Sophisticated. Simple. Timeless. None of these words came to mind as I turned my car in confused circles amongst the beige warehouse buildings boxed against the gray November fog. Black smoke curled out of the chimneys of some of the buildings as I searched the back lots of Florence’s Industrial Park for a good 10 minutes before finally spotting the maroon Alabama Chanin emblem on top of one particular warehouse, adding a bright dash of color to the otherwise bland horizon.
With the exception of providing lyrical setting for drive-by trucker songs about assembly line labor and union wages, Industrial Park never really struck me as a place where very much artistic inspiration would be likely to manifest. However, I discovered how wrong I had been when I found Alabama Chanin’s The Factory.
Alabama Chanin’s name recognition in our area is considerable, yet until now, the actual business model has always remained somewhat of a mystery to me. When I complained about the lack of quality brunch options in the Shoals, my friends kept urging me to drive out to Industrial Park and try The Factory at Alabama Chanin one weekend.
I was intrigued. I kept hearing that name. I didn’t understand. Was it a restaurant? A fashion line? A home goods manufacturer? Turns out, Alabama Chanin is all that and then some. (Think Anthropologie, but all the items are handmade. With food.)
Zachariah Chanin, son of owner Natalie Chanin, led me on a tour of the grounds. Zach’s charisma and vivid storytelling skills deemed him an excellent guide as he led me from a showroom filled with beautifully embroidered collection pieces to the Factory Cafe, where he serves as head chef. The cafe serves dishes made with locally grown organic ingredients. From the cafe, we went deeper into the back of the expansive warehouse, to the cutting and dying sections, into production and finally, on into the School of Making.
Zach told us the story of his mother Natalie Chanin, the company’s namesake, who designed her first T-shirt for a party she was attending shortly after moving to New York City. According to Chanin, Natalie has always been a highly creative individual with no reservations about working tirelessly in pursuit of her passions. Before long, Natalie’s original t-shirts with inlay stencil designs of her original sketches were being modeled on the runway at New York Fashion Week.
This unique style that is now so characteristic to Chanin’s pieces attracted several designers, and almost overnight what had formerly been known as “Project Alabama” grew into a booming retail manufacturer recognized worldwide for producing high quality sustainably resourced clothing and home goods. The company name officially changed to “Alabama Chanin” and has remained true to its original philosophy ever since.
From these original stencils came hundreds more. Upon arriving in the production area of the warehouse, Zach opened up an entire file cabinet with drawer after drawer full of carefully ordered designs from Natalie’s very first sketches to patterns for this year’s latest pieces.
The evolution of the designs is fascinating, from simple barnyard animals on those first Project Alabama shirts to complex geometric patterns. Alabama Chanin pieces are recognizable by their minimalist overall design usually accentuated by intricately detailed needlework.
Considering the simple beauty of their products, while interviewing the women and men who work at Alabama Chanin, it surprised me how often our conversations about handmade goods managed to take unexpected turns to much broader, more serious subjects. From global trade laws to sustainable manufacturing in the age of sweatshops, to the future of American artisans and trade laborers, there is much to take into consideration as an American manufacturer in this day and age.
Local artist, Olivia Sherif has been with Chanin from the ground up. When Sherif began working production at Chanin, she was one of only four employees. A true jack of all trades, Olivia is a graduate of Sheffield High School and later, UNA with a degree in Art.
After college graduation, Sherif became frustrated with the lack of local jobs and opportunities for artists, and began considering a move to a larger city with a prominent artistic culture such as San Francisco or New York City. However, upon being introduced to Natalie by her assistant, Sherif quickly became a vital asset to the small original four-person team, still living in her hometown, yet she suddenly found herself creating each day. This time not only as a passion, but a career.
Sherif says that whenever a new skill or project came about that the original team members were unfamiliar with or unsure how to approach they encouraged one another to remain determined and persistent, always figuring things out through good old trial and error. This relentless initiative drove Alabama Chanin to achieve wide recognition in a very short amount of time.
Sherif also emphasizes what a constant work in progress the overall development of the company has been, and uses her personal journey as an illustration of that. As the company grew, Sherif began to shift job titles every few months. When entirely new demands arise or advances in technology eliminate the need for certain positions, Sherif will typically move on to the next most pressing need in order to help the company continue to progress.
Although the majority of Alabama Chanin’s popularity is due to its blog and online store, Sherif believes that Alabama Chanin has made a hugely positive impact locally as well, providing jobs to local artisans and skilled trade workers who otherwise might not have been able to find a comparable career using their skill set, with the majority of America’s clothing being manufactured overseas nowadays.
Rachel Rohler is another local artisan who also found her niche in the company. Head of the School of Making, Rohler organizes, oversees, and teaches several of the DIY workshops offered by this arm of the company each year.
Rohler grew up in nearby Greenhill. Upon her grandmother’s insistence, Rohler began learning to sew when she was still a toddler. From cross stitching to embroidery, Rohler’s grandmother taught her the timeless value of handmade items, and in passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. While studying Apparel Design and Production Management at Auburn, Rohler heard a speech that Natalie gave at UNA and applied for an internship.
Today what some may consider a lost or dying art is a vital component in Rohler’s identity, as well as career. At Alabama Chanin, Rachel is truly in her element, passing on her grandmother’s knowledge to countless others who come through workshops in the School of Making. The School of Making offers courses throughout the year for all levels of expertise, from beginner to advanced.
Rohler says that by thinking consciously about where we purchase all our goods, we are able to make a global impact in our everyday lives. According to Sherif, for each cotton shirt that is made without organic cotton, roughly 1 pound of pesticides is put into the earth. Rohler says that the company’s becoming actively conscious about where she purchases clothing caused her to recognize other areas of her life that she felt she could apply this mindfulness to such as food and medicine.
Sophisticated. Simple. Timeless. All of these words come to mind as I remember stepping out of Alabama Chanin back into the frigid cold. The fog from before had passed, and the sun had come out just in time to set again while I had been inside. Taunting me with its bright glow in contrast with the chilled air, I nevertheless felt hopeful as I shivered and watched it cast shadows amongst the squares of the industrial skyline.
With a fresh optimism toward any pipe dreams that may come to me in this town that sometimes seems like it will suffocate me it is so small, I hurried to my car, with visions of all the unfinished masterpieces I had waiting for me at home, and all the potential they might be holding if, like the determined artists I had met inside the warehouse, I would only roll up my sleeves and figure them out to the end.