BILLY REID + ALABAMA CHANIN: THE EVOLUTION OF A COLLABORATION

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A member of the team at Natalie Chanin’s Building 14 lays out the pattern for the Grist, a raglan-style pullover made from 100% cotton that the Florence-based company is producing for Billy Reid. Photos by Bradley Dean

The Council of Fashion Designers of America has several hundred members from across North America. The majority are based in New York; the state with the second most robust CFDA membership is California. Number three? Alabama.

Not only are Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin, founder of the “slow fashion” company Alabama Chanin, the sole members of the CFDA from the Cotton State, they’ve both based their companies in the Shoals. Billy and Natalie are longtime residents of Florence – not to mention good friends and creative conspirators.

“We have a deep friendship and history of positive collaboration with the Billy Reid team,” says Natalie. “Not only do we have a kinship because we both work within the design world, but we share similar ideals.” Billy feels the same. “Natalie is one of our favorite people on the planet,” he says. “We’ve worked together on various projects and installations over the years.”

Recently, the two friends worked in tandem on a hosiery project with Zkano, an Alabama company profiled on The Journal in October. “Last year, we worked together to grow organic cotton in Alabama, something that was life changing and eye opening for both of us,” Natalie says. “Our collaborations continue to strengthen our bond as designers, collaborators, and friends.”

The result of their latest creative partnership is the Grist, a raglan-style men’s knit top that is available now in each of our shops and online. Constructed from the American-made organic cotton that Natalie is known for, the Grist was produced in Building 14 Design + Manufacturing Services, the new custom cut-and-sew division of Alabama Chanin that also manufactures the company’s machine-made ready-to-wear collection, A. Chanin. Natalie says the project is the fruit of years of dialogue between the two designers and their teams about how the companies can continue to support one another’s efforts while also fostering economic growth in the Shoals.

“There have been many conversations over the years on what it would look like to grow cotton, produce locally in our community – alongside other late night conversations around big issues like supply chain, vertical companies, and a general hashing, laughing, and discussion of garment industry ups and downs - in its beauty and frustrations,” Natalie says. “The idea of working on this piece grew out of these rich conversations. It’s been a long time coming.”

Billy agrees. “Natalie has always championed the manufacturing legacy of our community, and we are so proud of the first garments we’ve produced on her new factory line,” he says. “We look forward to building many more pieces and having them sewn right here, by local sewers, in our hometown.”

Find out more about A. Chanin, the operations at Building 14, and the creation of the Grist below, in a special Q&A with the Alabama Chanin team.

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JOURNAL: The Factory has a wonderful local history. Can you share a little of its background?

ALABAMA CHANIN: Alabama Chanin’s entire operation is housed in Florence’s Industrial Park, in a building once home to textile producer Tee Jays Manufacturing Company. Under Tee Jays’ management, this 1982-built facility was called Building 14. We have honored that history by naming our machine-made design and manufacturing division Building 14. It is a callback to the rich history of our building and our region within the history of American textile manufacturing.

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J: What influenced your decision to work with outside companies like Billy Reid?

AC: It was always our intention to facilitate production for other companies under the name Building 14 Design + Manufacturing Services. A. Chanin grew out of the desire to begin machine manufacturing, not the other way around; however, we are very happy with the results and, yes, the A. Chanin line will continue to grow slowly. We also have an idea brewing about a company to sell organically sourced t-shirt bodies for men and women that are available to use for printing.

The Billy Reid shirts are the first machine-made shirts that we have produced for a man’s body. They are also some of the more complicated garments that we have worked on to date. We purchased a snap machine and had a die created specifically for the Billy Reid pocket snap. Learning these new techniques took significant training and practice. But, we are now better prepared to create other, more intricate garments as a result. It has been a fruitful learning experience and we are happy with the results.

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J: From bolt of fabric to a finished shirt, what are the steps that were taken to make the Grist?

AC: Production begins with a standard sample. The Billy Reid team provides the Building 14 Design + Manufacturing Services team with a garment sketch and desired specifications. Our first step is to make a pattern based on that information. That pattern is then tested with our 100% organic cotton fabric and on a variety of machines to perfect the making process. After a first sample is achieved, we perform shrink and durability tests and fittings, which tell us how the final piece will shrink and react with wearing and washing. This information allows us to continue testing against the original pattern, making second or third patterns, if necessary, to perfect the garment. Final adjustments and alterations are carefully documented and considered before the garment goes into the production phase.

This final sample, including all its notions and trims, are sent to the Billy Reid production team for approval. Once the final production sample is approved, the Building 14 team begins the official production process. Hundreds of yards of organic cotton fabric are rolled out onto a long table with a machine called a “spreader.” Each piece of the garment (sleeves, front, back, pocket, pocket flap, etc.) is cut and prepared for assembly on our sewing machines. We have specific machines for each unique job; for example, one machine makes buttonholes, while another sews only side seams.

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J: How many people work on one shirt? For instance, does one person take a single piece from start to finish or does it get handed off, step by step?

AC: Building 14 currently has a staff of eight-plus to complete all of the necessary steps - including pattern development, sampling, sewing, washing, inspecting, tagging, and packing - alongside sewing machine maintenance (mechanic), accounting, and shipping.

In terms of the actual sewing, it is possible for one person to construct a garment from start to finish. But, in most cases, our sewing team works in tandem. But each person has the knowledge to complete any task in the production chain. Their tasks change depending on the garment being made and the labor involved. One day, a team member may cut and sew an entire garment; other days, she (they are currently all women) will just cut the garment and pass it to another team member to sew in sleeves, a seam, or complete construction. It is possible for a machine-made garment to pass through one to five hands before completion.

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J: The Factory employs a very seasoned staff. How many years of experience does your team have among them?

AC: We currently have four women running our variety of sewing machines, two of whom worked in this same building during its hey-day of t-shirt manufacturing: Sue has 48 years experience, Faye, 44 years, Sherry, 18 years, and Karen, our newest addition, 16 years, for a total of 126 years of collective experience. Sherry and Sue have worked with us for six months, starting when the machine-made division began; Karen is new to the team and has been here for one month. Faye has been with us for six years, off and on. She began work as a garment cutter in the early years of Alabama Chanin and we approached her immediately when we began assembling our new team.

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J: Why is it important to bring production back to the Shoals?

AC: Our region lost so many jobs with the passage of NAFTA, when companies moved production out of the country in order to compete with international corporations. Because of the large textile industry presence in our small area, the Shoals was hit particularly hard. The number of people that you meet who once worked in the textile mills here is staggering. It has always been a goal of Alabama Chanin to bring some of those jobs back to the US and to the Shoals, in particular. Building 14 is the first step in that goal; our community has the knowledge and the workforce readily available to continue to grow that dream.

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Building 14 is one of several exciting developments to debut at Alabama Chanin in recent months. In November, Natalie opened The Factory, her first retail store, featuring a café that serves delicious locally sourced meals. Additionally, The Factory Store is open weekdays from 9am - 5pm, and The Factory Cafe is open weekdays from 10am - 4pm. Guided tours of the Alabama Chanin studio and facilities, which include The Factory and Building 14 are available daily at 3pm. The Factory is located at 462 Lane Drive in Florence. For more information, write to office@alabamachanin.com or call 256-760-1090.