STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a story next about the evolution of American manufacturing. This story begins in northern Alabama in the valley of the Tennessee River.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Just under 200 years ago, it was Native American land. Then settlers swept across the region starting cotton plantations. Cotton-growing land was so valuable, there was a gigantic real estate bubble.
INSKEEP: In later generations, north Alabama became a manufacturing center. The cotton was made into cloth, and then the garment industry went away as operations moved overseas.
MARTIN: Now a new chapter has begun in the city of Florence, Alabama. We tell it as part of our series American Made. Fashion houses Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid have a new line of organic cotton clothing.
INSKEEP: It's made with material from their own cotton field. You might have heard of farm to table in the food industry. This is an experiment of going from field to garment in the same community. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: North Alabama was once a hub for textile manufacturing with readily available cotton and access to cheap labor. But the industry all but disappeared after NAFTA. Now Sue Hanback is again working a sewing machine in a cavernous building that was once part of the biggest cut-and-sew operation in Florence, Alabama.
SUE HANBACK: I'm going to five-thread this shirt.
ELLIOTT: She's using five threads to stitch cuffs onto an organic cotton sweatshirt. Hanback was last laid off in 2006 when this was a T-shirt factory. Her husband worked in the dye house. She's been a seamstress all her life.
HANBACK: Ever since I was 18 years old. So that was, like, 48 years, I think. So now you know how old I am (laughter).
ELLIOTT: Hanback is 1 of about 30 people who work at the Factory - capital F - home to Alabama Chanin the fashion and lifestyle company founded by Natalie Chanin. She's best-known for her flowing, made-to-order organic garments, entirely hand-stitched and inspired by the rural South of the '30s and '40s. She's recently added a basic machine-made line using experienced, local seamstresses like Sue Hanback.
NATALIE CHANIN: It's not just "factory work," quote-unquote. This is a skill that's dying out in this country, and there's not a young generation that's coming up behind them. And I think it's part of our cultural sustainability to preserve these things - right? - to be able to make our clothes.
ELLIOTT: American manufacturing is in Chanin's DNA. Her grandmother and great-grandmother used to work at a plant here that made underwear for the military. Life in north Alabama once revolved around the apparel industry, but few plants remain. Now Alabama is better-known for auto manufacturing than the clothes it produces.
But Florence, a small town tucked in the far northwest corner of the state, is gaining a new reputation for fashion. Both Chanin and her friend, the designer of Billy Reid, are headquartered here. Both have won coveted awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America among others. Billy Reid.
BILLY REID: We broke down sort of those barriers in some ways that you can do it from anywhere if you do it right and do it real.
ELLIOTT: Reid is known for classic American designs a New York Times reviewer once described as whiskey-soaked style. His business partner, K.P. McNeill, is the one who first thought about growing their own cotton.
K.P. MCNEILL: I think the original idea really came from just, you know, driving through these areas in the fall when cotton is being picked and bailed.
ELLIOTT: It got him thinking about whether all that cotton was being shipped overseas when companies right here could be using it. So McNeill took this question to Natalie Chanin.
MCNEILL: Can we go from seed to finished product, like, in the same community?
ELLIOTT: Chanin was intrigued. It made her think of how generations ago, manufacturing was more of a vertical affair.
CHANIN: They were growing the cotton. They were ginning the cotton. You know they were processing it, and it was going straight from field to form, I call it.
ELLIOTT: Could that be done today and organically? They came up with a plan to test it. Billy Reid says it meant no pesticides, no herbicides and no farm equipment tainted by such chemicals.
REID: A lot of the weeds had to be pulled by hand. You know, it's not just your normal sort of cotton operation that's automated. You really are going back to a somewhat primitive way of - primitive process to pick the cotton and to form the cotton.
JIMMY LENTZ: This is where it was.
ELLIOTT: Farmer Jimmy Lentz tended the 7-acre plot located on a breezy hillside where he used to raise cows.
J. LENTZ: It was a lot of hard work. But to see the fruits of our labor was beyond words.
ELLIOTT: His wife, Lisa, was the cotton whisperer, nurturing the fledgling seedlings through a six-week drought before the rains came.
LISA LENTZ: It shot up. You know, it was this high and then this high. And it was beautiful, and so many people were betting against us saying, you know, you can't grow cotton unless you use pesticides. The bugs will eat it. It'll be gone. Good luck, ha ha.
ELLIOTT: But when harvest came, they proved the naysayers wrong.
L. LENTZ: This little cotton field was planted just like our grandpas would've planted something. It was very simple, very small-scaled operation but a powerful goal.
J. LENTZ: To see your clothes being grown out of the soil, it's - you think of something that you would eat, but you don't think of something you would wear that's actually coming up out of the ground out there.
ELLIOTT: Back at the Factory, Natalie Chanin holds a piece of ivory-colored fabric, spun from the hand-picked cotton, grown in the Alabama field.
CHANIN: I've never seen cotton quite as clear and clean as this.
ELLIOTT: She says it's more pure than cotton picked by machine because there's less plant matter that can show up as flecks in the cloth.
CHANIN: And I've never seen that. You know, I don't think people have seen that since, you know, cotton was really an agent of destruction in this country.
ELLIOTT: Chanin says this project is about transforming cotton into something more modern.
CHANIN: I mean, cotton has a really ugly history. And it has had an ugly history all over the world. It's built fortunes. It's destroyed nations. It's, you know, enslaved people. It's - I mean - but to me, this is part of - this cotton that you're holding is part of making a new story for cotton.
ELLIOTT: Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid produced a limited run of T-shirts, socks and scarves from the yield of their test cotton field - about 700 yards of fabric in all. They acknowledge it was a small-scale experiment and proved difficult. But they say it also proved that field-to-garment manufacturing in the same community is possible. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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