Quilting and Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been mulling this post over in my mind for ages and I’m still not 100% sure how to lay it out, but since I’ve been posting updates on my Indigo Pinwheels quilt which includes Japanese cottons as the main element I felt like it was timely.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about if it’s appropriate for me as a white woman to use fabrics which come from other cultures in my quilting. I know already that quilting has a problem with cultural appropriation – when I was looking, just as one of many examples, for a fabric with a skull print I kept being referred to fabrics with sugar skulls on them. There are already plenty of links which explain in detail why the Sugar Skull is culturally appropriative, especially used in this way – decorating a bolt of fabric, removed from its context, history, a time and place and with no acknowledgement of the history behind it. Personally, I’ve used recently some Japanese quilting cottons in my quilting, and a few months ago I visited Western Samoa and bought some lengths of fabric while I was there, including some Elei fabric (a style of printing traditionally used to decorate tapa cloth and more recently used on other fabrics) and some patterns which various people there told me are sometimes called Samoan but are more correctly identified as Hawaiian influenced.

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I think the main things I am considering are if there is a respectful way I can incorporate these fabrics into my work, or if it is inherently appropriative to use these fabrics from another culture in my sewing. I think the questions of Japanese and Samoan fabrics need to be considered separately. Among the things I want to think about (and I want to stress I am constantly growing and developing in my understanding, so if someone wants to correct me on this and has the energy to do it I would be only too grateful) are the relationship that my culture, as a white New Zealander has to the culture the fabrics come from, if the ways I am obtaining the fabrics materially benefit people from the culture they come from, crediting the origin of the fabrics appropriately and if they are being used in an appropriate way.

To be honest, I am more comfortable using Japanese cottons for a few reason: Japan has a history of quilting – including Sashiko quilting (a form of stitching reminiscent of many contemporary Japanese quilting cotton patterns), so I feel as though using the cottons in this way is appropriate to their intended and historical use. Also, New Zealand’s relationship with Japan doesn’t have the same colonialism inherent in our relationship with Western Samoa. Also, when I buy my Japanese cottons I try to buy them from stores either based in Japan, or owned by people with Japanese heritage so the proceeds from the sale of them are going to people with some relationship to the history of the designs. It doesn’t, and I’m aware this is a fairly nebulous way of putting it, feel appropriative to use the fabrics in this way because it is aligned with the use for which they were produced and my buying them feeds back into the economy of Japan.

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I’m more conflicted about using fabrics from Samoa. To start with, as far as I have been able to tell from my research, Western Samoa doesn’t have a quilting culture – American Samoa has some, largely introduced by missionaries. So the fabrics I have wouldn’t have been created with that end use in mind – I think that as uses ¬†go quilting is fairly benign, but I would still prefer to use fabrics in a way aligned with their intended use. Also, Samoa has a history of being subjugated by New Zealand and I’m very aware of this imbalance of power when I consider if I have a right to use Samoan fabrics in my quilts. Samoa has only been independent from New Zealand since 1962, and New Zealand’s history with Samoa contains incidents like the Black Saturday shootings and the grossly racist Dawn Raids. It feels a lot more like the classic definition of appropriation – co-opting an attractive part of a culture without having to deal with the negative parts of having that identity (the poorer education and health outcomes Pasifika people experience in New Zealand because of systemic racism). For now, I’m keeping the fabrics in my stash because I don’t want to discard them and feel wasteful. One thing I am considering doing in the future is making a quilt from some of them and donating some of the proceeds from it to a Pasifika Womens Refuge or advocacy group.

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