Sewing Dilemmas: Regional Fabrics

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I sewed Ankara/African wax print/Dutch wax print for the first time last year, and came out with this knock-out skirt. I’d delayed sewing with wax prints for years though, because I wasn’t sure if they were appropriate fabric for a white girl like me!

In the end, I turned to Ankara-fanatic Marcy (aka. Oona), and asked,

“I’ve never decided if it’s ok for a white lady like me to use Ankara fabric. Cultural appropriation, or awesome print used with knowledge of its history? I don’t know, and it’s not the kind of thing any one person can decree is ok or not, so here I am, Ankara-less!”

She replied with a fantastic post, saying,

“Well, my friend, my FRIENDS, as Mixed-Chick-Party-Of-One, I am here to resoundingly decree this ever so much more than “ok.” In fact: GO FOR IT! Go for it, because it is fabric, and who better to treat a beautiful fabric with the respect it deserves than a home sewist?”

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The thing is, I’m still unsure about what fabrics are appropriate for me to wear. I do have a couple of rules I chose to live by, though: I won’t buy any fabric labelled “tribal” — why can’t we just say “geometric”? I also won’t buy any fabric described as “Navajo” or “Aztec”, or any specific ethnic group — unless they directly produced the fabric themselves!

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That said, I spent my 20s studying and working around the world, and I was never shy to wear traditional clothing while I did! In the photo above, I’m wearing a yukata in Japan, a salwaar kameez in India, and a Tibetan chuba that I had custom made before waiting 5 hours to shake hands with the Dalai Lama. In all of those cases, local people seems very happy for me to wear traditional clothing and appreciate their textiles! In fact, it would have seemed rude to do otherwise.

Now I’m an ESL teacher, and spend my days trying to increase the representation of different cultures in my schools. Would sewing with authentic regional fabric be a great way to do that, or does it cross a line of cultural appropriation? What about prints that feature traditional designs, like sashiko stitching or images from art? How can I tell if the prints or textiles I chose are actually authentic? And is it better or worse to sew traditional styles or modern shapes?

I’d love your input into this sewing dilemma! I know I’m not the only one with beautiful regional fabrics waiting in the stash to be sewn!

P.S. As I wrote this post, Lara from Thornberry happened to post her Dress Like Frieda contribution, and included some excellent links about cultural appropriation at the end — worth checking out! 

P.P.S. The Curvy Sewing Collective Facebook community had a similar discussion recently, which is worth checking out if you are in the closed group!