Reviving A Southern Industry, From Cotton Field To Clothing Rack

Oct 10, 2014
Originally published on October 10, 2014 2:31 pm

You've probably heard of "farm to table," but how about "field to garment"? In Alabama, acclaimed fashion houses Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid have a new line of organic cotton clothing made from their own cotton field.

It's not just an experiment in keeping production local; it's an attempt to revive the long tradition of apparel-making in the Deep South. North Alabama was once a hub for textile manufacturing, with readily available cotton and access to cheap labor. But the industry all but disappeared after NAFTA became law, as operations moved overseas.

Now, Sue Hanback is again working a sewing machine in a cavernous building that was once part of the biggest cut-and-sew operation in Florence, Ala.

"I'm gonna five-thread this shirt," she explains, stitching cuffs onto an organic-cotton sweatshirt.

Hanback was last laid off in 2006 when this was a T-shirt factory. Her husband worked in the dye house. She's been a seamstress all her life.

"Ever since I was 18 years old," Hanback says. "So that was like, 48 years."

Keeping Cotton Local

Hanback is one of about 30 people who work at The Factory, home to Alabama Chanin, the fashion and lifestyle company founded by Natalie Chanin. The site includes a cafe, workshop and the company's flagship store.

Chanin is best known for her flowing, made-to-order organic garments, entirely hand-stitched and inspired by the rural South of the 1930s and '40s.

She's recently added a basic machine-made line, using experienced local seamstresses like Hanback.

"It's not just 'factory work,' " Chanin says. "This is a skill that's dying out in this country."

It's part of the nation's "cultural sustainability to preserve these things," Chanin says, "to be able to make our clothes."

American manufacturing is in Chanin's DNA: Her grandmother and great-grandmother used to work at a plant here that made underwear for the military. Life in North Alabama once revolved around the apparel industry, but few plants remain. Now, Alabama is better-known for auto manufacturing than the clothes it produces.

But Florence, a small town tucked in the far northwest corner of the state, is gaining a new reputation for fashion. Both Chanin and her friend Billy Reid, also a designer, are headquartered here.

Both have won coveted awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, among others.

"We broke down, sort of, those barriers in some ways, [showing] that you can do it from anywhere if you do it right and do it real," says Reid.

He's known for classic American designs a New York Times reviewer once described as "whiskey-soaked style."

His business partner, K.P. McNeill, is the one who first thought about growing their own cotton.

"I think the original idea really came from just driving through these areas in the fall when cotton is being picked and baled," McNeill says.

It got him thinking about whether all that cotton was being shipped overseas when companies right here could be using it.

So McNeill took a question to Chanin: "Can we go from seed to finished product in the same community?" he asked.

'Straight From Field To Form'

Chanin was intrigued. It made her think of how generations ago, manufacturing was more of a vertical affair.

"They were growing the cotton; they were ginning the cotton; they were processing it," she says. "And it was going straight from field to form, I call it."

Could that be done today? And organically?

They came up with a plan to test it. Reid says it meant no pesticides, no herbicides and no farm equipment tainted by such chemicals.

"A lot of the weeds had to be pulled by hand. It's not just your normal cotton operation that's automated," Reid says. "You really are going back to a somewhat primitive way — a primitive process to pick the cotton and to farm the cotton."

Farmer Jimmy Lentz tended the 7-acre plot, planted in 2012 on a breezy hillside where he used to raise cows.

"It was a lot of hard work, but to see the fruits of our labor was beyond words," Lentz says.

His wife, Lisa, was the cotton whisperer — nurturing the fledgling seedlings through a six-week drought before the rains came.

"It shot up," she says. "It was beautiful. And so many people were betting against us and saying,'You can't grow cotton unless you use pesticides. The bugs will eat it. It will be gone. Good luck, ha ha,' " she says.

But when harvest came, they proved the naysayers wrong.

"This little cotton field was planted just like our grandpas would have planted something," says Lisa Lentz. "It was very simple, a very small-scale operation — but a powerful goal."

Jimmy Lentz says it's satisfying to think about your clothes being grown out of the soil. "You think of something that you would eat, but you don't think of something that you would wear that's actually coming up out of the ground out there," he says.

Back at The Factory, Chanin holds a piece of ivory-colored fabric spun from the hand-picked cotton grown in the Alabama field.

"I've never seen cotton quite as clean and clear as this," Chanin says.

She says it's purer than cotton picked by machine because there's less plant matter that can show up as flecks in the cloth.

"And I've never seen that," she says. "I don't think people have seen that since cotton was really an agent of destruction in this country."

Chanin says this project is about transforming cotton into something more modern.

"I mean, cotton has a really ugly history. And it has had an ugly history all over the world. It has built fortunes, it's destroyed nations, it's enslaved people," says Chanin. "But to me this cotton ... is part of making a new story for cotton."

Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid produced a limited run of T-shirts, socks and scarves from the yield of their test cotton field — about 700 yards of fabric in all.

They acknowledge it was a small-scale experiment that proved difficult. But they say it also proved that field-to-garment manufacturing in the same community is possible.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a story next about the evolution of American manufacturing. This story begins in northern Alabama in the valley of the Tennessee River.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just under 200 years ago, it was Native American land. Then settlers swept across the region starting cotton plantations. Cotton-growing land was so valuable, there was a gigantic real estate bubble.

INSKEEP: In later generations, north Alabama became a manufacturing center. The cotton was made into cloth, and then the garment industry went away as operations moved overseas.

MARTIN: Now a new chapter has begun in the city of Florence, Alabama. We tell it as part of our series American Made. Fashion houses Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid have a new line of organic cotton clothing.

INSKEEP: It's made with material from their own cotton field. You might have heard of farm to table in the food industry. This is an experiment of going from field to garment in the same community. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: North Alabama was once a hub for textile manufacturing with readily available cotton and access to cheap labor. But the industry all but disappeared after NAFTA. Now Sue Hanback is again working a sewing machine in a cavernous building that was once part of the biggest cut-and-sew operation in Florence, Alabama.

SUE HANBACK: I'm going to five-thread this shirt.

ELLIOTT: She's using five threads to stitch cuffs onto an organic cotton sweatshirt. Hanback was last laid off in 2006 when this was a T-shirt factory. Her husband worked in the dye house. She's been a seamstress all her life.

HANBACK: Ever since I was 18 years old. So that was, like, 48 years, I think. So now you know how old I am (laughter).

ELLIOTT: Hanback is 1 of about 30 people who work at the Factory - capital F - home to Alabama Chanin the fashion and lifestyle company founded by Natalie Chanin. She's best-known for her flowing, made-to-order organic garments, entirely hand-stitched and inspired by the rural South of the '30s and '40s. She's recently added a basic machine-made line using experienced, local seamstresses like Sue Hanback.

NATALIE CHANIN: It's not just "factory work," quote-unquote. This is a skill that's dying out in this country, and there's not a young generation that's coming up behind them. And I think it's part of our cultural sustainability to preserve these things - right? - to be able to make our clothes.

ELLIOTT: American manufacturing is in Chanin's DNA. Her grandmother and great-grandmother used to work at a plant here that made underwear for the military. Life in north Alabama once revolved around the apparel industry, but few plants remain. Now Alabama is better-known for auto manufacturing than the clothes it produces.

But Florence, a small town tucked in the far northwest corner of the state, is gaining a new reputation for fashion. Both Chanin and her friend, the designer of Billy Reid, are headquartered here. Both have won coveted awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America among others. Billy Reid.

BILLY REID: We broke down sort of those barriers in some ways that you can do it from anywhere if you do it right and do it real.

ELLIOTT: Reid is known for classic American designs a New York Times reviewer once described as whiskey-soaked style. His business partner, K.P. McNeill, is the one who first thought about growing their own cotton.

K.P. MCNEILL: I think the original idea really came from just, you know, driving through these areas in the fall when cotton is being picked and bailed.

ELLIOTT: It got him thinking about whether all that cotton was being shipped overseas when companies right here could be using it. So McNeill took this question to Natalie Chanin.

MCNEILL: Can we go from seed to finished product, like, in the same community?

ELLIOTT: Chanin was intrigued. It made her think of how generations ago, manufacturing was more of a vertical affair.

CHANIN: They were growing the cotton. They were ginning the cotton. You know they were processing it, and it was going straight from field to form, I call it.

ELLIOTT: Could that be done today and organically? They came up with a plan to test it. Billy Reid says it meant no pesticides, no herbicides and no farm equipment tainted by such chemicals.

REID: A lot of the weeds had to be pulled by hand. You know, it's not just your normal sort of cotton operation that's automated. You really are going back to a somewhat primitive way of - primitive process to pick the cotton and to form the cotton.

J. LENTZ: This is where it was.

ELLIOTT: Farmer Jimmy Lentz tended the 7-acre plot located on a breezy hillside where he used to raise cows.

LENTZ: It was a lot of hard work. But to see the fruits of our labor was beyond words.

ELLIOTT: His wife, Lisa, was the cotton whisperer, nurturing the fledgling seedlings through a six-week drought before the rains came.

L. LENTZ: It shot up. You know, it was this high and then this high. And it was beautiful, and so many people were betting against us saying, you know, you can't grow cotton unless you use pesticides. The bugs will eat it. It'll be gone. Good luck, ha ha.

ELLIOTT: But when harvest came, they proved the naysayers wrong.

LENTZ: This little cotton field was planted just like our grandpas would've planted something. It was very simple, very small-scaled operation but a powerful goal.

LENTZ: To see your clothes being grown out of the soil, it's - you think of something that you would eat, but you don't think of something you would wear that's actually coming up out of the ground out there.

ELLIOTT: Back at the Factory, Natalie Chanin holds a piece of ivory-colored fabric, spun from the hand-picked cotton, grown in the Alabama field.

CHANIN: I've never seen cotton quite as clear and clean as this.

ELLIOTT: She says it's more pure than cotton picked by machine because there's less plant matter that can show up as flecks in the cloth.

CHANIN: And I've never seen that. You know, I don't think people have seen that since, you know, cotton was really an agent of destruction in this country.

ELLIOTT: Chanin says this project is about transforming cotton into something more modern.

CHANIN: I mean, cotton has a really ugly history. And it has had an ugly history all over the world. It's built fortunes. It's destroyed nations. It's, you know, enslaved people. It's - I mean - but to me, this is part of - this cotton that you're holding is part of making a new story for cotton.

ELLIOTT: Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid produced a limited run of T-shirts, socks and scarves from the yield of their test cotton field - about 700 yards of fabric in all. They acknowledge it was a small-scale experiment and proved difficult. But they say it also proved that field-to-garment manufacturing in the same community is possible. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.