Sue Hanback has been sewing for half a century. She has stitched uniforms, men’s underwear, and, for nearly 30 years, T-shirt samples for Tee Jays Manufacturing Co. in Florence, Alabama—the former “T-shirt capital of the world.” But in 2005, Tee Jays closed its operations in Florence, and, at age 58, Hanback was out of work.
“There were about 2,000 people working here, and everybody was gone,” she says in her thick Alabama drawl.
Eleven years later, Hanback is once again operating a sewing machine in the same building, though instead of sewing T-shirt samples in a bustling factory, she’s making designer dresses and coats as one of 34 employees and 23 independent artisans at Alabama Chanin, a local fashion house and lifestyle company that is spurring a mini-revival of Florence’s textile industry.
Florence native Natalie Chanin founded her namesake company in 2006, after stints in New York as a sportswear designer and jaunts around the world as a stylist. When she initially returned home in 2000, the town of just 40,000 people was grappling with the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (enacted in 1994) on its primary industry, and Tee Jays—once the third largest employer in the Muscle Shoals region—had already relocated the majority of its operations to the Dominican Republic. The Lee jeans factory in Florence followed suit, shuttering in 2003.
“There were still a few mills that were hanging on when I returned, but they closed within the first few years that I’d been back,” says Chanin. “Five thousand people who were working directly in the industry lost their jobs—so it’s been a real journey for us, to see the demise, but also kind of the rebirth.”
Hanback, for one, couldn’t be happier. “I decided, well, I might try it for a little while, but I didn’t realize it was going to last three years. But it’s really nice; it’s a really good atmosphere to work in,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a factory where lots of machines are running, but it’s very loud, and this is quiet and calm.”
At first, Chanin’s return to Florence was a matter of necessity. She wanted to produce a small line of hand-sewn T-shirts, inspired by a top she’d made herself for a party in New York. She received so many compliments on the shirt, which she had cut up and resewn using her grandmother’s quilting stitch, that she decided to create 200 based on the concept.
“I just couldn’t find anyone to make them in New York, and there was just a moment of clarity where it was like, ‘Oh, I need to go back home to be able to get these made,’” she says.
Chanin returned to Florence and set up a small production facility in an old house her aunt found for her. By 2008, the company had grown enough to warrant moving into one of the old Tee Jays buildings, where Hanback and a workforce composed almost exclusively of local women ply their craft.
“I realized at some point that these quilting and embroidery skills were really a deep part of my grandmothers’ lives and their mothers’ before them,” says Chanin, who worried that the craft was becoming a dying art. “It seemed likeeverybody was talking about sustainability, but this cultural sustainability—nobody was having that conversation.
“What we also hopefully bring to our community is this potential for economic development for women specifically,” adds Chanin. Nearly all of Alabama Chanin’s 34 employees are female, and all 23 of the artisans who hand-stitch pieces on their own schedules are women.
“This system that we have of working with independent contractors allows the women to work and set a schedule that suits their family structure, whether they’re single moms, or have other jobs,” says Chanin.
Chanin’s socially minded approach is also reflected in her supply chain: All Alabama Chanin products are made with sustainably sourced, 100% organic cotton—the majority of which is grown in Lubbock, Texas, spun, knit, and dyed in the Carolinas, and sewn in Alabama. Of course, conscious doesn’t come cheap. A racerback tank top retails for $98, while a long embroidered skirt is priced at $3,680. But such, Chanin argues, is the cost of “slow fashion.”
“I always say we vote with our dollars,” says the designer. “So if you choose to vote for those kinds of products, which may be a little more expensive right now, you’re doing two things: You’re telling manufacturers that that’s the kind of product you want, and they’re going to make more of those, and number two, you help create more robust supply chains where those kinds of products can become the norm. I’m not saying that everybody has the capacity to do that. I’m just saying if every single one of us, at the capacity that we have, makes thoughtful choices, we can change the world.”
As for small-town Florence, the textile industry is continuing to come back. Billy Reid, who was named the 2012 Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), also has his headquarters here, employing 60 locals. “We always make a joke—which is kind of true—that Florence, Alabama, has the highest population of CFDA members outside of New York and California,” Chanin says, chuckling. In 2012, Reid and Chanin joined forces to grow their own seven-acre field of cotton, which they used for a collaborative collection called Alabama Cotton.
“There have been a lot of great things happening in this community for a very long time that have nothing to do with Billy or me,” she says, noting that “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy hails from Florence, while Helen Keller is from across the Tennessee River in Tuscumbia, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—where the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, and other rock ’n roll legends have recorded—is just on the other side of the O’Neal Bridge.
“There is a deep history in every community, and I think that in the age that we live in those communities are being cracked wide open,” Chanin says. “When I graduated design school, you had to go to these centralized areas where that work was done, but now I think that smaller towns in America are experiencing a renaissance. People are wanting to go home.”