alabama on my mind

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I’m not sure how to write about alabama chanin without gushing. I’m also really not sure how or why it took me so long to come around to alabma chanin style garments. But why spend time pondering the past when you could be hand-stitching the future?!

I think the turning point was when I saw Natalie Chanin’s newest book, Alabama Studio Style, at the Seam Allowance sewing group at A Verb for Keeping Warm. I think that was in March or April. Maybe I’m just a sucker for styling, but I feel like it clicked: I could see myself wearing so many of those garments, whole outfits, head-to-toe ornate, organic cotton jersey, and I was fascinated by the intricate patterning.

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I waited patiently, dropping not-so-subtle hints to my partner that this book would be a great birthday present, but ultimately I bought the book myself a few weeks ago (after receiving other, equally wonderful and thoughtful birthday gifts). While it’s a very technical book in many ways, providing straightforward overviews of previous books and techniques, it’s also a gorgeous, escapist dream of a book. I’ve read it through several times now, and have been picking out different portions to re-read before bed. Sometimes I just look at the pictures and hold the pages closer to my face, studying the details and letting the style wash over me. Am I gushing yet?

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Photo of the Alabama Chanin trunk show via A Verb for Keeping Warm twitter

Anyway, if you can even get past the skilled handiwork of alabama chanin embroidery, there is the matter of the material: alabama chanin produces their own line of organic, US-grown, milled, knit and dyed cotton. This no-small-feat of fabric is the foundation for the alabama chanin line and slow-fashion ethos. There is a beautiful post on their Journal about it, and I highly recommend listening to the Thread Cult interview with Natalie Chanin to learn more. Suffice to say it is a rare and courageous commitment to textiles.

I’m incorporating one or two alabama chanin pieces into my fall/winter wardrobe planning and I want to budget for buying their cotton jersey by the yard, but I wanted to experiment first so I could get the hang of the stenciling and hand stitching. I went to my local Goodwill and searched the racks for good quality cotton jersey tee shirts, as big as I could find, in the hopes of trying some of the double-layered fabric techniques. It took a surprisingly long time, and made me sad that yet another symptom of fast fashion is fabric of such poor quality that after a few wears it’s hardly worth buying. But I digress. I found 5 strong candidates and scooped them up.

The A-Line dress jumped out at me immediately as a garment I would wear all the time: a v-neck, lots of ease, and not too frilly. But I wanted to start with a baby step, a smaller garment to test the applique waters and work with one of the thrifted tees, so I’m making a slightly cropped, slightly off-grain A-Line top. The front and back are each cut out of two pieces, but with the swingy shape I couldn’t quite cut them out from my deconstructed tee, so I ended up adding side panels to create the pattern pieces.

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With the panels stitched up, I turned to the stenciling. I love the allover stenciling but knew that I had very limited fabric (just the tee scraps since I wanted to keep it monochromatic) and so I sought inspiration in the pieces where the flowers curl and cascade around the edges. With my printed Magdalena stencil on the floor I laid the tracing paper pattern pieces over different portions of the pattern to get a sense of composition (see photo above). (note that the patterns and stencils included with the book are formatted for copy-shop size printing; I used the “poster” setting in Adobe to tile them for printing at the library).

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Once that was set, I traced the stencil onto freezer paper and cut out the design with an exacto knife. The freezer paper trick was highly recommended to me by a classmate in a recent course at the Textile Center here in Minneapolis, and I’m so thankful she mentioned it! Freezer paper has a wax coating so you can just iron it onto your fabric and it adheres, making it really easy to brush on some fabric paint. I used cheap fabric paint from Michael’s (my nearest resource) and would like to find a more environmentally-friendly alternative, if anyone has suggestions, I’m all ears!

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I was really pleased that I could reuse the stencil by peeling off the freezer paper (once the paint was dry) and then placing it over my fabric scraps. I really had to squeeze the stencil pieces onto the scraps which turned out to be a fun puzzle. Now I’m in the process of stitching on the stencil pieces and it is absolutely addicting! I enjoy machine sewing but find it kind of stressful at times because I worry about breaking needles, steady topstitching, and even thread tension… but from the moment I cut out the pattern pieces and throughout the stenciling and applique, my alabama chanin DIY process has been refreshingly peaceful.

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And when I’m not stitching, I’m admiring the Alabama on Alabama show at Heath Ceramics’ Boiler Room in San Francisco, partly cursing myself that I moved before it went up, and partly soaking it all in through the internet (photo above by Leslie Santarina via SF Girl by Bay; photo below via The Merchant Home blog).

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Have you made any Alabama Chanin-style garments? Have you checked out #alabamachanin on instagram? Do it, and swoon with me!

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khadi chronicles pt. 2

khadi prism_1Around the same time I bought the striped khadi, Verb received new stock of gorgeous, lightweight, colorful cloth which was also listed as khadi. Though both tags said khadi, these new bolts had a much finer hand. Not all of them were organic cotton or naturally dyed, but I believe they were still hand loomed, and I couldn’t resist this voile-like fabric so I picked up a fun take on navy & white gingham to make into Verb’s newest sewing pattern, the Prism dress. I love the way the checks came together on the diagonal because of the raglan sleeve, though my pattern matching was imperfect since the stripes and checks are irregular.

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The Prism dress has become one of my favorite pieces of my wardrobe — it’s easy to throw on and dress up or down (I’ve worn it to a fancy cocktail party for work, and on  bike rides around my new neighborhood), and the slim sleeves balance the shift shape. I know a lot of people love the Grainline Studio Linden pattern and use it for easy raglan tees and dresses, but I think Prism has subtle design differences that make it a worthwhile addition to your pattern library: the raglan sleeve is cut in two pieces which is really beginner-friendly, the split seam on the side is a nice construction twist, and both the body of the dress and the sleeves have slight shaping that I really enjoy. I already have another prism in mind, with short sleeves and pockets!

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I lengthened my Prism by 3″ (my standard for dresses), and added 2″ to the sleeves I think, while grading from a size 41 at the bust to a size 43 at the waist for a little extra room. I also stitched it up with french seams to reinforce the construction and prevent fraying. While living in Oakland I was able to visit the Verb store where you can try on the sample garments of their patterns — such a treat! The staff always choose excellent fabric and I would pretty much wear any of them straight out of the store… Anyway, that’s how I knew I wanted a little extra room around the waist and hips. Also note: Verb patterns are sized by finished garment measurements (i.e. size 41 is a 41″ bust, about 2.5″ of ease for me).

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One of the reasons that I think Verb is such a special shop is because Kristine Vejar, the owner, is very intentional about the inventory, from US-sourced yarns (both their own lines and companies like Brooklyn Tweed) to using natural dyes, and finding interesting and beautiful fabrics with a strong story. When I first learned about khadi I was coming to terms firsthand with the ramifications of global supply chains, from touring a sugar factory where workers where squatting in an unsafe campground nextdoor, to visiting villages reeling from farmer suicides due to the volatile commodification of seeds. I know it’s not always easy to find ethically sourced materials (let alone any supply chain information), but khadi cloth was and is a powerful lesson in the meaning and potential of material processes.

I’m thankful that Verb stocks khadi, which you can find in their online shop or order by calling their store — sometimes they are able to send photos of what is in stock, and sometimes it’s featured in their newsletter. I’ve also done a quick online search and found some khadi available by the yard on Etsy, and pinned a few swatches that caught my eye:

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p.s. One more way you can support khadi cloth is by contributing to the Indigo Handloom Kickstarter. Indigo Handloom is a small textiles company that began as a wholesale importer (I am fairly certain they supplied Verb with the khadi I used for this dress) and is working to create their own fashion line of finished goods, dubbed “the world’s greenest clothing” because the handloom process requires no electricity and much lower resource inputs. Healthier for us and the workers, and you can get a beautiful scarf, tunic, or dress in exchange for supporting their fundraising.

khadi chronicles pt. 1

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when I came across khadi by the yard for sale at A Verb for Keeping Warm I was enchanted. To me, khadi is powerful cloth. Incredibly alluring, especially if you like the feel of course linen and natural colors and small textural reminders that human hands made your cloth, but beyond that it is politically potent. Five years ago I had the opportunity to participate in an incredible study abroad program which traveled from the US to India, Tanzania, New Zealand and Mexico and explored the impacts of globalization and grassroots resistance — it was a pivotal journey for me intellectually and emotionally, one which I am grateful for every single day. I first learned about the history of khadi while in India, so seeing and touching it was a visceral reminder of that journey and the (positive and negative) transformative potential of textiles.

khadi chronicles_8Khadi is a term for handspun and handwoven cloth, but it is also emblematic of the movement for Indian self-reliance and freedom from British colonialism. Gandhi advocated for each person to spin their own cotton and each community to weave their own cloth so that the Indian people would create home-grown textiles rather than buying fabric back from the British who held tight control over the cotton markets. Gandhi encouraged a daily practice of spinning with a foldable spinning wheel or charkha and community-scale fiber farmning, weaving, dyeing, and block-printing; a true example that the revolution begins at home. (This cursory overview of the history of khadi was imparted by my teacher in India, Saatchi, and a brief stay in the village and ashram of Sevagram; this website is another resource). While I doubt all khadi cotton is still spun at home on a charkha, some of this cottage industry remains, both for educational purposes and cloth production.

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I bought a meager yard and a half, maybe even just a yard and a quarter, of organic cotton, naturally dyed khadi that day at Verb, and at the time I wasn’t really sewing clothing. I guess that khadi was the start of my stash, and I treasured it, saving it until I had dusted off my sewing skills. Even then, cutting into this plainweave, turquoise fabric made my heart jump! But this simple Wiksten tank has become a wardrobe staple for me.

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I chose the Wiksten tank pattern because I wanted a garment with a modern, simple design that would be straightforward for my beginner sewing skills and showcase the beauty of this cloth. The yardage had natural color variations including a large faded streak that I intentionally placed along the center back.

Nearly a year later I felt more confident in my sewing skills and I was fortunate to have a slightly larger fabric budget, so I returned to Verb to buy more khadi — this time gray and brown stripes of the same thick, organic, naturally dyed cloth. On the eve of Me Made May I sewed up a Scout Tee with added volume in the back (using Jen’s great tutorial for slashing & spreading the pattern) and lengthened sleeves (+2″ I think?). When I bought the fabric I had a Scout tee in mind because again I wanted a classic, modern wardrobe staple, but I definitely thought that the stripes went horizontally. Not so! The stripes run along the grainline and the cloth is pretty narrow, so I forged ahead with vertical stripes, and I’m very pleased with it.

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Both of these tops are now part of my core wardrobe, and I love that each time I wear one I’m reminded not only of my own travels but of the incredible journey from field to garment. With this narrative in mind, I made sure to wear my khadi Wiksten as part of my outfit for Fashion Revolution Day:

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Stay tuned ~ tomorrow I’ll be posting another khadi garment & a few more words about my love for this cloth!