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Mar 19, 2012

Alabama Stitch & the Recycled T-shirt Aesthetic



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.

Jump in!

44 comments:

  1. you look fabulous!!! As for Alabama Stitch - I am not a big fan of folksy - it's not always easy to make it look sophisticated. The book is intriguing, bordering on weird, yet with a lot of potential for Anthropologie-style sewing.

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  2. I love the Alabama Chanin look - I've made one garment so far (inspired by the Alabama Studio Style book), and I think I'm going to use my birthday book money to get her new book. For me it's not only the style, it's the fact that handwork (especially in smaller pieces) fits well into my life (I'm a mother to a small boy who finds himself compelled to get as close to the running sewing machine as possible and start poking at it...)

    I'm not sure if this will change your perceptions of Ms. Chanin's work, but by the time Alabama Studio Style came out, she had almost entirely quit making garments from recycled t-shirts, and had moved on to having 'eco-friendly' cotton yardage produced to her specifications. If I remember correctly, it's organic cotton, and there's something about the dye process that is 'better' than regular dyeing. It has definitely expanded the design options in her work, but I wonder if it was upsetting to people who were into her work because of the recycling/upcycling aspect of it.

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  3. I'm somewhat torn on the look. One one hand, I also don't really like the 'folksy' look... but some of the tone-on-tone reverse applique pieces are really pretty. and i like the idea of using jersey in the garments; the contrast of such a soft fabric with really high end hand sewing is interesting.

    However, yes - I am also a "live in an urban area, don't own a car, no kids, yadda yadda" type of environmentalist. I go a little nuts at the whole "but it's biodegradable!" or "it's made by endangered penguins!" type of justification for buying more stuff you often see.

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  4. I think part of the culture of upcycling is in the sense of adventure! It's an outlet for creativity, because working within the confines of the original article means you sometimes need to find unique solutions to get the results you want. Sometimes, the results aren't at all what you expected!

    I don't thrift and refashion to be sustainable; I do it because I grew up poor, and live broke right now. It's either that or spend twice as much at Walmart for something everyone else has that will fall apart within a year. I've been a creative dresser for a long time, and even if I could buy designer clothing, I'd still probably hunt down vintage pieces :D

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  5. The thing that Natalie Chanin does that I find just so impressive is marketing her very expensive products to people who actually buy them and sustain her business. I wish I could do that.

    I don't really like or dislike her aesthetic, but the techniques in the book can be used for some really elegant effects.

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  6. I too look upon "upcycling" with some skepticism. While I believe in extending the life of a garment, often these projects involve cutting apart something still perfectly good, and throwing half of it away. Great. I am a proponent of skills conservation, though, and think Chanin's stuff is on the much more sophisticated end of the "upcycling" (still gotta use quotation marks on that one) fashion.


    I do have to take exception with her handsewing tips. If you're going to sew with doubled thread, do yourself a favour and cut two lengths coming off the spool in the same direction. When you fold thread over on itself it has a tendency to tangle. Try it both ways, you'll be amazed at the difference. It was a game changer for me!

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    1. Whoh! That is so obvious and I never thought to do it. Thanks!

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    2. Me neither. Brilliant!

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    3. Glad I'm reading comments on this one because this is an awesome tip! thanks!!

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  7. I've been vaguely aware of the Alabama Stitch phenomenon through Burdastyle. Although I support the idea of preserving skill locally, I don't like the look. It might be age, it might that I'm European, but I just don't like the patchwork-y, "American folk-art" (I think you called it) sort of look.

    P.S. You don't think recycling cans and plastic is a good idea because it doesn't mean saving energy?? Well, yes, the US are big of course... Here in the Netherlands (very small, densely populated country) recycling such things is definately worth it just to keep the amount of waste going into landfill to a minimum.

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    1. I can't speak for Peter but I personally (as an American) have huge issues with the bottled water love we have in this country. Tap water here is regulated for cleanliness more than bottled! It's such a waste to buy a bottle justifying that you can 'recycle it 'when you could buy a reusable bottle and just refill it forever. Recycling is very important but why create a market for something like that in the first place? If that's what he was referring to, I totally agree. Plus in New York City, we have phenomenal tasting water. Buying is just beyond indulgence IMO.

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  8. Came from farm people who went through the last depression. They were poor when the boom happened, and didn't trust it to last. So they scrimped and saved like they were still in the depression. I didn't have a store bought dress until I was in College. Then only two. The rest I made. We canned, sewed, and grew a garden. I had a single aunt who bought fancy clothes she couldn't wear, they always "strangely" fit my tall beautiful mom. She often cut them up and made clothes for me. Quilted gold satin jumper and red tights and sweater for christmas? check. My jumper used to be some kind of circle skirt... on and on it went right through high school. Consequently, mom and dad retired on a pile of dough, even though Dad didn't really earn all that much. The wonders of compound interest!!! This "new" movement to stop being wasteful makes me laugh. My mom was compacting her trash before the fad ever appeared. It was just not in her to waste anything even the space in a trash can. She is living the high life now, eating out once a week!!

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  9. Bravo! to your list of ways to live gently! I don't hear that said nearly often enough. Thank you.

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  10. I think it's a good thing if only to expose people to a culture of buying second hand and reusing, which is something anyone born in the US after 1960 probably didn't grow up doing as much as previous generations. Glad to see it become more popular no matter how it looks of course!

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  11. I wholeheartedly agree with your position on recycling and putting oneself in a position to not create waste in the first place. Not breeding is the ultimate in conservation!

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  12. I've got the book. About 2 years ago I became obsessed with it and well the rest is history. I've made a vine print reverse applique skirt and really like it. I enjoy handwork though so I didn't mind that the applique too months. I made it out of new fabric and sewed the gores together with my machine though. I'd like to do another but haven't gotten around to it yet.

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  13. Recycling aluminum cans saves a huge amount of energy and water. Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. I agree that reducing use is important for all resources.

    Alabama style? Meh.

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  14. Like several people here, I commend the author for her recycling efforts and although I believe she is certainly skilled the homespun aesthetic is not one that I find particularly attractive nor something I would certainly wear. I also make attempts at recycling things like fabrics and certainly machines, but I'd be more likely to rescue a set of drapes from the tip and make them up as a Jacques Fath knock-off party dress for a friend. Nothing quite so rurally inspired.

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  15. I agree with couturearts, it is great that Ms Chanin has created a market for these products. I admire that. But holy crap on a cracker some of them are pricey. Even if I had the $$ I wouldn't spend this kind of money on new stuff let alone stuff made from used items. For me sustainable living does not include spending $38 for a stenciled tea towel or $195 for a t-shirt.

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  16. DrC thinks that your mother's rejection of your necklace has caused a life long rejection in turn, of craft. It's so sad!!
    Seriously, I too am of the 'if you didn't use it in the first place, you wouldn't need to recycle it" school, and due to my happy crafty childhood, I try and turn things into other thigns instead. But there is still so much waste, and products that are chuck out that needn't be. Cute book btw.

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  17. I am an Alabama Chanin fan. I think it is wonderful that she is putting people with real skills to work, and exposing high fashion to the real people behind the clothes. I wouldn't upcycle t-shirts in this way, but I have used rayon/silk burnout velvet blouses in this way, to decorate clothing. Possibly my appreciation of her line is because I find embroidery work very meditative and relaxing. Her clothing is a niche market, I think, but anything that brings sewing into vogue is all good in my mind....

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  18. I too applaud anything that highlights sewing and supports skilled craftspeople.

    And yes, it often needs repeating: The complete phrase is "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle." Reduce comes first!!

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  19. I too am a fan. There is a huge difference between recycling fabric and up-cycling clothing. It might be of questionable merit to grind up old t-shirts to make new ones, but when a person cuts up some ratty old clothes to make something new, there is none of that waste of energy. And if the result is a beautiful, wearable piece of clothing that would otherwise be too expensive to buy, I think the idea is fantastic. I like her aesthetic, she buys organic cotton and employs people in an economically depressed area, I think its all good

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  20. I'm not a fan of the style.

    As for crafting generally - its often used as an excuse to buy new things. Quilting is a way for me to use up scraps of things and make the most of lovely stuff. A quilt thats 50% new is about my limit.

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  21. I appreciate the Chanin aesthetic. Though it's not how I dress. I do have a couple of her books that I picked up at thrift stores . . . I enjoy looking at them, but have never sewed anything from the patterns. I think its for a younger profile -- sigh -- and that much hand-sewing is not for me.

    I heartily agree with your views on how to live. Living in Naples, Italy a few years has made me even more committed to living a gentler way and the need for an eco social contract. Not though from what you may think -- that there's a more gentle way being lived here, while that is true because the general populace is quite poor. No one has a clothes dryer and you don't see many SUVs. People enjoy more free time and celebrate their traditions and culture enthusiastically.

    But sadly, I say it because of how polluted the environment here is and how bad the trash the situation is. And how disenfranchised and silenced the majority is from fear of the Camorra and disgust with the corrupt government. The disenfranchisement/hopelessness leads to not caring and apalling neglect of public responsibility -- trash everywhere, stray cats and dogs wandering or lying for months dead in the roads, delapidated parks and public spaces, and suspicion as a default position. It does make one grateful that the U.S. still has a populace that earnestly expresses its views and will protest with open vigor, about their neighborhood or their nation -- plus a free and honest press (mostly). And, in general, there is a social contract regarding respect for rules and mutual consideration . . . in general.

    Uh, I've driven the train far away from Chanin, but yes, I like her, and most enthusiastically support what you say about small footprints and thoughtful living.

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  22. To me, upcycling is a now-trend that was originally done by necessity because you were poor. You reused old clothes that couldn't be worn anymore and made them into rag rugs, quilts, or any number of other things. You took your old dresses and remade them into dresses for your little girl. It's not really anything new--they've just made it "cool" instead of necessary. I mean, it was once uncool to wear anything "homemade" because it meant that you were too poor to buy store bought clothing. Now, though, with the resurgence of home sewing, if it's "handmade" it's awesome....

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  23. I think it looks appealing and I like some of the items. It reminds me a bit of Korean pojagi, which is gorgeous and which I love a lot more.

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  24. A lot of it is very pretty but out of my range pricewise. I don't upcyle much but do buy all my blue jeans at the thrift shop - I recane antique chairs and work with picks & glue, the jeans get wrecked so it's better to get them used in the first place.
    Upcycling I'm not really into, after my daughter was born back in 1987 I needed more crib mattress pads - I was more or less housebound from the C section so I took an old single bed mattress pad my parents had given me and using a crib pad as a pattern made another three for the baby. This isn't upcycling exactly but it did impress my MIL who couldn't sew a stitch.

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  25. I think the Chanin work is interesting, and beautiful on the models. On my figure, not so beautiful, but I might try it. I hope she can make it work. As a bona fide poor person, I find it humorous that a designer can pick and choose high quality, lightly used clothing to upcycle; few items hold up to a doubled life that are really used to start with. I don't like to spend a lot of time and effort on fabric that won't hold up for a reasonable life span. Her garments look comfortable and original.

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  26. I recently bought all three of Chanin's books. I bought the most recent first. Alabama Studio Sewing+Design:A guide to handsewing... I bought it because I was desperate to learn how to sew knits by hand. The third book is less about recycling and more about designing great textiles. I had stayed away from the first two books, because they seemed so "folksy", but after buying the third book I realized that Chanin's art is in creating intricate new fabrics with applique, embroidery and beading. I bought the other two books because I liked the third so much only to remember why I had not bought them before.

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  27. I've read through all the books and that style is not to my taste. Among other things, I dislike:

    --Faux-primitive designs that look very home made and at times call themselves "couture";

    --The touting of the employment of "Green" methods that require the cutting up of new jersey fabric and suggest using Sharpie pens for embellishment;

    --Unlined, clingy dresses that only gorgeous 16-year-olds can wear, at a very casual picnic; the photo of a dress on the cover of one of the books is not flattering, it highlights the asymetry of the model's body;

    --Craft books that celebrate the "New South" and offer a project supposedly inspired by the civil rights movement, yet have no photos of people of color. (I did see 1/4 of one person in one of the books).

    I had considered buying a kit for a simple cotton tote bag, but it was something like $70 at Purl Soho. For a humble craft, that's pretty expensive.

    To successfully upcycle, and I'm not sure I believe in the concept, you have to have the skills of an artisan and the eye of an artist.

    I live very gently on this planet.

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  28. Chanin’s style has mostly a regional appeal, while her technique has found its way to trendy new clothing (though not from necessarily up cycled clothing).
    I have to admit I was a little stunned by some items on your list of the “Best ways to live gently on the planet” (and did you realize you said those out loud?). The solutions seemed a little insular to someone who lives in the “fly-over-zone” (That part of the country between New York and LA that some from those cities term since nothing important of value could ever happen in that wide open wasteland where us unwashed and uneducated masses live).
    There must be some irony in a philosophy of using only what we need and sewing an entire wardrobe for your identical cousin Cathy. I guess you both could share one wardrobe as hers could cloth an entire family for a year. I’m, however, grateful that you do not. The world would be a far less interesting and fun place without Cathy’s fabulous fashions and her escapades.

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    1. I think this is what's known as a back-handed compliment.

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    2. I don't see what was objectionable. He was talking about himself, and it's a fact that densely populated areas use resources more efficiently than areas in which people have to drive all over the place, consuming gas.

      If you're making something creative that you will try to use I see nothing wrong with garment making. Modern quilt making, which involves the purchase of brand new fabric only to cut it up again is the only craft that seems really wasteful to me. Still, if I see a beautifully executed quilt I admire the results.

      Nobody's perfect.

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  29. Chanin is selling the whole tin roof, rustin'pick-up truck, earnestly quaint, denim and sun bleached floral romantic notion.

    The books are affordable, the clothes not so much, but she sells more books than clothes.

    Chanin's talented, and is essentially doing what Martha Stewart would have done if she found herself in a "Fried Green Tomatoes" upbringing. Package the earnestness, write about and merchandise it while scrupulously holding true to the "voice" of the image, be seen living the essence (as others can then do), repeat.

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  30. Peter, check out what Judy Ross has done with the Alabama Chanin esthetic. I don't find her work primitive, nor folksy, and it's definitely flattering on her person.

    http://everythingjustsew.blogspot.com/

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    1. I was going to mention Judy's projects too! I think she's onto her third one and they're all wonderful!

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  31. I love those Alabama Stitch clothes. They're gorgeous and really beautifully made. I've played with recycling t-shirts but never anything as complicated as these!
    I love to do hand work, knitting and embroidery and bead work. It's relaxing and meditative. It's a matter of personal choice.
    In California we HAVE TO recycle. We get in trouble if we don't! Reduce is the ticket. I wish I could figure out how to reduce the amount of wasted paper advertising that comes in the mail!!! It fills my recycling bin every week!

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  32. Peter,

    I agree that upcycling has become something of a trend (certainly I'm on the bandwagon), but I don't think that necessarily means it isn't sustainable. What I don't like is seeing perfectly good clothing cut apart to make details on other clothing. Though perhaps there's a question of what "perfectly good clothing" means, and whether that should be defined by the person doing the upcycling or the world at large...when I take one of my brother's discarded shirts and make a skirt out of it, is that sustainable because I'm creating something useful for me out of something that isn't useful for me, or unsustainable because I should have donated it to charity and hope someone who could use a men's shirt would buy it? (I guess that's more sustainable than buying a men's shirt new expressively to make a skirt out of it).

    As far as the Alabama Stitch work, I've always admired the handiwork if not the aesthetic.

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  33. I think a major part of recycling cans, bottles and such is not energy savings, but keep it out of the landfill and cut the use of raw materials. I sometimes wish I didn't need a car, but living where there is no public transportation and it's 40 miles to work and 12 miles to the grocery store, that's not going to happen.

    Regarding the Alabama Stitch, her work is interesting, but not quite my style. Although it is much closer than many other clothing recycle/upcycle projects I see. I've picked up and put down her books in the store many times. I put it back when I realize I already have books telling how to do the techniques. I just need to get busy and draw my own leaf appliques.

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  34. I have not seen the Alabama Stitch book, but I have always been a sucker for reusing things. A couple of years ago I was out of work and really cut down on my use of many things. It was amazing how much money I could save when I could spend my time on re-using things and cooking from scratch. Now that I'm employed again I have kept some of my thrifty, "green" ways, but others are just too time consuming.
    As for quilting, I'm all for re-using scraps as the early quilters did. I don't see that at all now. Most of the quilts I see are all new, matching a theme, fabric. I just can't see buying new fabric to cut up to sew back together to make another flat piece of fabric. At least when you are sewing a garment it is not flat when you are done. As always, Peter, this is a thought provoking post. (Even if I don't fully agree that we can all give up cars and children.)

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  35. Not all of us can live where we walk to the grocery store for that gallon of milk or not have children The idea is to drive to the grocery store for the whole grocery list not just the gallon of milk. I agree we ought to be reducing the amount of new items that we use. Peter, you have made enough bed sheet shirts to get that. My grandsons get boxer shorts made out of things like my husbands dress shirt that has indelible ink dripping out of the pocket. Recycling is not always about the energy savings, but about the use of resources.

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  36. Never heard of Alabama Stitch book until I read your post. I do like hand embellishments and have tried my hand at most of them.
    I checked with the library and they have a copy they can loan me for free which takes care of the planet in a good way.
    Not sure I would pay $350 for a tank "that is suitable for the office" but since my office will not let women wear tanks, that saved me money.

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