by Stephanie Stewart-Howard | photography by Ron Manville
Natalie—a.k.a. Alabama—Chanin came to town in October for a workshop at the Hermitage Hotel. The Hermitage’s Janet Kurtz and I rifled through a vast assortment of amazing garments at the Friday trunk show at Rachel’s Boutique, each made of a double layer of organic cotton, American-made jersey fabric, couched, appliqued, and beaded, sewn entirely by hand.
Behold, here’s couture of the finest mark and artisanship of the sort we have collectively forgotten. It’s the work of the hand that Chanin delights in, not only to supply buyers, but to teach would-be artisans as well, in workshops like this one and through her remarkable Alabama Studio Style series of books. (Full disclosure—the author uses them regularly.)
If you missed the workshop and the trunk show, fear not. The Copper Fox in Leiper’s Fork brings Alabama Chanin’s latest collections to town for a temporary boutique experience, lasting through January. If you aren’t familiar with Chanin’s design, it’s a must visit—and likely a must buy too.
The pairing of The Copper Fox and Alabama Chanin is as organic as the fabrics. “We handle American, handmade, artisan products, things that strike us as earthy, real, and authentic,” says owner David Fox. “Our motto is Art of the American Hand. That means the more local, the more American, and the more organic, the better.”
Alabama Chanin, as Fox points out to me, has long been all those things—a high-fashion iteration of the
farm-to-fork movement in some ways. She stresses the use of organic and American; her garments are painstakingly handcrafted by individual artisans, ranging from hobby hand sewers to former textile mill employees, who purchase kits from her and return finished (incredible) garments.
When you pay couture prices for her work, you purchase a garment that will withstand time and wear, that will go into your washing machine. It may have been dyed using natural dyes by Nashville’s Southern Hue. It was constructed of organic cotton grown in Texas, spun in North Carolina, and woven in South Carolina. A few moments in her Florence atelier, and you start to get it: Intricate pieces are cut from the patterns made for each garment; prototypes for new garments are tried in house; fabrics, trims, beading, and embellishments are chosen. In a back room, garment pieces are painstakingly stenciled with layouts for cutwork and embroidery.
This is how art happens; it’s not an assembly line. Ultimately, each piece is not only the creation of a garment, but first the creation of a custom fabric, then a garment made of it—and there are books and books of custom fabrics to be pulled from. The latest include a series done for an installation at the recent Southern Foodways Alliance in shades of red, black, white, and gray, inspired by traditional barbecue (yes, really) and gorgeous floral motifs developed together with Nashville textile artist Anna Maria Horner.
I don’t design with a timetable or bottom line in mind. I just create what I feel is truly beautiful.
There is, in truth, beauty to behold in every piece by Alabama Chanin, from a placemat or small bucket hat to an elaborate coat.
One last thing Chanin wants you to know: The initials on each tag are those of the person who hand sewed the piece. No machines were used. “I think the garments themselves really tell a story, but we encourage you to stop by—we have a few stories ourselves,” she says.
For more information about Alabama Chanin and her
upcoming shows visit