Julie Bowersett


Blog Writing Course Alumni

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Sweet Home Away From Home Alabama

I’ve been home about a week but my head (and heart) is still in Alabama.  Here’s a recap of my time there along with some additional pictures.

First, I have to retell the story of how I met my traveling companion, Linda.  We both attended a lecture at the Textile Museum back in June to hear Natalie Chanin talk about her business Alabama Chanin.  Fate determined that I would sit next to Linda and her mother, and we struck up a conversation, continuing it all the way home on the train.  I had already signed up for the November workshop at the Alabama Chanin Factory and encouraged Linda to join me.  So she did, and last Friday we found ourselves boarding a plane and heading to Alabama.

Leaving Huntsville we drove past the cotton fields that once helped make Florence, Alabama the t-shirt capital of the U.S.  That industry has long disappeared but Natalie Chanin has put Florence on the map for another use of her native state’s cotton:  hand crafted couture clothing and housewares.  The unassuming building that houses Alabama Chanin belies the wonderland waiting within.

The space is welcoming, warm and full of texture from the sign that greets visitors just inside the door to the white architectural elements, racks of glorious garments, and a banquet table that makes you wonder if you are, perhaps, in a very funky old farmhouse.

There are quilts

and even a bit of that famous Alabama cotton.

We were greeted by the warm and welcoming staff and taken deeper into the building where we found our own personalized baskets filled with items we would need during the weekend.

As other workshop participants arrived, we all greeted each other; one common theme seemed to be how excited everyone was to be a part of this weekend.  The rest of the afternoon was spent deciding on what we would be making in our time there.  We had the opportunity to try on garments, color coded by size, to determine what suited us.

I chose a dress similar to the gray one that is facing the camera in the shot above.  Once I had selected my garment it was time to choose from the dozens of colors of 100% organic cotton jersey that all of Alabama Chanin’s garments are made from.  My dress is a dark peacock blue with a grey underlayer, a color called “Deep”.

The next step was to select the design that would be applied to the garment.  There were binders filled with samples of designs to choose from, an almost overwhelming task.

I chose “Angie’s Fall” in a reverse backstitched appliqué (similar to the bottom two photos above).

Once these decisions were made it was time for the Alabama Chanin staff to spring into action.  I watched while my dress was cut out and then handed over to the experts in the spraying room who stenciled my dress with the design I would sew.

After our work was done, we all gathered around and introduced ourselves, heard some wise words by our hostess, Natalie, and then adjourned for the day.

When we arrived the next morning our baskets contained our stenciled fabric and all of the supplies we would need to complete the project.  We began the day by listening to Natalie tell us about the physics of sewing along with some preliminary instructions.  We all practiced our handwork on a bandana project until we felt ready to dive in and start on our garments.  We sat and stitched all morning, sharing stories and beginning to learn about each other.  We stopped for lunch and gathered at that long farmhouse-style table for a lovely meal of local products served on beautiful Heath Ceramics dishes.

In the afternoon we continued stitching and learning:  Diane instructed us on how to construct our garments along with other techniques that we would be using.  At the end of a long and enjoyable day many of us met at a local restaurant to continue our socializing over dinner.

Sunday morning I was sad to pack my bag and leave the hotel for the last day at the Factory.  In addition to more stitching with women who had now become friends, we also had the opportunity to shop, try on and photograph sample garments and learn more tricks of the trade.

Here I am trying on a short jacket that I LOVED.

There was also a lot of visiting with neighbors and admiring progress made. 

And here's a shot of my dress in progress:

We were served another luscious meal, a Southern style brunch with more local goods (and the best local honey I’ve ever eaten).  The day wrapped up about 1 pm as Linda and I reluctantly bade farewell to our new friends and headed for the airport.

This was truly one of the best workshops I have ever been a part of.  The staff at Alabama Chanin could not have been nicer or more nurturing.  It felt like such a privilege to be allowed into their world and to be handed everything I needed to create a garment of my own.  Natalie’s business model of sharing her secrets, along with providing all of the materials, is one that I don’t think you’ll find elsewhere in the fashion world.  But it is really working for this company, and their workshops are filling up faster and faster these days.  The weekend was all about southern hospitality, and all of the little touches really made it feel like a homecoming.  Even though I expect my dress to take me months (maybe years?) to complete, I hope that one day I’ll be able to return to soak up more inspiration from the lovely folks at Alabama Chanin.

Postscript:  If you would like to learn more about Alabama Chanin, their workshops and the area where they live, I recommend this excellent report by Mitra Rajabi and Sumi Lee.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am jealous ! What a great time you must have had, such a creative weekend. Is the process done by hand or by machine ?
Please share pictures of your dress even if it is a work in progress.
Keep up the good work !

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGilly Hufsmith

I have been thinking about taking one of these workshops. Your words convinced me that I need to get serious. People and information (blogs) come into our lives for a reason. Thank you.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRhonda Michalek

I just sat here with a cup of coffee enjoying this wonderful post. Thanks for letting us peek into this delightful workshop. I am curious about the technique as well. I know that their signature is using 100% organic cotton jersey. I have some lovely cotton jersey with maybe some lycra or poly in in, but thin and wonderfully drape-y. Do you think the handwork would work on this fabric? I'd love to make myself a bathrobe with this terrific reverse applique detail.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJane M

To answer a few questions: Gilly, everything is done by hand, in the historic tradition of quilting. The owner of the company says she has tried offering machine-sewn garments and the buyers at the fancy stores say, "That's nice. Where are the hand-sewn ones?" I wish you could see and feel these garments -- the work is astounding.

Rhonda, do yourself a favor and sign up for one of these workshops. You won't be sorry.

Hi Jane. Glad you stopped by. Alabama Chanin has just started carrying and using a light weight jersey for some of it's products. Given that you will be using two layers I think it would work great for a bathrobe. You might want to try a sample first. The basic running stitch reverse applique outlined in their first book, Alabama Stitch, works up super fast. I hope to see your bathrobe soon.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterJulie Bowersett

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