Natalie “Alabama” Chanin to Speak At International Folk Art Market

For Natalie Chanin, quality comes first. At Alabama Chanin, her sustainable fashion brand, she runs everything through a “decision tree” that starts with quality. “We think quality, organic, local, helping the community, and then price,” she said of the brand’s philosophy. “Quality is above organic because an organic, sustainably made piece that’s going to fall apart doesn’t really help solve the issue of fast fashion.” The local portion of her model pertains to her hometown of Florence, Alabama, once the t-shirt making capital of the United States prior to the North American Free Trade Act.

She works on a “sustainable supply chain” model focused on artisans that hone their craft and on sourcing her labor within her own community. All of Alabama Chanin’s 24 artisans live within an hour and a half of Florence, either in Alabama or rural communities in nearby Mississippi and Tennessee. They range in age from 20 to 80.  “Most learned their craft from their mothers and grandmothers,” Chanin said. “The way our artisans work is a new model for the United States. Women are often the primary caregivers, and since our artisans are mostly women, they can make their own hours and can work from their own homes.”

“The story of cotton is also the story of power.”

Chanin will be speaking at Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market (IFAM), celebrating its twentieth anniversary this July. IFAM features 167 artists from 51 countries, including first time country Papua New Guinea this year. The annual event focuses on creating business opportunities for and with artists whose craft techniques yield high quality art, clothing, home accessories, and more. The attending crowd, usually 20,000 strong, enjoys the opportunity to buy high-quality and sustainably made items, like those Chanin sells. “IFAM asked me to come speak because a lot of the techniques that we’re using are really age-old and intergenerational. The people who sew our collections have a knowledge of sewing passed down through generations,” she said.

She considers what Alabama Chanin does a kind of folk art, using tradition and culture to inform a creative practice. “We’re looking at the past and working in the present and looking to how you preserve things into the future. As an organization that works in communities, we talk a lot about power and where power lies.”

And, as Chanin put it, “The story of cotton is also the story of power–who has power and who doesn’t.” Cotton in the American South is tied to the history of enslavement and violence. Contemporary cotton production overseas often also relies on unethical labor practices and enslavement. Alabama Chanin has an unbroken U.S. supply chain, a business model few other fashion labels follow as transparently.

“The fusion of craft, design, and science is the future for this industry.”

The grassroots, crunchy-granola connotation “folk art” might have to an outsider could feel at odds with the world of luxury fashion. But “handmade luxury” is becoming more and more popular as awareness around sustainability and supply chain issues increases. At Alabama Chanin, nothing goes to waste during the making process. Scraps are worked into other garments. And while her designs are beautiful, they stay true to Florence’s roots in t-shirt production and are often baed in simple, wearable shapes. Each pattern in the Alabama Chanin collection is done by hand, and it is the play of pattern, color, stitching, and layering that make each piece a work of wearable art.

A standout in the patterning is the delicate floral work in indigo dye on the Auden skirt in Collection #68. The indigo dyeing is by Nadene Mairesse of Idyllwilde, a design studio also based in Florence. These dye processes are complex, and Chanin said that she “really believes that the fusion of craft, design, and science is the future for this industry. I’d love to get more scientists involved, since there are so many natural dyes but it’s difficult to work with them at a large scale.”

As Alabama Chanin’s founder, Chanin oversees many different elements of the organization.  There’s the business side of things along with the creative—Alabama Chanin moved to a non-profit model in 2023 and merged its School of Making education program and Project Threadways sustainability symposium together. On how she will incorporate all those experiences into her lecture, Chanin said that “I hope my talk also inspires younger makers think about which piece of my story might belong to them. It’s a symbiotic story that requires a lot of different people, a lot of different hands to come to fruition.”

“I do really believe that seeing the work of artisans in person is the best.” 

After 24 years, Chanin started a non-profit to house Alabama Chanin. She found this the best way forward to document the artisans’ work and keep the business going. She’s had to adjust her practices and expectations based on labor, demand, and cost. “We are imperfect human beings, and so not everything you do is going to fit into every value, but if early in your work career you can define your values and strive for those, you get a lot further along,” she advised.

Alabama Chanin is also expanding into a wholesale model. While shopping at IFAM, you can find Chanin’s brand at the New Mexico’s Santa Fe Dry Goods. “This is one of the best stores in the world, and we’re really excited to be partnering with them,” Chanin said. “I do really believe that seeing the work of artisans in person is the best. I’m so excited to go to IFAM and see all the work from it in person. That’s part of the process of getting to bring something to life.”

Story by Emma Riva / Photo courtesy of Southeast Fiber Arts Alliance 

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