September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

On a scorchingly hot August afternoon, seven women gather in a Florence, Ala., house sipping iced tea and munching brownies before picking up their sewing needles. “Love your thread,” Natalie Chanin reminds them, “and remember to make stitches so big you can get your toe in.”

An old-fashioned quilting bee? Hardly. The handmade T-shirts, skirts and pants being pieced together here will end up in stylish stores, including Barneys New York and Maxfields in Los Angeles, and hug the bodies of stars like Cindy Crawford and Woody Harrelson. In fact, only two years after Chanin, 41, founded Project Alabama, her quilting-inspired clothing line, sales are set to top $1 million—and she’s putting in 15-hour days to keep up with the demand. “Do I ever feel like I am in over my head?” she says. “Yes, just about every moment!”

Her clothes, on the other hand, brim with confidence. The body-hugging tees, made from brightly colored cotton overlaid with embroidered cutouts, “are curvy and sexy without being trashy,” says Candace Mohr, a buyer for Manhattan’s Amy Chan boutique. But what really makes Project Alabama styles—which range from $200 for a simple tee to more than $2,000 for a coat—unique is that they are handsewn by local women, using recycled fabric from local thrift shops.

Reinvigorating the quilting tradition was a goal for Chanin, who saw the textile industry around Florence, her hometown, lose thousands of jobs after the 1993 passage of NAFTA. Her 100 stitchers, who include teens and septuagenarians, work when and where they please and can earn up to $10 an hour.

“It has been wonderful to be able to stay home with my 8-year-old son,” says Tanis Riley, 38, who quit her daycare job to work for Chanin. Adds April Morgan, 29, a mother of two: “Before, I was debating whether to babysit or clean houses. Now I’m making clothing worn all over the world.”

The only child of Billy Smith, 60, a contractor, and Myra Brown, 60, a retired computer programmer, Chanin displayed a creative flair early on—”I would come down to lunch in a ball gown and tiara,” she says—but claims she nearly “flunked home economics” in high school. Briefly married after her graduation (the union produced a son, Zachariah, now 20 and traveling around the U.S.), Chanin enrolled at North Carolina State University to study environmental design and textiles, later working as a film stylist in Vienna and New York City.

In 2000 Chanin made her first shirt (by stitching and appliquéing a tee in her closet) when she “needed something to wear to a party,” she says. Delighted with the result, she crafted others for herself, and before long, “I realized the inspiration came from quilts,” she says. With the help of friend Enrico Marone-Cinzano, 39, an entrepreneur, she drafted a business plan for a clothing company and then headed back to Florence to film a documentary, Stitch, about area quilters from the Depression. As the women shared their musings on how scraps of fabric could recall a favorite dress or brand of flour, Chanin determined that her clothing “had to be done by hand,” she says.

Today the single Chanin commutes between Florence and Manhattan. She plans to expand her business, adding evening wear and handbags—even though it means stepping up her hectic pace. “Do I miss my old life? Not for a second,” she says. “I have the peace of being here, and I have New York City. I have a lovely, lovely life.”

Galina Espinoza

Nancy Wilstach in Florence and Marisa Wong in New York City

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