Meeting Natalie Chanin, Quilts, and Creative Community
Last week I had the great pleasure of meeting the ever-inspiring designer, textile artist, and slow fashion pioneer, Natalie Chanin. I've long admired Natalie's work with Alabama Chanin, I adore her thoughts on sustainable fashion, and I proudly own many of her sewing craft books and have made a few of her projects. Her work is distinctive--hand stitched cotton jersey garments boldly embellished with applique, stencils, and various symbols often inspired by nature or by her native Alabama.
But I first became interested in Natalie's work because of her story--she was working as a designer in NYC and uprooted back to her native Alabama to launch a fashion business that depended on traditional crafting skills from her local community. She pays her stitchers a fair wage to make her designs, she's created a community based on traditional hand skills, and she's made beautiful clothing that isn't based on the fast fashion trends. All of this makes me cheer. And inspires me to continue on my own slow fashion journey.
I knew all of this before I bought her books, read her blog, or made any of her patterns. But in the past few years since launching my Make Thrift Mend project I've become more and more interested in artists and designers leading the slow fashion movement. Not just making beautiful clothing or pushing the edges of design (or more so pushing their designs outside of the fashion cycles and into something more sustainable and more interesting) but actually doubling as artists and advocates; assuming the role of activist for the sustainable fashion movement while continuing to create beautiful objects and garments.
So last week I joined the gathering at my friend Kristine Vejar's beautiful Oakland shop, A Verb for Keeping Warm, and tucked into the crowded room to meet Natalie, applaud her work, and listen to her and Kristine discuss their inspiration for symbols, stencils, prints, and other imagery in their designs. Natalie spoke of the inspiration she finds in nature but also in the deep sense of wilderness and wildness she experiences in her native Alabama. She also spoke about the long history of her work, joking that she didn't invent her techniques but instead insists her work started with the Mayans.
I also spent a second evening with Natalie when I gathered with a few artist friends at Heath Ceramics in San Francisco to hear her speak with Catharine Bailey of Heath Ceramics; to view her quilts on exhibition in Alabama on Alabama; and to take a short tote-making workshop. It was wonderful to hear these iconic and ever-inspiring women talk about their visions, mission statements, and how they approach collaboration in managing their businesses. It was humbling and inspiring to hear these two legendary women in the design world sit down in intimate and casual conversation. What a gift.
But seeing the quilts on exhibition in the Boiler Room at Heath Ceramics took on a special meaning for me. Five vintage quilts were re-imagined by Natalie and her team--dyed, appliqued, stenciled, and embroidered with Gertude Stein quotes for exhibition. Some of you might remember my first large-scale textile installation, The Dresses/ Objects Project. I letterpress printed Stein quotes to fabric and collaborated with artists to turn the fabric prints into dresses then the dresses into a large-scale installation. So seeing Stein's quotes integrated into Natalie's quilts felt particularly inspiring and resonate. To see this sharing of muses amidst the sharing of so many ideals with slow fashion, handcraft, and textiles.
It was amazing to spend a couple nights listening to Natalie speak, seeing her work, taking her brief workshop, and gathering with like-minded creatives. One day, I hope to take a weekend workshop at the Alabama Chanin headquarters. For now, I'm thrilled to have met her in person. If you have the chance to study with Natalie, do it! You won't be disappointed, I promise. And these gorgeous quilts have me thinking about upcycling some of the older quilts I've kept hidden in my stashes.