Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Slow crafting

Natalie Chanin is one of my heroes.

In 2001, when I was working as a designer for Ralph Lauren, I would often run across the street to Barney's during lunch just to ogle the Project Alabama t-shirts. They were like nothing I had ever seen before: a sort of shabby couture garment made from recycled vintage t-shirts that had been cut up, painted, re-assembled, appliqued and embroidered entirely by hand, one by one, by quilters in Alabama. They were gorgeous. And they sold for something in the $200+ range, as I recall. For a t-shirt. But a t-shirt like nothing you've ever seen before.

Flash forward a few years to the Project Alabama runway collection. Also gorgeous, and also made using the same hand-sewn, distressed (see? I do know how to spell it!) techniques. But this time it was more than t-shirts; it was dresses and skirts made using those same labor-intensive, hand-crafted techniques.

And then they went out of business. Or that's what I thought, anyway.

Actually Chanin, the founder of PA, and the organization itself parted ways. A difference in philosophy, apparently. Chanin soon resurfaced as Alabama Chanin, but I wasn't sure where that was going. I was certainly waiting to find out, however.

Ok, flash all the way forward to last week. I opened the apartment door the other day to find a WHAT!?!? book by the founder of Project Alabama. About WHAT?!?! the same techniques and projects I've been drooling over for seven years now!?!

Well. Knock me over.

And the book is amazing. Gorgeous. Beautifully photographed by fellow Alabaman (is that the right term?) Robert Rausch, with a thoughtful and clean page design and attractive handwritten elements included among the type. Plus, all those lovely construction details are fully explained. The techniques and steps are detailed in areas I would never expect them to be explained: the philosophy and history that drew Chanin to start the company, an explanation of how to select the best materials for the project, what sort of stitching and knotting to use (and why), what materials the "Alabama" stencils are made from (felt!), how to prepare your thread before you start hand stitching (you "love" it, of course!).

Also included are two pull-out pattern pages in the back so you can make your very own corset t-shirt (one of those original Project Alabama styles I admired so readily as an aspiring designer) or skirt. It also includes a perforated postcard with instructions for beading it; a stencil for making the reverse applique that I love, love, love (I really love it, can you tell?); and instructions for projects big and small, quick (relatively speaking, that is) and time-consuming: an applique tablecloth, sweet stuffed bunny, deconstructed quilt, bookcover, headband, any size project you want to try. It's a book filled with useful information, detailed instructions, and inspiring ideas.

Have I told you how much I love this book?

Chanin appreciates the process and history of crafting. Her philosophy is similar to that of the slow food movement, which emphasizes quality and sustainability. I think it's wonderful that she's written this book to pass along the history, techniques and appreciation of hand-made. And to show us how to make them ourselves, even if we can't afford to buy that fabulous t-shirt in Barney's. We can certainly afford to participate in the traditions and to make them our own.

See? My hero.


  1. Anonymous12:23 AM

    I ordered this book last week because of someone else's review which lead me to the website. Her online instructions are great...can't wait to see the book!

  2. That's lovely! The pictures look beautiful indeed. There's something about it reminding me of some Indian (from India) crafts...

  3. Anonymous6:41 AM

    I slipped a copy into my Amazon order of birthday Judy Moody books. Can't wait for it to arrive! Thanks for your review!

  4. Anonymous7:29 AM

    Thanks for such a thorough review of the book. It's the first one I've read and has taken the book from "oh, that sounds interesting" to "Wow! I want to read this!"

  5. Thanks so much for posting this! I really want it now! I never even knew about any of this and enjoyed drooling over their website. So inspirational!

  6. I admit I hadn't heard of this book (or this designer) before, but you make it sound like a really interesting book!

  7. Anonymous9:58 AM

    You've certainly got my attention. I'll have to look into picking up a copy- though perhaps I'll get my sewing machine working first. Thanks!

  8. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I also must admit that I'd never heard of Project Alabama or of this designer. Embarrassing, considering I live in Alabama. My birthday is coming up, though, and now this book is going on the wish list!

    And, as a resident of Alabama, I feel obligated to point out that we like to be called Alabamians - at least by pronunciation :)

  9. Anonymous11:18 AM

    I've been eying this book since I spotted it on Amazon last week! Now I'm dying to get ahold of it! Thanks for your review!! :)

  10. Thanks so much for this review. I actually saw the book yesterday at the bookstore and glanced through it, not knowing the back story. It's so beautiful. I picked up a copy today at lunch!

  11. Wow, this stuff is amazing. Thanks for exposing me to her awesome creations.

  12. This book sounds just wonderful, I am adding it to my wishlist (closest I am letting myself come to buying books these days. I have a problem). I remember reading a magazine article about this company quite a long time ago, but I dont recall where. They sounded very interesting though, are there online places to learn about them?

  13. my bad, you posted links!

  14. Thanks for the review. I saw the book on the Purl site but this review is what has convinced me I must add it to my library

  15. Anonymous3:17 PM

    Gosh, that is so gorgeous!

  16. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Hi Liesl!
    It's Ellie from Nancy's Notions. I came across your blog from Purlbee, and I wanted to say hi. I too have a little sewing blog just for fun when I'm not working! We're working on proofing the pages for the May catalog in which we'll have your patterns - they look great! I hope you have a nice weekend.

  17. I just picked up Chanin's book today, and then ran across your blog posting by coincidence. So far I have just glanced at it, I am waiting for the perfect quiet moment to sit down and just take it all in and get inspired. Thanks for featuring it and a great review!

  18. Liesl, I've been blurking for awhile, loving your perspective on things.

    I've run into a design dilemma for a quilt I've been working on and I was wondering if you or any of your readers wanted to stop over at my only partially craft blog and help me.


  19. I've been obsessed with Project Alabama since it was featured on...I want to say 60 minutes? years and years ago. I have one of their skirts that I bought on huge huge huge sale and it's one of my most favorite articles of clothing, although its too small for me now ;). Thanks so much for letting me know what happened to them!!!!

  20. I just saw this book at the bookstore yesterday and was intrigued. I think I just might have to get it!


  21. Anonymous8:25 PM

    Yep I second the Alabamian.

    As a former resident, it was nice to hit a bookstore and see such a beautiful book. Opening that book felt like you were living in those pictures. Ah summer at the lake. Lovely.

    It was actually my birthday gift to myself this year.

  22. hi! i too have been a huge PA fan since it's inception, and a couple of weeks ago i spent a weekend at a sewing workshop down there, led by natalie herself. it was amazing! anyway, i just wanted to mention that the current version of 'project alabama' is now produced in india, despite what the website implies. only the collection that is now called 'alabama chanin' is sustainably, organically produced using a labor force that is treated and paid fairly. i think this is very important to know! natalie chanin is a hero and inspiration to me too and the book is incredible. you can see pics from the workshop on my blog, and sign up for her mailing list to find out about future ones ;o)
    happy stitching!

  23. Anonymous8:05 PM

    I also ran across this blog, pure coincidence after buying this book yesterday. It's awsome, I want to sit right down and make everything. What are the odds.

  24. You totally hooked me on this book; and it's been ordered. I got lost in that website and drooled over every page. Don't you think that good photography can sell just about anything? I've got to get a tripod for my camera!