for working the field by hand. What they didn’t see in the beginning is that IF this works (and it appears that it will), when this works, we will be one of the first to grow organic cotton in the state of Alabama. It’s not about succeeding or failing, it’s about learning, trying, connecting, and believing. Lisa says that a few of the farmers are talking about putting in 100 acres next year to try that “organic” for themselves. Now that is success.


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).