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A Stitch in Time...

Saves nine. Common knowledge? Old wives tale? Folklore?

While recently attending “The School of Making” workshop – a hands-on experience for sewers who want to learn the Alabama Chanin technique for “slow sewing”, Natalie Chanin shared this and other sewing colloquialisms. And like this little pearl of wisdom, born from a time when women had no choice but to hand sew and mend clothes for their family and community, it’s good advice.

Natalie is a woman after my own heart. She built her brand on the idea that Americans could return to the lost arts. She has bridged the generations to bring back hand sewing and local charm. She has taken the term organic and applied it not only to the “certified” cotton jersey she buys, but also to the method and structure of the clothing line that bears her name.

Born and raised on her family’s land by the shoals of the Tennessee River, Natalie graduated high school in 1979 without a career path. Through a series of grace and a lot of grit, she applied to and received her education from North Carolina State University in Environmental Design. “I didn’t even know ‘design’ was a career choice,” she told our group of 16 ladies with a signature sparkle in her eye. A sparkle that shows up just as readily in her clothing as in her sweet southern smile.

Following school, Natalie went to work in the design and fashion industry for more than ten years here and abroad. It was in a hotel room in NYC that she got the idea to deconstruct a couple of t-shirts, double up the fabric, and reconstruct them in her now signature-style of reverse applique. Little did she know that this craft would reinvent the way America wears and buys t-shirts. Her shirts were featured on the 2000 New York Fashion Week runways and that first year sold in stores for $400 and more.

Project Alabama, her first launch of custom t-shirts, has now grown into a label, one that focuses on “hyper-local” manufacturing. Alabama Chanin, with a warehouse in Natalie’s hometown of Florence Alabama, gets its cotton from Texas, is spun and died in the Carolinas and comes back to Florence where local folks construct her designs. She has expanded the line to dresses and skirts and ponchos and jackets, even wedding dresses, shaped and constructed with the wearer in mind. These clothes feel like your favorite pajamas!

In this philosophy of buying and constructing locally, the Alabama Chanin line also sells the organic jersey, notions, kits and books that teach her design so that anyone with an interest can make their own pieces. My sister bought her book in 2010 and now has quite a few pieces she’s made herself. This is how I found myself down in Alabama sewing and cutting cotton jersey in ways I never thought possible.

But come to think of it, I did like embroidery as a young girl. I remember taking embroidery floss and tracing cartoon designs on pillow cases. The stitches came back to me naturally and the progress is positively addictive. But this is something deeper. Harmonious. Not only do the stencil designs have names like ‘Anna’s Garden’, ‘Magdalina’, ‘Climbing Daisy’, and ‘Fern’, to name a few, but every step of the process has sustainability at its heart.

“Love what you make” is one of the mantras displayed at the warehouse. During our workshop Natalie introduced us to the physics of sewing. What I had always thought was a poke-and-pull process, magnified into fibers and spinning and absorbency and wear-ability. Natalie didn’t just talk the talk, she demonstrated the techniques of hand sewing that work with the material, not merely moving thread and needle through patterns but understanding the properties of fibers and the arm as a “machine.”

Done correctly, sewing marries hand and heart into beautiful art.

I could see in Natalie’s fingers as well as in the other workshop attendees – from all over the country - the commitment to do more than just make beautiful clothes but to invest themselves into their work. Just like the quilts and sewing circles that inspired Natalie in the early days of Project Alabama, a hand-sewn garment outlasts the maker, it spans the generations.

Step One of the Alabama Chanin guide to hand sewing is “Loving your thread” – the act of running your fingers down the length of the thread before tying the knot and starting the project. Mechanically this action lines the fibers up, imparts finger oils and works out tangles. Philosophically, Natalie shared with us her secret of sending love and good thoughts along the thread’s length so that the garment and the wearer will be blessed.

What an awesome way to start any project!

Whether gardening, cooking, fishing, photography, motorcycling, scrap-booking – these are creative and constructive extensions of ourselves that help us make our mark. Whatever way you define intent, this opening prayer sets the stage.

Even gathering around the table, as many of us will do this Thanksgiving, is so much more than a meal. It helps define us. Isn’t it time that we all love what we make?

To see my sister's sewing on Instagram, you can find her @smmczyk

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