Friends, sometimes while I'm working on an MPB post, I end up changing my original point of view as I'm writing. Today is a good example of that.
Last week I picked up a copy of Natalie Chanin's popular Alabama Stitch Book at the library. I was curious. Gretchen had waxed eloquent about Chanin's Alabama fashion line a while back, and a good sewing machine-collecting friend of mine (no names, please) told me she plans to attend an Alabama Stitch workshop this summer. Are you familiar with Alabama Stitch?
In short, Chanin creates hand-appliqued garments made (primarily) from recycled -- or, more fadishly, upcycled -- cotton jersey T-shirts, and employs American workers in cotton-rich Alabama, where the T-shirt manufacturing industry once flourished, to do so.
Readers, you probably already know that I am highly ambivalent by nature. On the one hand, I am fascinated by the topic of sustainable living, Peak Oil, our impending energy-scarce future, and the adaptations we'll be forced to make. I love the idea of sewing on a treadle and restoring and re-using old sewing machines, even the electric ones. Every re-use of something old, even a machine that runs on electricity, means less energy squandered on manufacturing a new one and one less vote for the culture of planned obsolescence. (And of course many old sewing machines can be converted to hand crank if need be.)
But I'm not a big fan of recycling aluminum cans, plastic bottles, or old T-shirts, because the net energy saving in creating new ones out of old is practically nil. (The amount of energy it takes to turn an old plastic bottle into a new plastic bottle is rarely taken into account by its advocates.) Instead, plastic bottles and aluminum cans should be rationed or eliminated altogether; they didn't even exist until relatively recently and they're not necessary.
I think the best way to live gently on this planet is to 1) reside someplace where you don't need to drive five miles to buy a quart of milk, 2) skip car ownership entirely, 3) have fewer kids (or none). 4) live in a smaller space, and 5) buy used things whenever possible. Recycling plastic take-out containers is of questionable merit and a waste of our mental (and physical) energy.
So I approached Alabama Stitch (which celebrates "Contemporary Sustainable Style") with some doubt. Chanin's primary concern isn't ecological, however, but rather skill-focused: she wants to preserve craft traditions like hand stitching and embroidery as well as to encourage the culture of thrift. It's all good.
This is certainly a beautiful book and Chanin describes the craft of creating these garments (and other projects) in tremendous detail, including how to bead. She even includes soup recipes.
I've seen a few Alabama Stitch "couture" garments at FIT exhibits, and they are complex and unique, if not quite my thing. You may not know that you can purchase Chanin's hand-appliqued garments online here. (Prices reflect the tremendous labor involved.)
While I love to sew my own clothes, I don't really consider myself a "craft" person, per se. I'm not into embroidery or knitting, let alone beading postcards. The whole Martha Stewart turn-a-soup-can-into-a-pencil-holder type thing leaves me cold, though I did make my mother a hand-painted Cheerio's necklace in kindergarten and do you think she ever wore it?
My boa is not going to be not upcycled from old cotton underpants; I'll take Bob Mackie over Fruit of the Loom.
So, while I have no interest in trying Chanin's applique techniques myself, I have begun to appreciate the Alabama Stitch look. It's highly original and preserves American folk traditions.
In closing, friends, what are your thoughts about the Alabama Stitch Book and its aesthetic?Love it, hate it, or something in between?
How do you feel about upcycling old garments into new? Would you cut up an old bed sheet, add a few rows of beading, and call it a tea towel? (I know many of you quilt, which is a similar waste-not concept -- or used to be before people drove to their local JoAnn's to purchase quilting cotton.)
Is upcycling more a fad than a genuine attempt to live sustainably at this point?
You can read more about about The Alabama Stitch book or order your own copy here. More photos from my library copy here.
I'm a native New Yorker and sewing fanatic! I started sewing in 2009 and today make all my own clothes using vintage sewing machines and vintage patterns. I also sew for private clients. Welcome to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, fabric, and more!