Legato :: Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin
le•ga•to :: in a manner that is smooth and connected
by Jenny Doh
Slowly, methodically, organically, and deliberately. This is how Natalie Chanin has built Alabama Chanin — a company that creates clothing and items for the home with materials and methods that are simultaneously subdued and spectacular. Florence, Alabama is where the magic happens for Natalie ... a place that was destined for all things intriguing, all things Alabama Chanin.
JD :: To people who might think that to be chic, that one needs to spend a ton of money, what would you tell them?
NC :: It is amazing how much one can do with a little bit of material and ingenuity. Styling, a pair of scissors, thread, and a needle can work wonders for any wardrobe.
JD :: Organic cotton, which is signature to your look, makes me happy every time I see it. It looks so comfortable, it feels so comfortable, it exudes simple elegance. Tell me about your relationship with organic cotton and other materials that you are drawn to as you create.
NC :: Cotton is, quite simply, a part of the vernacular of my community. Most of us who grew up in the rural south can recognize the smell of cotton growing. It is just part of who we are. It took me years to realize that as a designer, I was drawn to the stuff of my childhood. It helps that the clothes we make from our organic cotton are so comfortable, too. We make a joke that every day is pajama day at our office…
JD :: Tell me about your earliest memories with hand stitching. Who taught you? Was it love at first stitch?
NC :: My grandmothers taught me a love for needle and thread; however, I wouldn’t say that it was love at first stitch! Even today, my stitches tend to be more eccentric than perfect. While the artisans that create our garments have perfected the hand stitch, I have perfected my LOVE of hand embroidery and my understanding of how each perfect stitch can be incorporated in to a piece of contemporary clothing.
JD :: Your company names Slow Design and Sustainability as its core values. The values are in many ways counter to the dominant cultural values of speed, mass production, and instant gratification. How has the journey been to swim against the currant? What have you learned through this process?
NC :: There are definitely days when it feels like we are swimming upstream backwards without a clear idea of where we are headed or the dangers that may ensue – sound dramatic? It’s not quite that exaggerated, but there has been a BIG learning curve and we still struggle with supply chain issues. If I have learned anything, I think that it would be that you just have to get up every morning and start swimming again. Slowly (perhaps the reason for the name “Slow Design), slowly, thing have begun to change and it is that slight shift that makes it all worthwhile.
JD :: You are located in Florence, Alabama, right? For folks who've never been, describe what it's like there. Is what we see through Alabama Chanin a reflection of Florence, Alabama or a future forecast?
NC :: Yes, Florence, Alabama – which is part of The Shoals Community. We are really four cities: Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. What Alabama Chanin does is definitely a reflection of what is going on in our small community. We have such great design – Billy Reid, Carter and Co. – and music – The Civil Wars, The Alabama Shakes, Doc Daily and Magnolia Devil – and art, and literature. This has been a community of great creativity for a very long time. Hard to follow in footsteps of people like Helen Keller, W.C. Handy, Pulitzer Prize winning authors like Hank Klibanoff and T.S. Stribling, wouldn’t you say?
JD :: Does the day afford you the time to sit down at least once for a good meal? If so, which meal is it usually?
NC :: My daughter and I sit down to breakfast every day. It is a ritual I love. We have a weekly meal together in our studio and I try to prepare at least two additional “good” lunches a week for myself. However, I find a meal “together” to be one of the most important things we can do as colleagues, family, and friends.
I was once told that most National Merit Scholars have sit-down dinners with their families.
So, that being said, I try to wrangle my daughter to the dinner table at the end of each day, where we share stories of what transpired since breakfast. Doesn’t always work but we are trying!
JD :: Your color palette ... so soothing, so lovely. Is this palette the one that runs throughout your own home and wardrobe or are there colors in certain part of your life that is different?
NC :: I would say that the color palette seen in Alabama Chanin goods is certainly a part of my entire life. I am drawn to rich soothing colors – always have been.
JD :: Think fast and tell me a word or two when I say the following:
- Bride - journey
- Letterpress - words
- covered button - beauty
- French knot - intricate
- Guitar - melodic
- Neon - pop
- Puppy - exuberance
- Aperture - photos
- Denim - indigo
- Coffee - sigh
- Boots - life
- Chic - style
- Time - luxury
- Biscuit - daily
- Diary - dreams
JD :: If I said to you the words "hot beverage" ... what would you say to that? What image or memory do those words conjure up for you?
NC :: Cappuccino, please. My morning routine.
JD :: You have a brand new book that has been released titled Alabama Studio Sewing + Design. Tell me about how you conceived of the projects and methods you share in this book, and what you hope readers will take away from reading it.
NC :: Alabama Studio Sewing + Design is the culmination of a decade of my work with Alabama Chanin. The “Studio” books are really a conversation about the intersection of community, craft, fashion, and design. This book feels like the period at the end of the sentence of that conversation. I hope that readers will feel empowered to take charge of their own wardrobes and, in a great sense, their lives. To make for oneself – even in the smallest of ways – allows us to grow into our own humanity.
JD :: Finish this sentence: "Some people may not realize that hand sewing is ... "
NC :: …empowering.
JD :: When life gets hectic and stressful, what or who reminds you that everything will be ok?
NC :: I am so often brought back to earth by my daughter Maggie – who is about to turn 6. It’s amazing how a game of Paper Rock Scissors can put your life into perspective!
All images are provided, courtesy of Natalie Chanin. Many thanks to Ellie Levine (of Stewart, Tabori & Chang/STC Craft/Melanie Falick Books) for her support with this interview.
Learn more about Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin here.
Buy her new book, Alabama Studio Sewing + Design here.