THE HEART: THE FACTORY
If you visit our studio here in Alabama, you will arrive to find that we are housed in a sturdy, industrial-style, metal building which we call “The Factory.” Our community was, for generations, home to textile mills that employed an incredible number of area residents. This industrial building where we work and spend hours of our lives has seen thousands of workers pass through the doors over the years; it has heard the hum of machines running and the voices and laughter of employees passing the day away. This building is part of Alabama Chanin’s history, but, more importantly, it is part of our community’s history—a symbol of economic boom, hard times, and community rebuilding.
Tennessee River Mills, a local textile company, built the building that we call The Factory in 1982. In 1996, the Wylie family and Tee Jays Manufacturing acquired the building and all of its equipment, located in Florence’s industrial park, to use as a t-shirt manufacturing facility. Tee Jays started primarily as a screen printing facility, but grew into a comprehensive operation, creating textiles from yarn, then sewing, dyeing, and screen printing the final products. In this building alone, there were 54 circular knitting machines and six large dye machines, each having a capacity of 600 to1000 pounds of fabric per cycle. Approximately 300,000 pounds of fabric were knit and dyed in this building every week. Around 450 sewers were employed in this space, sewing basic t-shirts, raglan-sleeve garments, sweatshirts, and a range of other products. The facility housed about 650 people, just a fraction of the people employed by Tee Jays.
Though Tee Jays and many other local manufacturers closed shop after the passage of NAFTA legislation, Terry Wylie retained ownership of the building. This facility, known to the Tee Jays staff as Building 14, was largely empty after 2001. The massive space measures about 105,000 square feet in total. Knowing how difficult it might be to find a tenant who required that much room, the Wylie family decided to recruit smaller companies and break up the building into more manageable spaces. The former Building 14 has housed Alabama Chanin since 2007 and we are neighbored by several other office and storage spaces. Alabama Chanin and the developing A. Chanin line utilize a total of 20,000 square feet of the building: 5,000 for the studio and Alabama Chanin production, 10,000 for the new machine-sewn textile facility, and 5,000 for our new event space.
As we’ve mentioned, our production manager, Steven Smith, once worked in this very building. He worked for Tee Jays for many years in about seven different buildings, two of those years in our current Alabama Chanin space. Steven was a floor person, a unit supervisor, and worked in the dye house. Toward the end of the textile boom, Steven was one of the last two Tee Jays workers in this building, one of the last to leave the dye house before the company closed the doors one final time. He admits that coming back to this space with Alabama Chanin was surreal. His current office was once the Tee Jays plant manager’s office. Seeing the massive space subdivided was initially jolting; sometimes he still sees the building as it once was. Where he once saw shirts cut and sewn dozens at a time, he now oversees garments cut piece-by-piece, by hand. And he will be here to, once again, hear the hum of sewing machines. It is a true, full-circle moment.
Faye Davis, a former Tennessee River Mills employee who has also worked for Alabama Chanin, told us: “I graduated from high school on Saturday and went to work in the plant on Monday. The man in charge asked me ‘Does your mama know you’re here?’” She replied that her mother was, in fact, working and sewing in the plant. Faye went on to describe how the people, the workers, at the plant were her family. “We shared lunches, and family, and raised our kids.” Faye has also returned to this building. She once operated an automatic hemming machine and a back-tacker (a machine that closed t-shirt sleeve seams) in Building 14’s sewing room. She went on to work 11 years for Tee Jays, though in another building. Today, you will find her in the Alabama Chanin Factory sitting, again, at a sewing machine, although producing garments in much smaller quantities.
Steven says that, after the devastating mill closures of the 1990’s, he never imagined working with textiles again, let alone in the same building where he stood so long ago. Working here with Alabama Chanin gives him a fresh perspective on where the textile and garment industry can go and how it might grow. We find a strength and a safety working in a place with such a storied history. Sometimes it seems that the building has a bit of wisdom to pass on, that it is invested in us and wants us to succeed. We at Alabama Chanin want to remain in the former Building 14, now The Factory, for years to come. We want to be a part of revitalizing the textile industry here in The Shoals and we want to honor those who worked here – the Fayes, Stevens, and their contemporaries – and helped build our community.
The Factory, part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
FRIENDS OF THE CAFÉ, SOUTHERN FOODWAYS, AND VIVIAN HOWARD
Last Friday night, we hosted our second “Friends of the Café” dinner, which also served as our first Piggy Bank Dinner fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer restaurant and the Peabody-award winning television series A Chef’s Life traveled to The Factory from North Carolina for an evening of delicious food, cocktails, much laughter and lively conversation, and music, performed by friend and songbird, Shonna Tucker.
Vivian’s show, A Chef’s Life, focuses on regional food traditions and explores classic Southern ingredients. Friday’s dinner highlighted the story of our own local farmers and their fresh ingredients, with Vivian’s Eastern Carolina twist. Each course was accompanied by a wine pairing, chosen by Harry Root (Bacchus Incarnate) of Grassroots Wine.
I love what Christi Britten—one of our dinner guests and the author of Dirt Plate— writes in her review of the evening:
Pretty much, Vivian Howard gives a damn. She gives a damn how the food she serves is raised, prepared, cooked, presented, eaten, enjoyed, and thought about. She gives a damn about her community’s food culture and wants to suck up as much knowledge as she can about where their food comes from and how to make it. She gives a damn about the farmers that work hard every single day to feed a community as well as their families.
She has, with her own hands, butchered whole animals to use from snout to tail in her restaurant. She speaks with a tone of reverence and authority over the food she creates. And basically she is a food medium. She is confident, yet humble and puts us all into a place where we can visualize the care taken to prepare what we put in our mouths.
This farm to table dinner celebrated local farms and Southern food culture by bringing together the summer bounty into one meal among a diverse community of eaters.
For our cocktail hour, Vivian offered one of her signature summer cocktails: Cucumber Ginger Limeade with Cathead Vodka (generously donated by our friends at Cathead). The drink was paired with fresh watermelon and lime salt hors d’oeuvres, which quickly disappeared.
Prior to dinner, Vivian spoke about the impact that the SFA had on she and her husband, Ben, when they returned home to North Carolina and started their business. She explained how the organization encouraged her to find her true self and helped shape the person she is today. (You can learn more about her connection to the Southern Foodways Alliance here: Episode 5: Tomatoes—You Say Heirloom, I Say Old Timey.)
What is not to love about this mission:
The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.
Our first two courses were served family-style, with guests serving one another and passing dishes along the café’s farm tables. Chef Howard and the café staff prepared Cherokee Purple Tomato Toasts and Corn on the Cob with Citrus, Herbs and Pecorino Romano. Vivian encouraged all of us to keep smiling, even if we got a little corn in our teeth, since our neighbors would likely “also have corn in their teeth.”
The second course included two of the most popular plates of the night: Country Ham wrapped Peaches with Gingered Goat Cheese, and Charred and Pickled Patty Pan Squash with Basil Pesto, Fresh Mozzarella and Stewed Tomatoes.
Between courses, Harry Root highlighted each of the wine pairings, including Muscadet Sèver et Maine Sure Lie “Cuvée Harmonie”, Nicodemi Rose Cerasuolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (a definite crowd-pleaser that delivered waves of fruit and spice, with a bright, citrus-lined finish), and Broc Cellars Valdiguié.
Vivian’s entrée was a modern take on a classic Southern dish—BBQ chicken (donated by White Oak Pastures), prepared the North Carolina-way (on the bone and from whole chickens broken-apart by Vivian’s own two hands earlier that day). The chicken featured her signature, house-made blueberry glaze, and was paired with Squash and Fontina Casserole. As everyone finished eating and plates were cleared (and as Vivian and the kitchen team prepared dessert), Shonna Tucker performed a selection of songs in her part-country, part-soul style.
And, finally, after dessert was served—Coconut Cheesecake Pudding, paired with Graham Crackers, Ginger Infused Melons and Macadamia Benne Seed Granola—our friend Josephine called for a standing ovation and a collective round of “You Are My Sunshine” as serenade to Vivian and the entire team.
Thank you to Vivian, the Southern Foodways Alliance, Grassroots Wine, White Oak Pastures, Cathead Vodka, Shonna Tucker, Angie Mosier, Jack-o-Lantern Farm, and everyone else who made the (sold-out) gathering a true success.
Find more information on our next “Friends of the Café” dinner (featuring chef Ashley Christensen) here.
And to find out more about becoming a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, click here.
Photos courtesy of Angie Mosier.
Third Mondays @ The Factory
Join us the third Monday of every month in our new expanded studio space to sew and socialize. Spend your morning working on your latest project in the company of fellow sewers. Share inspiration, encouragement, and fellowship. Coffee, tea, and light breakfast will be available for purchase from The Factory Café. Please bring your own fabric and sewing notions.
Monday, October 20, 2014
8:30 am – 11:30 am
462 Lane Drive
Florence, AL 35630
For more information, contact: jennifer (at) alabamachanin.com or call +1.256.760.1090