Natalie Chanin continued the conversation with her lecture, “Marketplace and the Personal – A Story of Thread”
This lecture served as a metaphorical transition and connection between the professionalism of craft in the "Mixed Taste" lectures and the D.I.Y. concept in the final lecture of the day. (Stay tuned for the next blog post on “Handmade Nation”.) Bravo to the organizers of this conference who found such dedicated individuals committed to their craft and social practice, and to the careful planning in regard to the order of the lectures. It makes total sense.
Natalie Chanin built her business almost as an accident but worked hard to turn a serendipitous moment into a lifestyle and livelihood. After designing and sewing 200 one-of-a-kind handmade shirts, she naively took them to Fashion Week in New York to “shop them around" in the hope of finding stores that would purchase the shirts. Surprisingly, the buyers at Barney's asked to buy 12 of this shirt and 12 of that!
“What!” she says, "They are all one-of-a-kind!" The store buyers said, “Well then, just make them similar.” Flustered and overwhelmed Chanin "channeled her grandmother" and went back to her roots in Alabama. She employed local women living in depressed rural areas (with limited or maybe even non-existent employment opportunities) to sew in their homes.
A Story of Thread is another lecture that illustrated a thorough understanding of a craft (in this case thread and sewing), knowing the material (fabric and trims), and personal drive believing in making the impossible a reality. It took hard work, inventiveness, and ingenuity to create a unique and rewarding path.
Ms. Chanin believes in the personal connection between the maker, the materials, and your approach to life. Loving your raw materials and working with deep sincerity WILL MAKE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OBJECTS possible. This is both physics and good karma.
Ms. Chanin's clothing connects generations of both fabricators and patrons. Once again, the end product is the result of decisions based on social and political goals and expectations. The cotton is locally grown (Texas) and sewn as a cottage industry that offers employment to southern garment workers displaced by NAFTA. Even the scraps of fabric are recycled into a furniture line reducing waste.
Instead of seeing her clothing and business as a product for a privileged few (admittedly, the clothing is expensive), she seeks to involve a broad community. She wrote a book titled: Alabama Stitch Book: Projects and Stories Celebrating Hand-Sewing, Quilting and Embroidery for Contemporary Sustainable Style to educate others about the techniques she uses in the construction and ornamentation of her clothing. She sells patterns for her two best-selling garments, the fabric, thread, and materials directly to the D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) community. Although some could think that this generosity would negatively impact her primary market, she has developed a whole new business. Her vision also includes collecting the oral histories of these southern women that sew for her. It is a way to honor this craft and the life stories of these women. These women see themselves as craftspeople, where craft is everything and preserving cultural traditions is important.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
Questions and answers were not particularly revealing.
LIFESTYLE OR LIVELIHOOD:
Natalie Chanin proved in the most unexpected manner that both lifestyle and livelihood from craft were possible for both herself and her cottage industry. In this lecture, we did not hear how much the women are paid to sew her garments (i.e. piecework or an hourly rate) nor if this amounted to a “living wage.” On the other hand, her garments were offering a source of income in remote rural areas that have lost almost all the manufacturing employment in the area because of NAFTA.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
Sincerely following your core beliefs in a creative vision and your roots as a maker can be both meaningful and profitable. Socially and politically responsible decisions can make money. You must be ready to adapt in surprising ways to successfully create a market for your work.
SUMMARY: Follow your path with all your heart.
This post was updated on January 3, 2022.