You guys, LOOK AT THIS THING:
I just received this as a gift from some family members who visited Panama. It’s called a mola, and is a fabric panel used in traditional blouses of the Kuna people. Molas are a bit like Hawaiian applique on steroids; they involve reverse applique in several layers, and then additional layers of needle-turn applique on top. I think I counted five layers of fabric at one point in mine! It has the tiniest stitches I’ve ever seen.
I’ve recently begun discovering and learning about the embroidery and handmade crafts of other places and cultures. There is a shop here in Boulder called Bella Frida, and the owner, Laura, travels to Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru in search of folk artists. She purchases their work at fair trade and resells it here in Colorado. I’ve bought two Guatemalan items from her so far (a skirt and a huipil, a traditional tunic), both woven on a backstrap loom and then hand-embroidered. They’re gorgeous.
The geometric patterns and motifs of Mexico and Central/South America have definitely made their way into mainstream American design trends in the past few years. Tribal inspiration is everywhere, from clothing to bags to quilt cottons. Robert Kaufman, Andover, Art Gallery, and Michael Miller have all released fabric collections inspired by tribal prints and native folk art. And why shouldn’t they? It’s beautiful. But the cultural appropriation of indigenous artwork is a problematic issue, and rightly so: native peoples are struggling to keep their traditions and practices alive in the modern world. While quilting is a diverse enterprise — anyone can do it! — designer fabrics and expensive machines and the luxury of free time make it a hobby of the (white) affluent more than not. There are privilege issues at play. And so I argue we (if we are among the privileged) should be sensitive before we start taking liberties with design from indigenous and minority cultures.
Do we need to boycott everything with a tribal print and stop wearing ponchos? I don’t think so. But are we keeping traditions alive if we just take the aesthetics but don’t pause to understand the cultures that produced them? How do we, as consumers and sewists and designers, enjoy native-inspired textiles but still honor the original handcrafters and the traditions of indigenous peoples? A few ideas:
1. We need to educate ourselves on the cultures that produce the artwork that inspires us. We do this already with many Western cultures. Even middle-school students are taught the prominent features and artists of different art movements and periods. We know what Michelangelo and Van Gogh and Picasso’s works look like, and even sometimes what inspired them and what events surrounded their creation. We know their history. This is important, and we should make every endeavor to learn the same about every culture from which we borrow techniques and find inspiration. Before we take our first sashiko stitches, let’s learn what zakka means and what it’s traditionally used for. Before we make quilts inspired by Navajo blankets, let’s how the wool is dyed and how they’re woven. It’s the least we can do.
Laura of Bella Frida often participates in Mexican cultural events around Boulder. She organizes a kick-ass Day of the Dead festival each year, and lectures often on folk artistry of the different regions of Mexico. She’s inspired me to look for the context surrounding handmade crafts. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re made by people with rich histories and cultures. We quilters share our finished work at guild meetings and talk about them because we want people to know how they are made and what inspired them. We need to listen to others who deserve the same attention.
2. We need to support artisans locally and internationally. As craftspeople, most of us are familiar with the notion that handmade goods take a lot of time and should be purchased for their actual worth. Paying fair trade prices for embroidery or weaving indicates respect for the artist and his or her time and skills. Textiles are expensive; we should not expect to pay less just because the artist lives in a different place.
3. We need to understand the repercussions of using culturally-inspired textiles. This includes using textiles with respect (no racist Halloween costumes!), of course, but also understanding the debate and the history of cultural appropriation. Sadly, white people have a long tradition of taking what we want from other cultures and leaving the rest. If we wear garments or make quilts sewn with fabrics inspired by these cultures, we should at least understand that this is a thing, and be sensitive and respectful as a result.
So here’s a story: very soon after moving to Boulder, I began planning my first trip to Fall Quilt Market. I stumbled into Bella Frida for the first time and bought the most beautiful huipil I’d ever seen. It was expensive compared to my everyday Old Navy mom uniform, but I loved it and told the salesperson that I’d be taking it to Market because I was pretty sure it would be appreciated there. Fast forward a week or so, and I walk into the MQG meetup in Houston, tunic on. I was right; I think I got at least six complements on my new huipil that night, but my favorite moment was very briefly meeting Denyse Schmidt. Before we said anything else to each other, before we even made eye contact, she reached out and touched some of the embroidery on my shoulder. “Beautiful,” she said. “Guatemalan.”
See? That’s what I mean.
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