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.
My work in my hometown of Florence, Alabama, began as a project to make two-hundred, one-of-a-kind, hand-sewn t-shirts. My initial concept was simple: go home to Alabama, find quilters who could sew the simple embroideries I wanted to use, make a film about old quilting circles, and show the whole project during New York Fashion Week.
I arrived in Alabama in late December 2000 and the adventure began. During February 2001 Fashion Week, the embroideries of our Alabama artisans found supporters in people like Julie Gilhart – at that time with Barneys New York – and a slew of other fashion journalists and specialty stores. As those first deliveries sold, we made a second round of t-shirt samples to satisfy buyer’s requests and a company was born.
After these first two seasons, I envisioned the t-shirt line growing into a full-scale collection for women that included skirts, jackets, tops and accessories. Exactly a decade ago today I arrived in New York with my first full-scale collection, thinking I was ready for everything New York Fashion Week had to throw at me.
The world changed just two days later.
I was in New York’s Meat-Packing District when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. By the time I made it back to my hotel, the second tower was on fire. We all know how the horror progressed. So many friends and colleagues lost loved ones and friends on that day. Sitting here, 10 years later, I think that I’m only now beginning to fully understand the impact that 9/11has had on my work and life.
While I was already on the path to slow design and to building a sustainable company, I believe the experience of 9/11 made me cling even stronger to sustainability as a way of work and life. It made the need to create with meaning stronger. It cemented my path with desire for a different kind of business, a different kind of world, a different kind of message – a message that started, for me, with fabric and thread.
Working with needle and thread automatically connects you to the moment. It is a methodical work that physically ties you with thread to your hands. It calms the mind. It gives room for the soul to expand. Over the last decade, we have built a community of sewers, artisans and now an ever growing DIY community that understands the value of making.
Maybe this is a place for people to come together.
Think about this idea as it relates to food. My home in the South is peppered with an ugly past and things that happened not so long ago. My friend, food writer, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, (and hero) John T. Edge once said this about the possibility to heal our differences and deal with our past: “We have this burden of the past upon us. We’ll deal with that history. But we’re looking for opportunities; we’re looking for places to deal with that history. And I think one great place to deal with that, to sit across from our fellow man, is at a barbecue restaurant…I think there’s hope in barbecue.”
In our sewing workshops in Alabama and across the nation, I have seen legions of people – men and women – from many backgrounds, businesses and differing pathways in life, sit together in peace, laughter, genuine interest and support. Differences have been aired, backgrounds have been shared, and problems have been resolved. Each person leaves this time of living in the moment with needle and thread with a better understanding for themselves, the other and with a sense of calm that was not present before. Watching this process evolve has cemented the fact for me that making together creates a place for conversations to grow.
What if communities of makers could come together over needle and thread (insert cooking, building, any work that requires hands and mind)? What if, by doing so, we could focus on those basic needs that we all share – food, shelter, and clothing – and begin to appreciate our sameness? Could needle and thread, this making, provide a place where civil discourse trumps civil acts of violence? Could we use this as a place to meet and begin to heal the past while creating a future together?
I think just as John T. Edge believes that “there’s hope in barbecue,” there’s just as much in the power of making.
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.