Your fabric is problematic

On Easter Saturday morning, I impulse purchased a sewing machine.  From Ikea.  Not only does Ikea sell sewing machines, but they’re cheap enough (AU$79) to be an impulse purchase.  Amazingly, it even seems to be a good machine — or at least, easily equal to the Singer machines I used in high school.  I understand that technology has marched on, and sewing machines now come with inbuilt computers and USB ports — why? I have no idea! Give me time, though.  I’ll figure this out — but this just goes forward and backwards in a variety of stitches.  It’s small, but solid, and the interior parts don’t look flimsy.

So now I am (re)learning to sew.  In the past, I’d mess up a pattern and decide on the spot that sewing clothing was not for me.  WELL, THOSE DAYS ARE GONE.  (I mean, I have a job, now, and if I stuff up, I can buy more fabric and try again.)  At this stage I’ve done a gathered skirt and a loose, drapey top.  Both are basically rectangles sewn together.  BABY STEPS.

Naturally, I’ve also been looking at a lot of online fabric stores.  (This is also because I like to have something pretty to look at while I’m transcribing stuff, and for some reason my employer has blocked Asos and Etsy.)  And I have learnt, to my complete lack of surprise, that a lot of fabric prints are … well, problematic.  Grotesquely racist is another frequently applicable term.

I’m not at all surprised by this because crafting communities, in general, are dominated by middle-aged, middle-class women who think golliwogs are hilarious.  I’m told that the golliwog thing is less widespread outside of
Australia, but the general ignorance remains.  So I’ve decided to do a series of posts about some of the particularly vexing fabrics that have crossed my path.

Fabric design depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Mexican apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Personally I don’t see the appeal in wearing the Virgin Mary on a skirt, but that’s just me.

This is from Alexander Henry’s Folklorico collection, which is basically stereotypical Mexican iconography on fabric.  The whole collection is deserving of side-eye, but I’ve chosen to discuss the Virgin of Guadalupe because I actually know something about it.

BASICALLY, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous Mexican man, addressed him in his language, and told him to build a church on the site of her appearance.  There followed a series of miracles, culminating in the appearance of this image on the man’s cloak.

Now, this is notable because, while the Catholic church, like most major European institutions of the 16th century, was heavily into colonialism, this was the first time a significant religious figure had appeared to one of the colonised peoples, not to mention speaking in his own language.  And certain aspects of indigenous dress were incorporated into the miraculous image.  It’s kind of like Mary was saying, “Yup, we’re all united.”

…okay, or there is that longstanding tradition of Catholicism just absorbing the local culture wherever it went, and various pagan figures sneaking into the mainstream religion under cover of being totes Christian, honest.  (Suffice to say, a surprising number of Irish “saints” were actually local deities.)

Either way, this image represents a really complex mixture of colonialism, imperialism, cultural genocide and cultural exchange.  It is not, in my opinion, something to be made into a cushion cover or whatever.  (I should say, I am generally not okay with wearing or displaying the iconography of a religion you don’t practice.  When I was 15 I wore a silver Buddha pendant, because no one told me not to, but that was a long time ago, and I’m pretty embarrassed about it now.)

But there is one other good reason to think twice before you make that Guadalupe quilt.  The belt worn in the original image was worn by Mexican women when they were pregnant.  This is, therefore, one of the surprisingly few depictions of Mary as a pregnant woman.  And that means that the image has also been adopted by Catholic pro-life movements.

Now, my mum’s been a pro-life activist since before I was born, so I don’t automatically recoil from the concept.  But I also don’t plan to go around wearing a Virgin of Guadalupe sundress.  It’s a bit like the language of flowers — the message is only significant to a tiny number of people, but nevertheless, is it really a message you want to be sending?

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2 thoughts on “Your fabric is problematic

  1. Pingback: I made a skirt! | maidenly delicacy of speech

  2. Pingback: 73rd Down Under Feminist Carnival! | The Conversationalist

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