Diane Hall visits the Project Alabama production office at Lovelace Crossroads in 2001, after seeing someone sewing an early shirt design while waiting at a local doctor’s office. She is immediately welcomed to the team and still helps with projects and workshops today. For over two decades, Diane worked in every aspect of the organization: patternmaking, shipping, sewing, and teaching workshops.
When she retired (for the first time), she gave five years’ notice. At her (first) retirement party, the team wore pins that read, “Kind Like Diane.” That says it all.
The following interview with Diane was conducted by Katie Kooper of Alabama Chanin and Project Threadways on August 25th, 2021. The conversation was recorded at The Factory, where Diane worked for many years.
Alabama Chanin: Tell me about where you grew up.
Diane Hall: I was born in Sheffield, Alabama at Helen Keller Hospital, and grew up nearby in Tuscumbia. I lived the first nineteen years of my life there with my parents, then I got married and moved to Auburn. I spent three years in Auburn, then lived in Montgomery for ten years, and then moved back here in 1984.
AC: What did you do when you moved back?
DH: I worked two jobs and was going to school. I worked at Roger’s Department Store in Muscle Shoals, and at Style Right Fabric Store. I had just gotten divorced and moved home to be close to my family. I met my husband Rex while I was going to school. We got married after dating for four months and then moved to Florence with my children. And I’ve lived here in Florence since, for thirty-seven years.
AC: Did you learn how to sew when you were growing up?
DH: My mother was a really good seamstress. She made all my clothes until she started going to nursing school, and then one day she said, “If you want clothes, you’re gonna have to learn how to sew.” I already knew the basic stuff and I used to help Mama cut out our patterns, but she did all the sewing. So I learned how to sew when I was fifteen, and I’ve been sewing ever since.
DH: I started sewing for the public when I was eighteen, and did that for thirty-five years. That’s what I did most of my life. I had part time jobs—nothing major—just sewed. But I had a big clientele of people, and I sewed a lot. That’s how I made my living. Then Rex and I moved back here and I was in school, but after a while I decided not to go back [to school] because we had four children between us, all living with us. That was a little bit of a change for me. So I started sewing here, and did that for quite a few years until my daddy passed away in 1996. And when he passed away, for some reason I couldn't sit down at the sewing machine.
DH: Mmhmm… So I didn't sew at all for about four years. My husband is a hair stylist, and he had a lady in his chair one day… He called me and said, “Do you want to sew again?” and I said no, and he said “Well listen, this is different from what you’re used to.” He said, “You don’t have to meet the public, you don't have to fit anybody, it’s already cut out for you. All you have to do is sew it up and take it back.” I said, “Okay, I might like that,” and he said, “It’s all hand sewing”. So, I came out here and Tanis, the woman who was in his chair when he called me, was working [at Alabama Chanin]. She was a seamstress or a stitcher from the very beginning. She and April were the first two, I think.
AC: What do you remember about meeting Tanis?
DH: I think she stopped sewing the same time that I retired. She sewed for a long, long time. But she was working out here at the time, and she gave me a bandana to take home to sew… This was like, the week before Christmas or something. So I finished that and took it back to her, and she said, “We will let you know.” Well, I didn't hear from her for a while, so the week after Christmas I called her back. She said they were not hiring until the beginning of the year. So I think I called back again on January 2nd, and she said, “Well, I put you in a group,” and she explained the group and group leaders to me. I was in April Morgan’s group when I first started. I practiced this at home from January until September, and then Natalie called me one day and asked if I would like to have a job out here. I said, “Well I don't know,” because I hadn’t worked in a while. I asked if I could come and talk to her about it, and she told me to come on out.
I came out here and talked to her for about an hour. I told her I wanted to work [at Alabama Chanin] because it was totally different from what I was used to doing. She asked if I could cut. I said, “Yeah, I can cut,” and she said, “Well, come in here and let me show you how we do this.” This was about two o’clock in the afternoon, I guess. So, she drew the pattern off with the chalk, showed me what to do, told me to do it, and I did. I asked when she wanted me to start, and she said “How about now?” So, I just worked the rest of the day.
I started as a cutter and, several months into the job, she asked me if I knew how to make patterns. I told her yes, I made patterns for myself and my kids. At that time, she was making sketches and sending them to California; They would send the pattern back and we would cut them out. Sometimes they would work, sometimes they wouldn't. So she gave me a sketch and asked me to make it for her, and I did. I made the pattern, and then sewed the shirt to test the pattern, and she gave me the job of patternmaker. So I started making patterns for her followed by the samples, to make sure the patterns worked. I did that for a long time. I’m not sure exactly how long.
AC: Was this out at the house on Lovelace Crossroads?
DH: Yes, and then here too, when we moved to The Factory. I started in January of 2001.
AC: Wow, that was right in the beginning.
DH: Yeah, pretty much. I worked until 2015—when I turned sixty-five—and then I retired. It was really funny. I was talking to Natalie one day when we were sitting at a table, probably stitching. I said, “Oh, I’m retiring in five years,” in passing, and she said, “You’re what?” I said it again, “I am retiring in five years,” and she said, “Why didn't you tell me?” I said, “I just did… And it’s five years Natalie, it’s not next week.”
I did just about every job you can do here. I cut, I sewed, I made patterns, I helped build sample blocks—that was a fun thing. Doing a simple pattern and then just layering it with notions and embroidery stitches until she said, “Okay, that’s enough.”
AC: What was it like to transition from sewing at home to sewing for the public? Was it a different way of sewing, or a different style of garments?
DH: It was totally different. Although I didn’t have any problem sewing the pattern pieces together—I've been doing that forever—but doing it by hand, having tails on your thread, making sure your thread is doubled, loving it, you know… all that. It was quite a transition, but it didn't take me long because I’ve done handwork before. I’ve done a little bit of everything over the years.
It really didn't take me long to get going. The only thing was that the first thing they gave me to sew was a white men’s t-shirt with bright red thread. I thought every stitch had to be perfect because it would show up so clearly. So, if one stitch was longer than the other, I would take it out and do it again. Steven, who was working here at the time—he started two weeks before I did—would tell April to tell me to make my stitches a little bigger, and not to be so perfect… It took me a while, you know, with quilting and stuff. Eventually, I got used to making my stitches a little bit longer and not taking every-other-one out because I thought it wasn't perfect. One day Steven said, “You finally learned how to do it. It’ll go a lot faster if you make your stitches bigger.” I laughed and said, “Yeah, I can see that.”
AC: What was it like to watch the company grow from Project Alabama to Alabama Chanin?
DH: To be honest, I was a little bit shocked… a little surprised. It happened so fast, you know? One day we were writing a mission statement for five to ten years, and it was like, by the end of the year, it was all done. We had our café, we had machine-sewing, and it all happened so fast and just fell into place. It was such a surprise for all of us—we were thinking this would happen down the road, but it was happening right then. It was quite fun, seeing it all happen and getting to be a part of it.
AC: Were there challenging times?
DH: Oh yeah, all businesses have challenging times. I remember some of our most challenging times were when Natalie used to go to New York and show the garments. We would work, and work, and work, and get all the samples ready to go. And then she would get up there, and she would call and say, “I need this made by tomorrow.” So then we would rush to make it for the guest and get it sent to her overnight. So that, to me, was the most challenging, most stressful time. Getting those samples ready to be shown. She didn't do many runway shows but, instead, would travel with her garments to show them in person, and people would see them.
AC: Like a trunk show?
DH: Kind of yeah, but there were lots of samples… You know, and then everything with the economy was happening back then… that kind of stuff. Struggles.
AC: But you all rode the wave, and now it’s 21 years later. That’s really something.
DH: Yeah, and it’s still going.
AC: What was the most interesting piece you sewed for Project Alabama or Alabama Chanin?
DH: Um, I guess…. the tree skirt. Do you know about the tree skirt?
AC: Tell me about it.
DH: It was 2009, and the White House called and wanted us to make them a Christmas Tree skirt. It was fourteen feet in diameter I think, so Natalie and all of us made thirteen pie-shaped pieces to stitch it together. It was blue, it was for the Blue Room. (Read an entry on the White House Christmas Tree skirt here.)
AC: Was it made from t-shirts?
DH: No, it was fabric. The first section from the tree outward was just stenciled, then there was a quilted section, and then a section of reverse appliqué. We sent it out to be stitched by thirteen ladies, I think. And my daughter and I put it together—she worked here for two or three years. She was on one side of the table, and I was on the other side, and this thing is fourteen-feet, so we’re sewing it together across this table… this huge, special thing. It was really gorgeous. I guess that’s why I remember it most… because it was so big, and it was really gorgeous and beautiful.
I also remember making these sixteen dresses? Kind of like the Corset Dress: eight panels in the front, and eight in the back. The little pieces were about this tiny (gestures) down the bodice, and then the skirt went out like this (gestures) so it was really full. And you could pull the skirt up over your head—It was that full. One of them was beaded, and I think sixteen different women worked on it because it was beaded all-over, and it was in Vogue magazine. That was a gorgeous dress, and it was so heavy from all the beads. I think it weighed between ten to fourteen pounds.
AC: Did it really?
DH: It did! Oh, it was so beautiful. It was a Natural or White fabric… I can’t remember. But that one was a really big deal.
AC: So I guess artisans took home the different panels to sew?
DH: Yes, sixteen different panels.
AC: And someone in-house sewed it together?
DH: Mmhmm, or one of those ladies did. Back then, we didn’t do a lot of in-house sewing. We’d work in groups. We had 120 stitchers back then—five or six groups.
AC: Can you tell us more about the groups?
AC: There were twenty to thirty women in each group. A group leader would come out here on Thursdays, pick up work for her whole group and take it back, and then that night, the stitchers in her group would stop by to pick up their new work and drop off what they’d completed. On Fridays, the leaders would deliver all the work their group had finished and then take home payment for everyone’s work. And everyone got what they were owed, based upon the projects they had completed. Even though we had so many stitchers, we stayed busy. We sold to about fifty stores back then—some in Australia, some in England, several in California, some in Chicago. We stayed busy, and we got a lot of orders.
AC: And you all sewed every piece for these orders by hand?
DH: Yes. And when I started, everything was made with t-shirts, not fabric.
DH: We would get all these t-shirts, and we would dump them out on the basement floor when we were still at the house on Lovelace Crossroads. We’d sort them, wash them, and then cut them apart. Most of the patterns just had a lot of pieces. You know, like the Fernando Skirt?
DH: Everything had lots of pieces like that. They were all tonal, but not the same color, because not all of the t-shirts were exactly the same. For example, something would be blue, but it would be five different shades of blue. But they were so pretty. And when we first started, we used contrasting threads on all the things we made… like bright-colored thread.
AC: Oh, so pretty.
DH: Beautiful… They were gorgeous. Then, we started getting orders for bigger patterns and we started using fabric. Oh, those first few years… Have you seen many of the things they made back then?
DH: They were really pretty and different… They were so different. Very unusual for that time, you know? If you had an Alabama Chanin shirt, it was really something.
AC: And it was before the sustainability era really took off. She was ahead of the curve.
DH: Absolutely. I wouldn't trade anything for those years. It really was good for me. I could be creative. I don't know how else to say it—just being a part of making those garments that were so beautiful, so out of the ordinary—it was just a great experience for me.
AC: It’s almost like being a part of a family. A community. A movement.
Slide 1: “Kind Like Diane” pin worn by employees at Diane’s retirement, 2015, photograph by Robert Rausch; “Flair” like this pin would often be passed out in celebration of employee’s hard work and achievements
Slide 3: Alabama Chanin’s pattern library in Building 14 where Diane worked for many years, 2013, photograph by Angie Mosier (read entries on machine-sewn production in Building 14, and our friend and collaborator Angie Mosier); Diane Hall dyeing indigo fabrics at The Factory, 2014, photograph by Rinne Allen
Slide 4: Diane Hall working in Project Alabama’s cutting department at Lovelace Crossroads, 2004