Alabama Chanin Style

I started my Alabama Chanin style dress well over two years ago – though it had been bubbling away in my mind for much much longer. Now I will always think of it as a Lockdown project because it is over these last few weeks that I have worked with most dedication and enthusiasm.

Way, way back in 2016 I was looking carefully at two little Japanese books I’d inherited from my father’s family. Nobody in the family today seemed to know very much about them. These pictures below show the covers, frontispieces and a couple of content pages …There were pages and pages of wonderful illustrations and designs  …I can’t read Japanese, and my father (who had been able to read Japanese) died in 2015, so I decided to put these illustrations up on my Instagram account in search of a translator …And I got one! Apparently these two little books were published in Tokyo in 1884 and 1881 respectively. The top book contains arabesque patterns for kimonos and the lower book shows crests and symbols of Japanese clans and families.

How did they come to my family, we wondered? Luckily my mother remembered the answer to that. Apparently my paternal great-grandmother had been an enthusiastic patron of all things Japanese, and is believed to have acquired these little books for her library … what treasure … I couldn’t really believe it …Anyhow – jumping forward to me and my humble little stitching plans, I found myself with a most fabulous resource of illustrations just made for embroidery and other designs ..

What I’d always wanted to do was to stitch myself a dress using the Alabama Chanin style of embroidery. This involves working with a double layer of fabric. Cutaways and very simple embroidery stitches make the pattern …I started with a practice piece using a variation of the leaf pattern above and working with old cotton t-shirts (as recommended in the book). And yes, I got a little bit carried away with the embroidery, but most importantly what I discovered was that I hated sewing cotton knit fabric. My needle struggled to pierce the fabric …As it happened,  I had found a double layer dress of very light woven cotton on Ebay … Just perfect, so now to find my pattern. I went back to my little Japanese pattern books, and selected a beautiful and quite simple design of falling maple leaves …I particularly associate maple trees with my father. He was always trying to make little bonsai trees with them during my childhood …With the image scanned from the little Japanese book, I then enlarged it and printed it out on stiff paper. That’s my template sorted. Now to cut the leaves out …I worked very slowly at first, sometimes adding pattern by tracing through the template …And sometimes building up the design by placing the maples leaves cut out from the template where I thought they might be effective …Either way, there was always that tricky moment of cutting the fabric …But then the fun starts and I could start stitching! Very basic running stitch round the leaves …Using a washable marker to ink in the maple leaf details …Stitching the details in with stem stitch …The stalks were stitched in chain stitch. Adding more colour …I’d completed the front of the dress …And moved the pattern over the shoulder and round to the back of the neck …When I came to a halt.  Not really sure why. But the project sat unloved for a year or so …

Until the virus struck this summer. I came back to the project like a madwoman – I guess Lockdown has a strange effect on us all. I found myself stitching madly and enthusiastically …Adding pattern to the sides of the dress …So that the maple leaves moved down the back, and round the body …Producing this trailing effect …I love this pic of the dress held up to the light so you can see all the little maple leaves silhouetted through the body …Finally just to hem it … and ta-dah! It’s finished! I am so pleased with the way it spirals round the sides …Under the arm …And, of course, down the back …What a fascinating mix of cultures and times and history are worked into it – the historic Japanese prints, the South-Eastern American techniques of Alabama Chanin, and me, at the vortex as it were, with a family connection to Japan, stitching away in the very north of England in the early 21st century Coronavirus Lockdown …


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10 thoughts on “Alabama Chanin Style”

  1. Wow, Katherine… that is just mindblowing!!!! What a very special resource you have inherited with these books! Your dress is gorgeous!
    Some years ago I got e very beautiful Japanice tea service from my mother – she got it from her mother who was given it from her mother in law… it is just beautiful with hand drawn butterflies. I got to know my great grandfather brought it from Japan before WW 1st… but I don’t know nothing about the circumstances … where, why…
    Enjoy your lovelie dress… it fits perfectly!


    1. Thank you, Annett! To me the dress already seems like an old friend that I have been familiar with for so very long! But I am still pleased with it – and longing for better weather to wear it in … Your Japanese tea service sounds just lovely – do you ever dare use it, I wonder? I’m already planning to start on new projects using the pictures in my little books – perhaps some fabric printing … 🙂


  2. Fabulous dress and back story! I guess the most difficult part (when you’re getting carried away with a project like this) is knowing when to say enough is enough. Looks to me as though you judged it just right. How sensible to start with a practice piece – I usually ignore that advice and very quickly regret it.


    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Anne! You’re absolutely right about knowing when to stop – and in fact I did have it in mind to embroider a stem that the maple leaves were hanging from. And then, I just knew it was time to stop – it didn’t need the extra embellishment.

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  3. Mind blowing is right! That is the best interpretation of the Chanin designs, really! And all the colours suit you so well. Very impressive! Ah lock down, I have so many WFO’s around here I need staff! But I picked up my Star of Moray jumper I started several years ago and am really having a go at it and love it. Your dress is perfect for/on you.


    1. Thank you, Susan! Sounds like you’ve seen a lot of Alabama Chanin pieces – they are all lovely, I think! It’s funny how the Lockdown gives impetus to our work, especially things that we have put aside. In future years I think people will write about the Lockdown effect …


  4. Wow! You’ve created such a wonderfully unique and beautiful piece with so many feelings invoked into every stitch. How beautiful! And thank you for sharing. I follow from Canada and it never fails to amaze me how something someone shares from the “other” side of the world can make us all feel connected in this lockdown that we are all experiencing in one fashion or another. Thank you for sharing and as always I look forward to future updates 🙂


    1. Thank you very much for this lovely comment, Anita. I too think it is wonderful how social media enables us to share our work all over the world. It really helps in lockdown. 🙂


    1. Thank you, Sheryl – it was such a thrill to finish it after all that preliminary thinking! I think Alabama Chanin is the most wonderful source of inspiration. 🙂


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