200 One-of-a-Kind Shirts Transcript

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I am from a small town in northwest Alabama. And in that place, and at the time I was growing up, it was about buttoning yourself in, being tucked in, and hiding things away, because although, you know, there were all the farms and the textile mills, on the outside just on the edge of those mills was Mother Nature. And, she was always so close, just right to that edge of all that cultivation.

And so, in my part of the world, you know, a house that's left alone or not cared for can really melt down into this fertile, wet, green mass where animals and kudzu wait to grow into the buildings. And so people hoe and they cut things back. They keep it pruned, and they watch and wait for that little slip that's going to come through.

So, there's this moment in my childhood where I'm walking down the stairs of the church and a friend of the family is coming up the stairs and she looks at my cousin Pam and she goes, "Pam, you have just grown up to be the most beautiful young woman. Just stunning."

And, she looks over at me and she goes, "And Natalie, you're so, so...exotic."

And, you know, sitting here today, I look back and I know that what she was trying to say was this -- there was this little piece of that outside that she could smell underneath, and it scared her.

And so, you know, I hit the ground running just as fast as I could to get away from being tied up. And I tried to run towards exotic and what I thought I could find in the world. And I traveled around the world and I came back again. And I did things I never imagined I could have done as a girl from rural Alabama.

But, there was a night I arrived back in New York in the year 2000. I was moving away from a marriage that was gone wrong. I was questioning and not finding answers. And that night when I arrived it was snowing outside. And I was really cold and lost. And all of the- everything was raw. And I was invited one night to what I deemed this really fancy fashion party, like only New York City can do. Right?

And, so I had been wallowing in my self-discovery, or you could call it self- pity, during this time. And I was pretty broke. And, I didn't have anything to wear to this party. So, I took a t-shirt out of my backpack and I cut it up, and I kind of pinned it together on my body. And I sewed it back together again with needle and thread.

And, so I went to the party that night, and the strangest thing happened that people would, like, see me across the room, and they would walk across the room and kind of touch my body, which, uh, people in New York City don't really do, you know. You know, in the south, you hug people whether you like them or not. But people in New York City don't really do that. But people were touching me, and they were asking, you know, “What do you do? What is that? What do you have on?”

And so the next morning, I woke up, and, you know, I was really proud that people had liked my shirt that I had found this approval from the fancy fashion folk. But what really struck me that morning when I woke up was that, although I had been a designer and a stylist for really long time, it had also been equally as long since I had made something with my own two hands.

And I felt moved to get up that morning and make another t-shirt. And so, I made another t-shirt and another t-shirt. And I just kept making shirts, and I kept wearing them, and people would stop me on the street and they would touch me.

And in the middle of all this making and touching, I had this vision that I wanted to see these 200 one-of-a-kind cut-up t-shirts sewn back together again and laid out on the floor.

And so I started going around to manufacturers in New York. These bags of Salvation Army, Goodwill collected throwaway things that were cut apart and, you know, they thought I was a crazy bag lady. And so, rejection after rejection, nobody really wanted to help me make these shirts. And so I'm standing on the street corner on 8th and 38th one afternoon, and I'm looking down at the t-shirt, and I'm like, it's a quilting stitch! And I realized in that moment that I was going to have to go home because all of the ladies who quilted with my grandmothers were still there in Alabama quilting, and I was like, “This is such a great idea!” In my mind I thought, "This is gonna be so great! I'm gonna go home. They're gonna love to do this! This is gonna be so easy!"

And so, I write a proposal. I raise some money. I call my aunt down in Alabama, explain the project to her, and I say, "I'm looking for a house that can be project headquarters. Can you help me find something?"

And she calls me back a couple of days later and she's like, "I have the perfect house. It's- the house is in- just behind my mother's childhood home. It's built by my father's father for his very best friend. It is perfect, right?” Exclamation mark.

And so, in December, I rent a car and I drive down to Alabama, stopping at every thrift store along the way and buying all these t-shirts. And on December 23rd, I arrive in Alabama with a friend. And you can’t see the house from the road, right? She had forgotten to tell me that the house had been abandoned for the last 5 years, that no one had really lived in the house since that time. And there's, like, a little path that goes around the back of the house that used to be a driveway. And we drive around to the back door, and my aunt and my mother have cut a hole through all of the nature into the back door with a chainsaw.

And, my dream, my project is really just an old mattress thrown on a 1970s vinyl floor in a house that smells of old chicken bones, and shut-up, and animals, and things that live on the edges of places, right?

So, I go to bed that night, and, um, I'm laying on this mattress on the floor, and I just start to cry. And I cry, and I cry, and I cry some more. And, you know, I just think I spent my whole life running away from this place that, you know, traveling the world, doing these things, and all of this comes to laying on the floor in the middle of the night, waiting for ghosts or kudzu to crawl up through the floor boards and, and uh, lay down next to me. And the whole night I can't stop looking around me, because all I can think about are all of the heat-seeking snakes that are in the house, right? As soon as I'm still, I'm gonna feel that cold thing slither up next to me and lay down.

So in the very early morning, I guess, I close my eyes and I fell asleep for a minute. And I wake up, and it was the most beautiful, crisp, clear December morning. The light in Alabama at this time is absolutely beautiful. It was Christmas Eve, and I get up out of the bed and go over to the kitchen, and clean off a little place and make my tea, and I sit down on this borrowed stool. And I look around the room and I realize that, you know, it may have 1970s vinyl on the floor, but the walls are completely covered with heart pine paneling.

And, I don't know if you know this, but these really old broad heart pine boards from the south were made from the Longleaf Pine trees, which were called the giants of the South. And so they're hundreds and hundreds of years old, these trees, before they make these boards.

And so I think I'm just going to clean one board, and, you know, just see what the wood looks like. So, I go over and I clean this one board and it is so beautiful. I mean the wood is spectacular, right? And I stand there, and I look, and I think, "Okay, I can clean one more board.”

So, I clean one more board, and when I finish with that board, I realize that I do have the resolve within me, maybe, to clean one more. And so, you know, throughout the day, board-by-board, I move through the room. And, by the end of the day, as the sun is setting back behind the kitchen there, I sit back down on the stool, and I've cleaned the entire room. And I think, you know, I think I can do this.

So, the next morning I get up, and I get a phone, and I start calling these women who used to quilt with my grandmothers, right? And, I'm like, “This is gonna be so great. You're going to love it! It's like New York City fashion and Vogue, and everything that you could dream of!”

And they so don't love it! They could care less, you know?

They talked to me about their kids, and their grandkids, and common acquaintances, and church, and their gardens. And, you know, I show them the shirts. And one of the ladies says, “You know, my grandmother would say about that, 'Honey, those stitches are so big that you could get your toenails caught up in 'em.'"

And they laugh, and they talked to me about planting turnip greens, and the importance of that. Turnip greens are really important. My aunt once asked me- I was telling her about a boy that I was kind of interested in, and she said, "Yeah, but can he grow turnip greens?” It's true.

But what I did find out from having these conversations with the community of my childhood was that the mills had closed down, and that there were women and men who were out of work, and maybe they would want this work. And, so I ran a little ad in the paper that said, "Part-time hand-sewing and quilting." And about 60 women called, and about 20 women stuck.

And we sewed the 200 one-of-a-kind shirts, and I brought them to New York Fashion Week. And we sent out a little catalog. And the first person to walk through the door is Julie Gillheart, who was then the buyer from Barney's New York. And Julie swoops back in a few days later with her buyers, and they look at all the t-shirts and they go, "We'll have 12 like this, and 12 like this, and 12 like this.”

And I'm like, “Wait, wait a minute. These are one-of-a-kind shirts, you know, like, wait, how are we gonna make 12 shirts like this that says, you know, ‘Smith Family Reunion from Roanoke, Virginia.’ I'm like, this is not-“

And they said, "Just make something like it."

And we made them, and we brought them to New York. We took the orders. Julia Gillheart and Sally Singer from Vogue went out into the world and told everybody about the work we were doing. All the t-shirts had been made with all of the seams on the inside out. That night when I sewed that first shirt back together again, I had turned everything to the outside so it was raw and exposed, kind of like I was in that moment of my life. And, this style, this idea of everything being turned on the outside, has really become our signature style.

So, it's 15 years later and I'm still at home. We have about 32 women who still sew these shirts in the field by hand, everything completely sewn by hand. We have about 40 of us that work in our studio. We have just opened a new machine- sewn textile factory in hopes of recreating this community of my childhood. We have a café. People come from all over the world now to Florence, Alabama to sit with us, to sew with us, to eat with us, to laugh, to tell stories.

And I live at home. And you know, some days it feels like I'm still cleaning heart pine boards, board-by-board. And I live really close to nature. And I can sometimes feel it coming out of the edges and up around and into my life, but I guess I kind of like it that way.

So, thank you.