Book Review: Alabama Stitch Book

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While at The Best Bookstore Ever (aka Powell’s here in Portland) this spring, Josh spotted the beautiful Alabama Stitch Book, written by Natalie Chanin of Project Alabama fame. (Josh has a real eye for design and aesthetics, so it caught his eye because it’s such an attractive book.) This is the book that inspired the purple skirt I wore to a party with some old friends last weekend.

To be completely straight with you, I really bought the Alabama Stitch Book because it was “neat looking.” Which it is. It is an absolutely beautifully designed book, from beginning to end. Even the inside cover is gorgeous!

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The book walks you through all kinds of projects based around the idea of the ethos of the original Project Alabama (the author is quite clear that she’s no longer associated with Project Alabama in its current iteration). The idea is revitalizing the craft of working with cotton that used to be tremendously important in Alabama. As I’ve written about before, is something that’s really important to me, and I really salute Ms. Chanin (’cause I’m sure a shout-out from Sewer-Sewist is the one she’s been waiting for) for capturing the sewing and crafting heritage of her region. There’s a bit of everything related to this subject in the book—sourcing and reusing cotton jersey, beading, various appliqué techniques and complete projects that bring together many styles from the book.

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Now, the thing that really tripped me up, that I didn’t realize when I bought the book, was that the author pretty much uses hand-stitching techniques exclusively for the projects. She has a good reason.

Working this way takes time. Some call this approach “Slow Design,” which means embracing the long-term view over the short-term gain by using age-old techniques to create products that celebrate strong design principles for modern living.

As we’ve covered thoroughly before, I don’t hand sew. I even avoid sewing on buttons, since our machine does such a good job of it. (And in fairness to me, I do have a good reason, with my stupid tendinitis and all.) However, I totally get that this book is a response to the absurdity of our mass-produced, on-demand modern lives. And the techniques in this book (even when machine sewn) really do demand that we slow down, think about the design and create something truly one-of-a-kind. Check it out.

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The book even made me believe that something as simple as a Sharpie can be beautiful.

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This jersey quilt is stunning. It would be the perfect gift for someone very special. I love that the author’s employees made a similar quilt for her to commemorate all the designs she’d created. I’m not a quilter, but it makes me wish I were.

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For we garment sewers, the corset and swing skirt are the thing. Both are just lovely, simple shapes that can be customized with any and all of the embellishments from the book. You’re only limited by your creativity and time. I also had the thought that you could actually sew the two together and make a sweet-ass dress. (Since I’m all about dresses these days—hey, no matching required!)

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I modified the swing skirt pattern (there are full-sized patterns for both included in the book, in addition to instructions for the 17 other projects) for my purple skirt and used the one stencil that’s included (there are others that you can photocopy and make your own stencils with, but this one is ready to go, on card stock). Since I didn’t have any fabric paint, I just traced the shapes in Sharpie. I also didn’t have much in the way of black jersey (is it my imagination or has cotton jersey gotten waaaaay more expensive lately?), I only had a one layered skirt, and simply backed the Sharpied stencil. Because I really cannot hand sew (I swear this is a legit physical restriction, not laziness), I used a long stitch on the Kenmore to mimic hand-stitching. It doesn’t really look the same, largely because I used normal cotton thread and should have used hand-quilting or machine embroidery thread so that it would “pop” more. Regardless, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out.

I really wanted to try some of the beading techniques on this skirt as well, but that didn’t happen. I just didn’t have the supplies or time. And it would probably do a number on my hands/sanity anyway. But sometime I’ll have a go at it.

I apologize for this rambling review, but the Alabama Stitch Book is a hard one to distill into a few thoughts. It’s part textile history, part instruction book, part coffee table book. But it serves all those roles quite well.

It’s very obvious that Ms. Chanin put a lot of herself into this book. And it’s because of this that I hate to offer up anything negative. However, I do have to pick at the publisher a bit. One of the subtexts of the book really highlights sustainability and bringing back traditional American craft. This is 100% something I can get behind. Which is why I was so profoundly disappointed when I flipped over to the back cover of the book and saw this:

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Yep, “Printed in China.”

Now, I don’t place any blame whatsoever with the author. Like I said, it’s extremely obvious that she’s deeply committed to sustainability and preserving our crafting traditions. And authors really don’t have control over the business practices of their publishers. And if I were Natalie Chanin and were asked to decide between getting this message out to a broad public and having the book printed in China versus not having the Alabama Stitch Book published, I’d chose publishing the book every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

What shocks me really is that the publisher obviously didn’t see the inherent hypocrisy in sending this particular book halfway around the world to be printed. It’s because of practices like that that Alabama’s stitching traditions—that are the focus of the Alabama Stitch Book—have all but disappeared and need a book like this to preserve our craft heritage. This really bothers me. This isn’t a “gotcha!” thing for me, but rather a question to the publisher about how they justify that decision… It would be a revealing, and meaningful, conversation.


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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Alabama Stitch Book

  1. What an interesting and thoughtful review, Sarah! Your final question is a thought provoking one indeed. The conversation would probably lead to discussion of the direction of publishing in general, which I understand is suffering from its inability to keep pace with the competition from the web and an maintaining an old business model.

  2. The printed in China stood out like a sore thumb to me too. Its too bad. I wonder thought, how many books are still printed in the US? And what would the cost difference be to the consumer?

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  5. I was walking through a barnes and noble when I saw Chanin’s book Alabama Stiches sitting on the shelf. I was drawn to it immediately because of the beautiful and vibrantly-colored photos on the cover. I like the crudeness of the designs and the color combinations. It made me want to call in to work, go home and go through all my old t-shirts bound for the goodwill and design my own stuff and recreate my wardrobe from things I already own!!! I loved it and wrote the title on my birthday wish list. wish me luck!!!!!M

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