When Monserratt brought up the topic of global fabrics and indigenous textiles, I was STOKED for the series. I have always loved and admired traditional styles and textiles from other cultures, but one question always scratches at the back of my brain and prevents me from buying these things: where is the line between appreciating a culture and appropriating it?
During my freshman year of college, we were all required to take a freshman seminar that taught us study skills via a topic of interest. I ended up in a class on Black people in film. The most memorable moment of that class for me was presenting a scrapbook of the semester, and there was a Halloween picture of an acquaintance who was wearing a serape poncho and sombrero. The teacher stopped me mid-presentation and said “It’s NEVER okay to dress up like a person from a different culture.” This was my first experience with cultural appropriation and it really cemented a line in my brain.
Then, my oldest son was born at the time where I really feel like more people were starting to talk about cultural appropriation. A lot of what I was seeing was criticism in response to parents’ decoration and dressing their children in clothes with Native American imagery such as tipis, arrowheads, headdresses, etc. What I got out of that was that other cultures are not for my consumption, unless it is directly supporting an artisan from that culture. This left me with a litmus test before shopping: is this item sacred to the culture it comes from and did an artisan from this culture make it? This test worked reaaaally well until I started sewing more.
I began to be surrounded by SO many beautiful textiles, and I could not help but wonder: is it okay for me to use this? After seeing so many beautiful fabrics in these prints I had even MORE questions about what is okay and what is not. Are there specific patterns that have deep meaning that I should not be using at all? Is it disrespectful to make certain types of clothing out of a certain type of fabric (like, is this a pattern you use for a funeral and I just made it into a sundress)?? So now I am left admiring these fabrics from afar because I am honestly too afraid of offending or disrespecting a culture. BUT, I do think there is a huge importance to support indigenous artists, and I want to be able to love and appreciate their fabrics in a way that makes sense for me while still being respectful.
I hope that this series can help answer some of these questions because I certainly do not have all these answers. I am SO excited to learn about different textiles from different indigenous peoples and different cultural traditions. I am hoping that by the end of this series, I will have the confidence to buy some indigenous textiles and sew myself something with them!
What are your thoughts on appropriation and appreciation? Let me know in the comments below!
Amanda is a mom of two, crafting away in North Carolina. She can be found on Instagram @mandabe4r where she posts about everyday life (and she finally finished a sewing project!).
The concept of “cultural appropriation” was “codified” in the late 70s and 80s
So if you were around then as I was, you might have a different take on it
My take comes from a very early experience regarding kimono which the Wiksten Haori/Kimono/Oversized jacket discussion of a year or so ago brought to mind
I was a college intern working on an East-West business conference
I had mentioned how beautiful and practical kimonos seemed but did not feel that they were appropriate for me …I was quickly and vigorously disavowed of that opinion, being told something along the lines of imitation is the sincerest form of not only flattery but respect.
That is there is no line. It is appreciation not appropriation as long as that is the intent.
However, these days, as much as am tantalized at using some of these wonderful styles and textiles, I am dissuaded from doing so because of the imposition of the opinions of others-often vociferously
A few years go I wore a traditional Chinese dress to a Chinese New Year meal with friends, which included Chinese nationals. Again as Pal K said, they made a big fuss that I’d taken time to respect their traditions and culture and I received a lot of appreciative comments that evening. I’ve noticed, when in china, that the people in the communities I’ve visited really did appreciate people who recognised the beauty and elegance of their traditional clothing enough to wear it themselves. I am not Chinese, but do love the Chinese people that I’ve met, I’ve found them very open about their culture and they do want to see it celebrated.
I do wonder if the issue of appropriation is bigger in the US than some other countries. Thanks for sharing!
I wish I knew how to navigate this as well! Personally, I find that there are so many different African fabrics that are just gorgeous and I would love to make dresses out of them. I’m not African though. I don’t know what is appropriate for me to wear, if it’s even appropriate at all. And not only do I not know who to ask, I don’t even know if it’s an appropriate question for me to ask at all. I just know that I will stand out when I wear them and if I’m going to put myself in that position I want to make sure that I’m noticed for loving a fabric’s beauty and honoring it’s culture and not for taking something that isn’t mine and making a show of it.
This is such a tricky thing to navigate. I have a background in fibers (went to college for it, so spinning, weaving, dyeing, etc) and have a deep respect for how they’re made everywhere. For several years, I worked at a cultural center and wearing garments I’d made from traditional textiles from different cultures was encouraged and felt ok. Now I work somewhere else and those garments don’t feel right to wear because they’re out of context. That’s ok. It’s good to feel uncomfortable and to analyze why I no longer wear those garments. Your questions about who made it and for what purpose are a great litmus test. So is identifying what context you’re using the textile for–is it a specific cultural event where wearing that style garment or fabric is ok or do you just really like it? If it’s the latter, is there a way to pull elements of the design into a different garment or to use the textile in a different respectful way or to find a similar fabric for the same job that’s neutral in it’s purpose?
What a big shift in thinking! Also I totally agree that confronting our discomfort is SO important in growing in empathy and understanding of other cultures.
I have to admit I roll my eyes over outrage about cultural appropriation. We were raised on it, doing soap carvings in school as kids, and the English language and Star Wars Trilogy (yes, I say trilogy) are Frankenstein monsters of cultural appropriation that can be primers for exploration of their component parts. The world is a food fare, and the staff of each specialty restaurant may not be of the same culture as the sign above it.
I grew up with the concept of America being the “melting pot” and how great it was to celebrate different parts of different cultures, so when I learned the concept of cultural appropriation I was very taken aback!
It’s tricky. I love textiles from all over the world. They’re something that every culture has but varies for each, reflecting that people’s history, society, etc. Much like food in that way. So when I buy textile items from another culture, I pay attention to who is profiting from it. For example, when my daughter wanted moccasins, I asked my family to go to one of the local tribes to buy them.
If I were to buy, say, sari fabric, I wouldn’t make a sari out of it. Because, as a white woman, that isn’t something I would feel right wearing (unless I was going to a specific event and had been told that wearing one would be appropriate and respectful). So I would make a more European garment. My hope is that, this way, I’m not dressing up in another culture’s traditions but showing appreciation for its beauty. And if someone were to tell me that I’m disrespecting the fabric by turning it into something it wasn’t meant to be, then I would take it to heart and stop wearing it.
I know my answer isn’t simple. But the issue is complicated. Appreciation vs appropriation is a question of who has the power. If I’m in Pakistan and I wear something traditional to a wedding, it will likely be seen as appreciation and respect because I’m in a place where I do not have the power. But if I wear something traditional to Pakistan in the USA, then it may be seen as appropriation instead because we are somewhere where I have more power. Does that make sense?
Absolutely makes sense! The line is very fine.
I’ve been pondering how to respond to someone saying what I’m wearing is inappropriate. For one thing, one individual doesn’t represent an entire culture. For example it doesn’t bother me if the flag is in a garment, but others would be offended. In Thailand one can be arrested for having an image of Buddha on a t-shirt (I heard).
Definitely when a designer takes a family pattern and with no permission or compensation uses it in her clothing line, then that is appropriation. When we buy fabric do we know who really designed it and if the designer is getting the funds?
I have also thought of just going out into nature and making my own interpretations into patterns. Also this era of being respectful of other cultures makes me more interested in traditional British Isles fabrics and garb. So much to explore in my on genetic background that I wasn’t caring about before.
Having said that I’m busy sewing Folkwear patterns from older cultures partly because pretty, but also feminine/modest, And less waste of fabric when sewing together rectangles.
I’m currently looking at a Korean dress with a Thai jacket for a cotton sari that was given to me. And why not wear a sari? Do we begrudge the world wearing Levis’? A sari is a wonderful garment for a woman, taking in all fluctuations of weight and fat days along with being comfortable and feminine. I’m just too busy wearing kurtas. I love the idea of a tunic dress and pants. Feminine and can sit on the floor! Made in quilt cottons of my colors so sort of modern.
Sorry for long thoughts but so happy to see others pondering the same things.
I think that if you are profiting from it or you are using it as a costume (especially characterizing a stereotype) then it is disingenuous. If it is a piece in your wardrobe that goes through the normal rotation or it’s a new garment made from beautiful fabric, then it is alright. In fact, a little research allows you to speak of its origin and why you appreciate the people who created it.
Oh I think you make quite a good point on doing research on the origin and using it as a way to teach others. This may be a new addition into my thought process!
I have for years made, given sold items made from traditional African fabrics. I have many times been gifted with fabrics from my African friends I have always tried to honor the use.
I make and sell bags using pieces made in ravaged countries to benefit the makers of these pieces.
If I have offended I would want to be told. However, not my experience. I have been congratulated and thanked for the use of these very beautiful (one reason I use them) fabrics in a way that I hope honor the makers and the receivers of the product
So glad you’ve had a positive experience! I think honoring the fabrics/culture is an important component of appreciation.
I have a few Kuba cloths. I have seen them made into bags, but I wouldn’t do that. The totality of the cloth’s story would be disrupted, for one thing, but also because bags are set in all sorts of unclean places – bathroom floors, public counters, etc. They are utilitarian items. Just the idea of cutting into a Kuba cloth is painful. It is the same for any handmade textile not intended to be cut apart and made into something else. Now if the fabric is made on a loom and it is intended to be cut apart, I would still want to know what type of garment is appropriate and what techniques should be used on it.
Two thoughts: from Uganda and India
20 years ago, while visiting my daughter who was working in Kampala, Uganda, I was naively looking for “traditional African” fabrics for my quilting projects. When I did find wax prints, I was told I had to buy 6 meters, required to make a traditional garment. Too much yardage for quilting. Instead, I went from tailor to tailor, asking for “cutaways,” that is, the fabric cut away from under the arms when making a traditional long dress-like garment. I paid whatever the tailors asked, often just a tip, because most considered this fabric a waste of time, and I couldn’t (at that time) get them to understand how we used scraps for quilting.
I felt really bad for the tailors who were losing business to the cheap T shirts, etc. from the USA Goodwill bundles, garments thrown away by American consumers. These garments are loaded into large bales, having all the air sucked out in order to ship in smallest amount of space and when unpacked, were sold very cheaply.
Going back to 1994, when backpacking through India, we stopped at a fabric store to buy fabric and had a shirt made for my husband. A few days later, we were traveling third class bus and a group of women kept staring at, and pointing to my husband, and giggling and laughing. Eventually, another passenger told us that my husband’s shirt was made from the fabric used to make skirts for these women of very low caste and they found it hilarious that a “white” man was wearing “their” skirt fabric. He still has the shirt today and we always enjoy when he gets compliments…
I didn’t feel, and still don’t feel, that we were inappropriate in any way.
I don’t think about it at all, nor have I been accused of or attacked for appropriation and I live in California.
I love ethnic clothes and ethnic fabric.
I have a few pieces that I love. I have some Salwar Kameez sets I bought on eBay when I was teaching a sixth grade unit on India. I even have a Sari I would wear to school for that unit and I taught the girls how to wear a Sari. I found the clothing very practical and comfortable as is much ethnic clothing. I believe clothing is like food, it leads to an appreciation of the culture that produced it.
I have sewn dirndls until I had the opportunity to purchase an authentic one because my maternal line is German. No one questions my wearing one. A local restaurant dresses all of their waitresses in dirndls although it is clear not all of them are German. I’m not offended, nor is anyone else.
I routinely use Batiks in quilting and have made clothing from them simply because they are beautiful.
I have pieces of Guatemalan fabric as well, as we had a foreign exchange student stay with us for a year while I was in High School and he brought fabric as a gift. This was in the 70s. We have since visited for his son’s wedding and I had an opportunity to buy more fabric, plus a blouse, skirt and long woven band for tying up my hair. I’m clearly not Guatemalan but no one in the country or in California when I returned took any offense.
Unless there is some sort of religious significance to the garment I don’t consider it appropriation. I wouldn’t wear a wedding Kimono or wedding sari. I would avoid wearing a priest’s cassock too. I wouldn’t wear a rosary as jewelry.
But I would have no qualm wearing a beautifully embroidered jacked from Greece or Bolivia. I am neither French nor English but my clothing has its roots in their countries. Is it appropriation to wear a beautiful silk scarf with a Versailles print?
Is it wrong to wear a sarong to the beach?
I doubt those that produce the textiles and the clothing consider it appropriation. They appreciate the business and they appreciate that someone cares enough and is attracted enough to buy what they have created and wear it proudly.
I think this matter of appropriation is created by a small vocal sector tippy-toeing through life trying (in vain usually) not to offend anyone and imposing their mindset on others.
Are the French offended at the sexy French Maid Halloween costumes? The Germans at the sexy Barmaiden costumes? Probably not.
I haven’t even heard of indignation at nun costumes at Halloween. Are Catholics offended?
I think wearing ethnic prints, textiles, jewelry and pieces of clothing leads to appreciation. Appreciation of your own heritage, that of others and appreciation of the culture that produced it.
I’m not going to stop wearing my beautiful fabrics and beautiful clothes no matter who it offends. Someone is always going to be offended at something. I’m 66 and no one in my entire life has ever told me I shouldn’t be wearing something because of cultural appropriation.
What next? I can’t eat Mexican or Chinese food?
This is a question I do grapple with, thank you for raising it. I’m a textile artist, working in Indigo. I have taken many classes in various techniques from all over the world. Indigo dyeing is not new.
I have been drawn to Japanese techniques, and have used many types of patterns from the experience. It would take me a lifetime to master just a few of these patterns, and yet I sometimes think about appropriation and what that means. I have started to use different terminology for what I do, rather than the traditional terms from Japan. Japanese people recognize what I do, and seem to appreciate it.
More questions than answers…
Hi, I’d love to hear your feedback. I make short wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses as a small business and I’m thinking about using some Chinese brocade fabrics. I also have a few different dresses I’d like to do with a Mandarin collar and also a Japanese Obi style middle piece/belt. I’ve always loved textiles, cultures, food and travelled extensively as a child through Asia falling into love with Indian and Asian fabrics. I grew up on a mountain in Papua New Guinea and in the Australian outback.My family is extremely mixed as I have a Chinese grandmother, Indian parents, New Zealander in-laws, Irish grandfather, and I’m Australian. My son is a mix of everything. I originally wanted to do something like this for my own wedding where I wanted to pay homage to the cultures coming together. I’ve never felt like using a fabric would be inappropriate if being done in a respectful manner. We would often learn textile techniques and other cultural arts while travelling. People were very excited to teach and for us to learn their culture. I am keen to know your thoughts.
This is such an important and interesting conversation. I lived in Asia for awhile and travel a lot. As a quilter and sewer, I typically buy fabric when I visit other countries and make the effort to learn about the textile traditions of the places I visit. My wardrobe includes a variety of clothes (esp. Indian kurtis and salwar kameez) that I occasionally wear to work in my job (international affairs office at a university). I have had the experience others have mentioned of local communities and international students, in my case, being glad to see a foreigner like their cultural arts enough to wear them. I don’t think there is a single answer; we just need to always evaluate how the materials are being used and in what context. And ensure that the artisans creating the fabrics and clothing are being compensated fairly (and directly whenever possible).