Friday, July 21, 2017

Art Teacher Travels: Alabama Chanin, Florence, AL

 True Confessions: I've lived within just two hours of the amazing Alabama Chanin and I had never ever been. If you are not familiar, let me just say that you might want to read here to get yourself super informed. But I can provide the condensed version, if you like: Alabama Chanin is the creation of Natalie Chanin a Florence, Alabama native. Florence is a rural town of about 40,000 near the Northwest corner of Alabama, lodged between Mississippi and Tennessee. For years, Natalie was a stylist and costume designer who traveled the world. 
In the early 2000's, Natalie returned to her home of Florence with the intention of creating a line of hand-stitched garments. During that time, she was connected with many people who used to work in Florence during the textile boom in the 80's. Many of those folks were without employment as jobs had moved South of the border. This inspired her to create a place for people to work, create, dine, design...you name it. And that magical place is called Alabama Chanin. 
I decided to give Alabama Chanin a visit after taking a road trip from Nashville to Tupelo to see my favorite friend, Mallory. Mallory runs a wonderful art program for kids that I had the pleasure of teaching one day. More on that to come. Between the drive from Nash to Tupe is Florence, right smack dap in the middle. I knew I would have to drop by and see what it was all about. 
Let me just say, that when I was listening to good ole Siri for directions, I thought I was being lead astray. I found myself in an unassuming industrial park filled with nondescript metal buildings. After telling me "you have arrived" five times as I drove up and down the deserted road, I happened to look to my left and see a little read awning with the words Alabama Chanin, The Factory written on them. Really? This is it? I almost turned around. I'm so glad I did not!
The moment I walked in, two things happened. The first was that I was greeted so graciously and politely. I know what you are thinking: but of course, Southern hospitality! Lemme just say, I've lived in The South for nearly 20 years...Southern hospitality isn't as common as you'd like to think. However, in this place, I was warmly greeted and made to feel completely at home. 
The second thing I noticed is this: the place was AMAZING. It used to house a textile factory (how appropriate, right) and looked every bit as such from the outside. But, once inside, it was like I was in Andy Warhol's The Factory meets Brooklyn-hip Heaven. The concept was an open one with the beautiful Alabama Chanin clothing on display. Just beyond that were carefully curated items such as pottery, printed dishtowels and table runners as well as cookbooks and aprons. Steps past that was a counter service restaurant with, I cannot stress this enough, The Best food I've had in a very, very long time. There was also a bridal dress area and a work station for classes. And that was just in the front room. The designing, creating and manufacturing happened just beyond the walls of the space you see in the second image. 
 Of course, what first drew me in: the garments. 
 Natalie is a pioneer in the slow design movement. This is in stark contrast to the fast-fashion we know of all too well. Her garments are created from start to finish from organic cotton. They are hand-dyed with organic dyes; printed, painted and/or stamped and hand sewn. 
 Natalie employes those in her community. Those left without jobs when fast fashion took jobs to other places. 
What that means is you are looking at a piece of clothing that was created from beginning to end, from the ground (literally) up, by hand. What that also means is Alabama Chanin clothing is anything but cheap both in quality and price. 
 I am not even going to lie to you, I was shocked by the prices on the pieces of clothing. We're talking into the hundreds if not a thousand or more for the bigger garments like coats. 
But look. By hand, y'all. Every stitch. Every piece painted and sewn and cut away. All by hand. Each piece, a work of art. 
Here's my favorite part about Alabama Chanin and Natalie: she shares her craft with all who are interested. Meaning she's not an artist who safeguards her secrets. She has her roots based in the quilt making traditions of the South. Traditions that have been lost over time. It seems her goal is to bring the teaching of those traditions back. And she starts with those in her community.
But she also reaches beyond with the many books that she has written on the tradition of her craft and the art of stitching as well. 
As I was there, poking around, snapping endless photos, my stomach started to growl. It was not my intention to do anything beyond pop in for a bit before heading home but with a talking tummy and the amazing smells coming from the cafe, I decided to stay. After I placed my order at the counter, I wandered in the direction of these laughing ladies to secretly see what they were up to. I had read that every other Tuesday a sewing group met and I was intrigued by what they were creating...but I did not want to intrude on what looked to be a fine and fun party.
 Immediately after snapping this photo, the women grabbed me and drew me in. A sweet woman named Judy introduced me to everyone and had them show me what they were creating. 
 I found that my new friend Rita, shown here with the skirt she's been working on for many a Tuesday, actually lives near me...and makes the two hour trek every other week to spend time stitching with her friends. 
Isn't her piece beautiful?
 This fitted corset style top is one being created for the daughter of this lovely lady. One thing I learned: never ask how long these ladies have been working on their piece. It's a labor of love...the hours spent do not count. Would you believe those sweet ladies invited me to bring my lunch over and dine with them? I had a wonderful hour of chatting, learning and watching them create.
 Before leaving, I headed over to the hand stitched bridal area. 
 I was told that one woman had already made three trips from Maine for dress fittings. Can you imagine? That is going to be one amazing dress, y'all!
 I immediately fell in love with this area. 
 Look at this hand stamped and stitched treasure. 
 In our mass produced, fast paced world, learning about slow design and seeing the beauty of it was truly inspiring. 
 So much so that I signed up for a class right there on the spot! I'm taking the beginner hand sewing, stamping and applique class. I'm thrilled to learn this technique and bring it back to my students. I'll be sure to share with you here as well!
 Here's a view of the left side of The Factory from the entrance.
 And a view from the very back, looking over the tables in the cafe and the store front. 
 The food was so good that folks were coming in from outside to dine. I mean, for real. I don't even cook and I was asking if they sold a cookbook. I get a meal during my class...and I daresay that might be what I'm looking forward to the most!
Until I report back with my adventures at Alabama Chanin, I leave you with a view of this piece being worked on my one of the sweet ladies I lunched with. I am so excited to go back and learn about this beautiful technique!
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16 comments:

  1. Oh you are so lucky to live within driving distance!! I will have to check into the location so when we make our trip to Nashville next year, maybe this can be one of our stops! I didn't know she had a place open to the public like that. LOVE her work, it is just so beautiful!

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    1. Yes, it's pretty amazing! Definitely plan to lunch there, if you go. If you happen by on one of the Tuesdays that the gals are stitching, that would be fun for you too.

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  2. I can't believe I never knew about this! My Dad lives right near Florence and I've been through that area dozens of times...I'll have to go now! Thanks for sharing....what a treasure!

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    1. You'll love it!! I'm so excited to go back. I've known about it for years...only now gotten around to visiting.

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  3. What an amazing place. I'll have to put it on my bucket list to visit some day. Sue B

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    1. Yes, you would totally love it, Sue!

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  4. That is the most amazing use of open space I've ever seen! The more you described what you discovered, the more it was like a wonderland! It's layout is beautiful, and it reflects the incredible handmade garments that are being created there. Thank you for sharing in both word and photos! One question: what did you order to eat?

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    1. I was just amazed by how unassuming it was...from the outside. I ALMOST talked myself out of going inside...I can be kind of awkward and shy at times, believe it or not. I got a salad with a side of succotash...but I wish I'd been more fun in my ordering. It was INCREDIBLE!

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  5. I've wanted to visit for years! I look forward to living vicariously through your posts :)

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    1. xox!! You'll have to go sometime!

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  6. Wow! Thanks for sharing your pictures with us!

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  7. What a treasure! Thank you for sharing!

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  8. Are you stalking me? Or my Pinterest page? Seriously, I've made an Alabama Chanin-techniqued dress and slacks. Sorry, no blog pics...but I suppose I could put them up somewhere...my advice is just use a pinch of her techniques to start with, so you don't risk overwhelm. The dress has a spray of flower stencil and reverse applique (with loose ends as flower stamens!) along the neckline, and a decorated pocket. The slacks are appliqued around the hips only, to deal with the inevitable risks of White Pants.

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  9. Today, I've read many posts of you. All of them are amazing! Love u much!

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Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate each and every one :)