Adventures in Dress Making with Alabama Chanin

So excited to write about this one - really, I cannot tell you how much.......

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 Where to the very beginning, I suppose.   Last year, when I was finishing up my City & Guilds course, I was doing some research on 'reverse appliqué' and confess I was rather unenthusiastic about this part of the module.  That was, until I came across 'Alabama Chanin'.   It opened up a whole new world to me and oh is just totally fabulous.    I won't say too much more right now, except watch this.... and you will see.

I loved this whole story.  Not just because she seems like a completely amazing and inspirational lady... but also because I have some empathy with the thread of it.  West Yorkshire, where I live, is an area not dissimilar to Alabama.  Once a thriving hive of textile production, it is now a bit of a wasteland in this respect.  Empty Mill buildings, long since abandoned, are more likely to be renovated for trendy shops and restaurants than for any kind of actual production of goods.   Infact in Halifax, we have one of only two 'Piece Halls" left in Europe.  Originally opened in 1779 for the sale of 'Pieces of cloth' - it is currently undergoing a massive renovation after years of decay.

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The Piece Hall, Halifax, Yorkshire

Just as Ms Chanin says the decline of her home town was decimated by the loss of T-shirt production to the East, so Yorkshire suffered a similar fate.    It makes me feel overwhelmingly sad sometimes to see the empty and abandoned mills that litter yorkshire.   Watching the short film,  I couldn't help but admire tremendously what she is doing and the whole style of her work and was inspired to have look a little deeper  

I am not a dressmaker.  I never make clothes and although I grew up with a mum who made everything beautifully, and a dining room table that was often taken over by dressmaking projects, I remained steadfastly determined to be a modern girl and buy my clothes in the shops.    To be fair, I did make a few things with her help (maybe that should be the other way around!) mainly party dresses and I did even want to take Sewing at school - an idea quickly scotched by my Dad, who insisted I did chemistry instead - LOL!!!  and that was pretty much it.  Always though, something hung around in the depths of my mind, that I should be doing this and actually in recent years, it hasn't even been in the depths, more like a gentle and constant nudging voice in my head.  I embroider, I make epic quilts, I have a state of the art sewing machine and a sewing room full of gorgeous fabric.....and what's more, I am totally fed up with the mass produced, sub standard clothes that flood our high streets and completely hinder our individuality.    I was still put off by the idea that I would make something and it wouldn't fit and sadly with my mum no longer around to guide me, I still resisted.   Then I found Alabama Chanin and amazingly, I have made a dress, which not only fits me.... but is totally unique and feels sort of like a freehand drawing with fabric.  

First though... were the books.

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I bought one and then I bought the other three.  They are always around my house - I simply cannot stop looking at them, they are fascinating.    Beautifully produced, full of fantastic photos of ideas and stitches and patterns and the most amazing clothes which really surprised me.  Generally I am not a fan of the T-shirt or jersey fabric.   Having a bias towards more vintage style, mixed with a little influence from our Sweden days, I prefer embroidered white shirts and pretty cotton tops.   Natalie Chanin has changed that whole idea for me, that jersey fabric was the lazy man's choice and that it cannot be elegant and pretty - it absolutely can!   I always look back to how stylish people looked in the past, with more fitted and structure garments and this is a way to find that, but with a modern and practical edge for today's busy people.  Here's an example of the sorts of clothes Alabama Chanin produces.

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The basic ethos of Natalie Chanin's work is to use 100% organic cotton jersey fabric and hand stitching and either stencilling it and then using reverse appliqué or traditional appliqué and combining embroidery and beading to embellish the fabric before making it up into a series of stylish and comfortable patterns which would pretty much cover your whole wardrobe.    These garments suit any age and I suspect most body shapes because the jersey fabric is soft and pliable.  

The latest book 'Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns' comes with a CD containing all the patterns.  I was driven into action and decided to have a go for myself.   I should mention here that I was half disbelieving that I would be able to do this and half unsure that despite the glossy pictures in the books, it would look as good as it seemed it should.  To print the one I wanted, I went down to a local print and copy shop and had it printed up on large heavy weight paper.  Although this was a little pricey, it turned out to be a good decision as I now have a cardboard template to use for the future.   I also ordered the fabric from Alabama Chanin's website.  I decided to do this so that I could see the quality and weight of the cotton jersey and then in the future I would know what to look for here.  When it arrived, the fabric was incredibly soft and heavier than I had imagined.  This is, of course what helps to make the garments strong and smooth and holds the structure required of them.   I confess, I was a bit sceptical about the idea of the hand sewn seam and it I was completely surprised by the effect of this and how completely beautiful it looks.


 Every element of it is sewn by hand.   I was shocked at how this 'felled' seam feels strong and yet elegant and it hangs like a dream and swings with a swish!

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and the armhole and neck bindings are secured with an embroidered Cretan stitch.

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and when it was finally done, I felt I had made something unique and comfortable and totally fab!

If you are interested to read more about Alabama Chanin, you can visit this wonderful website at  The Website is just simply wonderful.  Not only is there the opportunity to see the high end collections of individual garments, but there is also a 'School of making' which has all the supplies you need to make your own.  There is also a lovely journal, overflowing with an eclectic mix of articles about Alabama and that famous 'Southern' lifestyle associated with the region as well as Art, Cooking, Travel and general musings on life.    You can take some online classes with Natalie at and I recommend this, especially if you want to have a go at the Stencilling.   You can also find wonderful photos and images on Instagram and Pinterest and I am sure, many other sites on the net.  

I think it is refreshing to find something like this.  It makes you feel as if challenging the traditional methods of needlework can be fun and experimental and why not 'put the knot on the topside of the appliqué' or 'stitch a seam so it shows on the outside'.   Even more fundamentally for me - it made me change my mind about Jersey fabric - it can be pretty and elegant and stylish and in the modern world, which is so obsessed with branding and channelling shoppers into 'what you are supposed to want to look like' - the truth is, we should all look for that free spirit within ourselves and let it fly.  Natalie Chanin has done just that and I applaud her.....

Happy Weekend!

Ruby x