From her perch in Florence, Alabama, Natalie Chanin sees a beautiful view; the landscape of her youth, to which she returned as an adult to launch her clothing and lifestyle company, Alabama Chanin, in 2000. Her company’s origin story came with a revival for her life that involved a move from New York that connected her return to the textile traditions of the Deep South and showed her the courage bubbling within her. In her beautiful and personal new book, Embroidery: Threads and Stories from Alabama Chanin and the Tailoring SchoolChanin describes not only the journey of her business, but also the personal revelations she has assembled along the way.
“Last year, Alabama Chanin celebrated our 21-year project, chronicling our twenty-one years of work in sustainable design and textiles,” Chanin said. “This was an important milestone for our team and the work we have quietly rolled out around the world over the past two decades. Embroidery is a collection of stories about my journey home, my creative process, cotton, community, craftsmanship and design. We spoke with Chanin about the new book, the advice she would give to herself younger, the events she’s planning across the country this fall, and what she thinks of the current trend for old quilts to become clothes. She even shared a few excerpts from the book.
You write about your family’s history of quilting and finding quilters who knew your grandmothers. Tell me more about what it meant to you to come home.
My parents were so young when I was born; therefore, I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and have so many deep and beautiful memories of that part of my life. When I first thought of returning home, a forgotten part of my childhood emerged and I began to dream of the rivers, woods and people of my childhood. Once I began to reconnect with these beautiful women I had grown up with, I was completely moved and inspired by their talent, their connection to the land, and an undying respect for their community.
What do you wish you could say to yourself at twenty? Are you thirty years old?
There are so many. I remember myself during those decades as being filled with fear, uncertainty, and overwhelming instability. I wish there was a way to go back and soothe the younger me – showing her how to embrace life through fear, teaching her to play with uncertainty in the creative process and pushing to draw on instability as a source of inspiration.
My life would have been easier; and yet, I also wonder if I would be who I am today if I learned these important lessons at such a tender age. In the introduction to Embroidery, I tell a story where I faced fear – swimming off the coast of a Venezuelan archipelago in my late thirties. After emerging from the water on a small beach, I had a realization about fear and life:
I told myself that I would never be afraid again. I can’t say that I live or have lived every day without fear, but I began to see my life with the same sense of connection and courage that I felt on this small beach. This moment was the beginning of the Alabama Chanin and the school of manufacture.
Every step I’ve taken since that day has brought me closer to home. Twenty-one years later, I’m sitting here and thinking, maybe it’s not redemption, but it looks like something going in that direction. The creative process is filled with fear and vulnerability, and yet we get up every day and keep making a fuss.
Tell me what it’s like to tinker with your granddaughter these days.
A few weeks ago, my granddaughter, Stella, and I were designing and sketching together. We were sketching ideas for a show she was considering and when our sketches were finished she commented that mine was so much better than hers. I laughed and reminded her that she was ten and that I started design school forty years ago. We had a big laugh and she replied, “I guess you’re right.”
In Embroidery I write: In my twenty-one years working as designer and creative director of Alabama Chanin, I have been asked more about the creative process and inspiration than any other theme or idea. There is a famous story about the poetess Ruth Stone catching the end of a poem as it passes through her body and, at that moment, transcribing the poem to paper in reverse order, from last word to first. It’s a dream creative process, but, unfortunately, not one I’ve ever experienced. Creation can be painful and vulnerable, or at least slow, which explains the constant search for “inspiration”, “secret sauce” or the perfect setting – anything that will simplify and speed up the process. But in my experience, there is no shortcut; however, if I keep showing up, day in and day out, work and inspiration come. I make a rule with myself that I will show myself in fear; I show myself in love, and when it rains, and when the sun shines, and when I prefer to be in a thousand other places than here. I show myself in doubt, sorrow and joy. I show up to do the work, even if the work is a sentence or a single plank or a point. Showing up is a commitment to something bigger than ourselves; showing up is the commitment to ourselves. As Rollo May says The courage to create, ‘Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.’ Doubt doesn’t go away with time, but it does go away in a few days. Anyway, we always show up.
What do you think of the latest resurgence in fashionable quilts?
I believe we are going through a period in our evolution where we have a visceral need to connect our lives to making and consuming products that are meaningful to us and to the world. The resurgence of quilts in fashion is one of the ways we are connecting to a past ideal of what it means to do. I’m thrilled about this, but even more excited about the next steps to create handcrafted products that truly enrich us as designers, makers and consumers.
Tell us about projects in the South that bring you joy and hope.
Right now I’m incredibly inspired by the work we’re doing with Project Threadways [a nonprofit organization that records, studies, and explores the history of textiles]. There are so many young and brilliant public historians working to collect and document the stories of textiles in our region, in order to tell those stories in a more truthful, inclusive and beautiful way. These scholars honor the past and, at the same time, create new pathways for a sustainable future.
G&G recently covered someone you know well, designer Erin Reitz… Can you name some of your colleagues and friends whose work you admire?
Yes, Erin Reitz’s company, EM Reitz, in Charleston, South Carolina; Katherine Hayes of Dreambox Jewelry in Nashville; Phillip March Jones of Institute 193 in Lexington, Ky., and MARCH Gallery in New York; Judy Turner’s Conley Averett in New York.
What kind of events will be part of this book, and do we know any dates/locations yet?
Details and timetables here. We have confirmed events in Detroit, Raleigh, Atlanta and Charleston.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
It was really exciting for me to work with this new generation of designers, makers and creatives. I see a different kind of attitude and commitment to creativity, community and ethics as a groundswell. I believe that the Alabama Chanin, School of Fabrication, and Threadways Project – my legacies – are nurtured by strong, capable hands that will continue to create significant impact for decades to come.