Blog Tour/Giveaway: Natalie Chanin on Sourcing Sustainably

{ photograph by Robert Rausch }

Natalie Chanin is the chief designer and owner of Alabama Chanin, a fashion and lifestyle company focused on sustainable materials and practices. I’m very pleased to host her today as part of her blog tour to promote her new book, Alabama Studio Style: More Projects, Recipes, & Stories Celebrating Sustainable Fashion & Living, the followup from STC Craft to her fiercely beloved 2008 debut, the Alabama Stitch Book. Alabama Chanin’s practices typify the principles of the Slow Cloth movement, elevating humble cotton jersey with couture hand-sewing and embellishment. If this is your first introduction to Ms. Chanin, I hope you’ll follow the tour and learn more about her and her multifaceted work. Today, she answers my questions about sourcing sustainable materials.

How do you balance sourcing sustainable materials with economic realities — i.e. helping more people have access to organic/sustainable textiles and other goods?

You know this is a question that is still difficult to answer after so many years! There are definitely more options today than there were five years ago -– even a year ago -– but navigating the plethora of products out there is really difficult. What I do try to do is to inform myself as deeply as possible about an issue and then make my decisions.

For example, everyone talked about bamboo. From my research, I understand that bamboo is not really that much more sustainable than cotton. Yes, it is a renewable resource, but to make fiber from bamboo takes very harsh chemicals. It is this sort of detail-oriented information that makes decisions difficult.

Here are the questions that I try to follow in everything that I do – whether it is for my business, my home, or my daughter:

1) Can what I am looking for be sourced locally or regionally?
2) What materials and methods are used to produce an item?
3) Does what I am purchasing support some higher mission?
4) What is the cost economically?
5) What is the cost to the environment when I purchase that product?

Because I have experienced such difficulty in finding materials myself, we have tried to offer a range of resources in our online store. Hopefully, web resources will continue to help make these products available.

{ image credit: The Alabama Chanin Store }

What kind of materials do you source for your work? Can you source mostly via the internet these days or is attending trade shows still the best way for the fashion & textiles industries?

Right now we are working with 100% organic cotton jersey as our fabric base. Notions and trims have not really begun to address the concept of organic or sustainable –- so we make our decisions based on the least possible harm. Does that make sense? You just have to look, think, compare and make the best decision based on what is available. We have done all of our sourcing over the internet and simply by asking questions. Call a supplier and talk to them about what they are doing. You will find that knowledge begets knowledge and each little step leads you closer to a good solution.

Do you make a distinction between “organic” and “sustainable”? If so, when it comes to sourcing fabrics, which is more important?

Again, there is not one answer to satisfy all the questions – and I do think that we sometimes look for easy answers today. I wrote this once and think that it still holds true, “Our job as designers (and consumers) is to research with diligence and apply the results of our diligence to our products (and purchases), thereby creating the most highly sustainable and durable product available on the market today.”

{ photograph by Robert Rausch }

How can consumers cut through all the “greenwashing” that is out there? How can they know that know that they are making the best choice for the environment and economy (are there certain certifications to look for when buying textiles)?

Again, diligence is the only option at the moment to wade through the massive amounts of greenwashing going on today. However, I am an optimist at heart and I believe that things are changing for the better and our decisions will become clearer each day. For the moment, you make the best decision that you can at each crossroad.

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{ photograph by Robert Rausch }

You’re featured in Kate Fletcher‘s Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys — a wonderful resource for those looking to be educated in the relative sustainability of different fibers and production processes — are there any other books/resources you recommend to this end (other than your own books of course)?

There are so many good books out there today about ways to run a business. I have a reading list that I continually update which includes some of my favorites here.

Thank you so much, Natalie!

I have one copy of Alabama Studio Style to give away. Just share your thoughts on this interview in the comments and I’ll draw a winner next Wednesday, March 3, around 3pm Central U.S. time. A few copies of Alabama Studio Style will also be available for random giveaway throughout the blog tour on the STC Craft / A Melanie Falick Books blog, so be sure to enter over there too!

71 Comments

  1. kristy carter says:

    I *love* chanin’s work and am super excited about her new book. I checked her first book out of the library so many times that i finally had to buy a copy.

  2. Catherine says:

    Thanks for the great interview. I remember being a bit confused when I read her first book about where to find recycled jersey knit–several men’s xl t-shirts in the same color would be needed for some of the patterns–where could I find these? So it’s great to hear her talk a bit more about her sources of fabric.

  3. Dupcodeb says:

    Thank you Natalie for the honest and practical advice.

  4. I am new to sewing and hadn’t even thought about sustainability of the fabrics I’m using, I need to look into that more.

  5. Sylvia says:

    It would be so great if sustainably produced fabrics etc. were more widely available. I haven’t seen any in the local fabric stores (which admittedly aren’t very good). The other problem at the moment is the cost. I would like to buy more organic/sustainable everything (not just fabric!) but since I don’t make much that’s not possible. Until we figure out how to make those sorts of products affordable, we aren’t going to make much headway.

  6. Jan says:

    I am extremely interested in sustainable fabrics. I just purchased my first organic cotton fabric a couple of months ago, and unfortunately it was a little on the expensive side. I wish more was available at a reasonable price. It was ordered from the internet even though I live in the land of cotton (Alabama)! Also just tried my hand at recycling men’s t-shirts into a little girl’s dress. My granddaughter was thrilled with the dress and I was pleased also. This is all new to me, but I am learning.

  7. Deb says:

    I’m very interested. I’m going to check on this book locally if I don’t win a copy. Thanks for the interview and very interesting information.

  8. Amy Hodge says:

    I worked for a couple of years in the green technology sector, collecting information on everything from policies to industrial processes. I agree that there is a lot of information out there — and a lot of confusing information out there. Science has not figured out which things are really better for the environment, but applaud Natalie for doing her best to make decisions amidst the muck. Bravo!

  9. carrie says:

    This interview was really excellent–I appreciate how she gave a framework for her decision-making in her business and purchases. It’s great to have a place from which to start when thinking about huge ideas such as sustainability and “green-ness”.

  10. Hilary says:

    Lovely book. I hope that some of her ideas can be fully put into practice in the next few years.

  11. holly says:

    i am so excited about this book. My favorite thing about this interview is her pointing out consumer responsibility- it’s so important as crafters and creators to be aware of what the repercussions of our actions are.

  12. Wendy says:

    can’t wait to see this latest book. nice to see the insights and thoughts she puts into her business. will definitely check out some of her recommended books, too.

  13. ginny says:

    I too found this article very informative and I am all for organic,green and sustainable.But I also need affordable and that is difficult to find.I think her patterns and design ideas look beautiful.Can’t wait to see her book.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I am very intrigued by all of this. I need to overcome my fear of working with jersey and get busy! I feel like it would open up a lot of new sewing territory for me.

  15. Ramona says:

    I’m a huge fan of Alabama Chanin… Why are trims and notions so far behind fabric in terms of organic/sustainable options?
    It seems like lots of fabric stores have “organic” fabric options, but I have yet to see thread, notions, etc, anywhere local (and I try to buy local/independent, but I’m in LA, so local usually has everything I need…)

  16. MelodyJ says:

    This sounds interesting. Consumers really do have to beaware of “greenwashing”. Companies will try to profit off this latest trend.

    melodyj(at)gmail(dot)com

  17. Sara says:

    I think her work is beautiful and I love the idea of slowing down and doing some handstitching. I really want to give this a try.

  18. Jeannette says:

    I love your blog, you always have the best information that opens us to new ideas! I have never heard of N. Chanin so this is awesome. I am very interested in this book and would love to win it!

  19. Jen says:

    I have just started researching where the beautiful fabrics I love to use come from and am finding it depressing reading. I’m so happy to hear about this book! It makes me want to redouble my efforts in sourcing sustainable materials.

    I’m going to blog about your interview too because it is right up my alley but also because I LOVE True Up!!!!!

  20. Tish says:

    Fabulous interview!

  21. Susana says:

    Thanks for a great interview! Her words on diligence and balance regarding sustainability really resonate with me.

  22. Lisa P. says:

    I really like her perspective on finding the best materials–all any of us can do is the best we can with the info we have, but she obviously doesn’t say that glibly. She really is doing the research. I find that inspiring and challenging in my own life.

  23. Vicki says:

    I have Alabama Stitch checked out from my library right now… I love the ideas and designs in it and can’t wait to make myself one of the skirts. I love the idea of using thrifted t-shirts for fabric and the handstitching and stencilling and reverse applique in Chanin’s designs are all so wonderful.

  24. Amy says:

    I love the slow cloth movement and love Natalie’s work. I have found the most economical way to be “green” with crafting is to re-use or use thrifted materials. Otherwise (for me) it is too cost prohibitive.

  25. grace says:

    I was interested in what she said about bamboo – I wasn’t aware that it takes harsh chemicals to produce the fabric.

    Sounds like an interesting book.

  26. Christine says:

    It takes a lot of work to consume in an ethical manner and I do like it when I find a business that really does that work for you! This was a good reminder though that as consumers we need to be informed for ourselves.

  27. Erin says:

    I love that more and more people are looking to sustainable practices and appreciate knowing a little more about where to find them. I almost always use thrifted material in my sewing projects.

    Thanks for the chance to win!

  28. emily august says:

    I was just reading an article with Natalie Chanin in Southern Living. I actually didn’t recognize her at first even though I was a big fan a while ago. Just wasn’t expecting to see her there. I think she is really awesome and glad that she’s preaching the right way to source! I’m glad that so many people in the crafty movement are recyclers. I always feel nervous using new, pristine fabrics but when they are pre-loved, it frees up imagination and those daring experiments we all so love!

    Thanks for sharing this interview!

  29. ….Natalie is an interesting woman…bought her first book and love the presentation…..her success shows if you have a belief system and follow through on it, success will follow…..raising peoples consciousness is something that is so needed…….we forget sometimes that there are a lot of people who want to make this a better world and just need a coaxing in how to……

  30. Sarah C says:

    Interesting information about bamboo that I did not know. I love the work the Natalie Chanin has done!

  31. Very interesting point that we have to consider the processes involved in making “natural” products. Good food for thought!

  32. Marcia W. says:

    I learned new information about bamboo. Conservation is important to my family because our living comes from agriculture. Please enter me in this drawing.

  33. Theresa says:

    Natalie brings up so many things to consider when sourcing materials. I am such a big fan of her work, and have made a few pieces from her first book with thrift store t-shirts. But extra large men’s t-shirts, or sets of jersey sheets, as long as they are in good condition.

  34. amy says:

    I love her suggestions for making better choices when buying materials. It is so easy to buy the super cheap clearance fabric but you have no idea where it comes from or the impact that purchase has! Great suggestions and super style.

  35. Angela says:

    I struggle with sustainability in my sewing. On one hand, I’m part of a wardrobe refashion group and don’t buy new clothes. I also use a lot of thrifted fabric and old sheets to make things for my family. But there is such a temptation to buy pretty, pretty new things. Just last night, I bought some Echino fabric online – from Japan. From an environmental point of view it didn’t make sense, but I love this fabric, and there’s not really a local option.

  36. monaluna says:

    Great interview – thank you! I love Natalie Chanin’s work, and appreciate her frank and thoughtful comments about sustainability. There are many issues to consider, and not always a clear path, but it’s so important to pay attention and make careful choices.

  37. nycstitcher says:

    A very comprehensive interview! Most interested in the bamboo detail because it has, as she says, been hyped as “sustainable,” but may not actually fit the definition.

  38. Katie says:

    Kim, thanks so much for sharing this interview! I have recently begin making handbags from recycled and vintage fabrics and was looking for a local resource for “green” fabrics to start doing some small runs of hand prints.

    The wonderful thing is that I am in Atlanta, so the fabrics and products sold by Alabama Chanin would be perfect for what I had in mind! Regional and sustainable! Yay!

  39. Suzy C says:

    Great interview. Such a good point about researching and educating ourselves about choices. I think that taking the time to do the research makes us, in the end, decide to not ‘consume’ so much, which is a pretty green choice. I’d rather have few things that are of fine quality, than many cheap things.

    Thanks again!

  40. Bea says:

    Great interview! I love Alabama Chanin, and her approach to fashion.

  41. Alexandra says:

    I find Natalie’s work so inspiring and thank you for your pointed questions about sustainability. She’s right – it seems these days that researching on your own in the best way to get information. Hopefully some day things will be a bit more transparent for all of us.

    Great interview. Thanks!

  42. Amber says:

    What a great interview – I didn’t realize they had a store where they sold fabric! And I love the questions she asks herself before purchasing items.

  43. Patty says:

    The book really sounds interesting. I’d love to read it.

  44. Deanna says:

    Very timely interview for me!

    I’m currently working on an article for my interior design clients about what words like green, eco-friendly, organic and sustainable really mean.

    At least there are now more real green choices out there than there used to be.

  45. Angelina says:

    That organic jersey cotton comes in some beautiful colors. I’m going to have to get some.

    I really want to start being more “green” – or whatever you want to call it – with my sewing. It’s difficult, especially when there are so many contemporary fabric designers that are releasing beautiful collections. But those fabrics aren’t organic, just plain ol’ pesticide ridden cotton. I know harmony art makes some beautiful organic fabrics, but other than that, I’m really not seeing very many choices for quilting in particular. I’m trying to integrate more vintage fabrics plus bed sheets & used clothing from thrift stores into my sewing, but many times I can’t find something I like that is usable. (Not stained/too worn, etc) There’s not a lot of choice at the thrift stores here. So I go to my lil quilt shop or I order fabric online.

    Anyhow, I really enjoyed the interview & will look for the book at my bookstore. (If I don’t win it, that is. Thanks for the opportunity!)

  46. June says:

    I loved Alabama Stitch Book and look forward to trying the projects in the new book. Thanks for the interview.

  47. Sarah T says:

    I am hoping that demand will rise for sustainable fabrics bringing prices down. Until then, I try to work with used and thrifted clothes as much as possible. Can’t wait to see the new book!

  48. Jes says:

    this is perfect because im on a recycled jersey knit kick myself these days!

  49. Jennifer W. says:

    I loooove the Alabama stitch book, would love to win a copy of the studio style book!

  50. This interview gives a great list of things to think about when buying fabrics and supplies for sewing and crafting.