An old T-shirt, a few stitches, and wow

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

PROJECT ALABAMA was about ecologically conscious, socially conscious fashion before it was, well, fashionable.

In 2000, Natalie Chanin -- after 20 years’ designing in New York and Europe -- came home to Florence, Ala., and began producing a line of stunning clothing made from recycled fabrics. She employed talented local quilters and seamstresses, who once worked in the area’s defunct textile plants, to make intricately appliquéd and painted corsets, T-shirts and evening wear that earned high praise in the fashion world, but not enough income to sustain the brand.

Now the fashion world has caught up with Chanin -- just check out the homespun, DIY aesthetic at Rodarte and the other fall runways right now. And Chanin is back with a new label, Alabama Chanin, and a new how-to book, “Alabama Stitch Book.”


The book, written with Stacie Stukin, an occasional contributing writer to Image, is filled with projects, tips, essays and beautiful photography by Robert Rausch. Chanin includes fold-out patterns, detachable stencils, even her son’s favorite biscuit recipe. Yet for all its folksy charm, “Alabama Stitch Book” is both on-point, filled with practical guides and easy-to-read instructions, and surprisingly sophisticated.

Chanin’s designs-- based on recycled T-shirts and organic cotton, featuring leaf and flower stencils -- are tremendously suited to home sewers with creative impulses. All it takes is a drawer of old T-shirts or a set of ordinary white sheets, a trip to the craft store and the artistic license of Chanin’s book to create something truly beautiful.

And Chanin’s designs are as much fun to make as they are to wear. They’re a lot like a kids’ art project -- if your kids love “Project Runway” as much as mine do.

The techniques and patterns are forgiving. Those not handy with a needle and thread can simply stencil a pattern onto a T-shirt and stop there, or maybe add a vertical line of cursive script with a Sharpie. Beginning sewers can tackle an easy reverse appliqué, while the more advanced can stencil and appliqué a more intricate pattern.

Chanin is practical, economical, inventive -- and inspiring. Who knew you could do so much with old cotton jersey, paint and a Sharpie? (And who knew that’s about all you need to make one of the gorgeous Alabama Chanin shirts that go for $150 at Barneys?)

I’d never stenciled before, but after spending a few days with her book, I was transferring stencils up the sides of my daughter’s jeans, sewing leaves and cutting out roses and writing cursive lines of Shakespeare on her T-shirts.

We might not have abandoned cotton mills, but we had a drawerful of abandoned cotton T-shirts. Not anymore.