On Kantha Stitching and Cultural Appropriation

For some time I have been pondering on the issue of cultural appropriation and whether the use of kantha stitching in my work makes me a thief. While I am more comfortable writing about the technicalities of the art of stitching, perhaps the time has come to say something about my unease at copying the patterns of this ancient craft.

Kantha style sampler for the month of August (22 x 35 cm). Strictly speaking this is the wrong orientation, but I wanted to show that a ‘sideways’ eight is a loose representation of the infinity sign

Two things have prompted me to explore the idea of cultural appropriation. The first was a question put to British textile artist, Cas Homes, during a Stitch Club question and answer session when she was asked what she thought about the use of Japanese borro and Bengali kantha stitch by Westerners. She gave a considered and measured answer in which she explained that both forms originated out of necessity, where worn cloth was mended and stitched in layers to save worn out clothes and cloth. She suggested that if one was respectful of the origins of the craft it is okay to copy the form.

The second thing that got me thinking was the hoo-haa on social media when the singer Adele was accused of committing cultural appropriation when she appeared at the Notting Hill Carnival wearing a bikini top fashioned from the Jamaican flag, and with her hair knotted into an African hairstyle. The reaction and debate that this evoked was astounding.

There is a rash of online definitions and articles on cultural appropriation so I decided to consult my trusted source, The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. While it has an entry for cultural relativism there is not one for cultural appropriation (too new a term and concept?). The OED defines appropriation as The making over (of a thing) into one’s own or another’s possession; the taking of a thing for one’s own use, esp. without permission. To put it bluntly, the stealing of something. One could argue that culture is not a ‘thing’ and that therefore it cannot strictly speaking be appropriated or stolen. Before I get myself into deep waters, perhaps I should define the term more closely. According to ‘Oxford Languages’ via Google, it is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

A while ago Melanie J. McNeil of Catbird Quilt Studio wrote a post about copyright and cultural appropriation. She gives its Wikipedia definition (in bold) followed by a clear explanation about how it works: “

 “Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.” It specifically refers to use of those cultural elements when there is a power imbalance between two groups. In other words, a white person in America using symbolism from Native Americans might be guilty of cultural appropriation, whereas if the reverse happened, it probably wouldn’t be considered inappropriate or disrespectful use. If someone from the US uses Nordic graphics or designs, that probably wouldn’t be inappropriate, but using elements from eastern Africa might be.

Melanie of Catbird Quilt Studio

To recap on my previous posts, I fell in love with kantha stitching after attending a course given by Dorothy Tucker at the South African National Quilt Festival in 2019 and have been experimenting with the stitch form by making samplers this year. I admit to knowing little about the Bengali culture and what I do know I owe to Dorothy Tucker’s explanations. What has caught my imagination is how the simple running stitch can be used to produce such varied patterns and effects. So, if a technique is part of a cultural legacy then I am guilty of appropriation.

In literature the line between copying and imitating is clearly drawn. If you copy without acknowledging your sources you commit the crime of plagiarism. If you imitate, you flatter the original creator. Until the eighteenth century writers were expected to imitate the forms and styles of the ancient masters. That famous quotation about imitation as a form of flattery is from Oscar Wilde : “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. I rest my case.

As we are two thirds of the way through 2020 (yes we are!) I felt justified in displaying the month by month samplers made so far this year

With acknowledgements to Carol of Letting Nature Back In for first alerting me to the possible links between cultural appropriation and textile works.

24 thoughts on “On Kantha Stitching and Cultural Appropriation

  1. Beautiful stitching and pieces!

    I have mixed feelings on cultural appropriation. If I as a person of African descent chooses to use Scandinavian design to decorate my house why is that okay but if a person of European descent decorates with African masks and fabrics, why would that be cultural appropriation?

    It is so complex. I think the cultural appropriation taboos originate from the historical fact that peoples of European descent branched out around the world and took over other people’s lands (like the US where I live and South Africa where you live); as well as they have historically oppressed the native people of the lands they conquered.

    But you know that is the ugly history of this planet. It’s history. let’s move forward is my opinion.

    I am just waiting for extraterrestrials to descend upon earth so we can just see ourselves as one human race.

    I say you keep kantha stitching, it is a gift from another culture, embrace and honor it with no feelings of “appropriation”.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love what Tierney says here. And I agree with her. I especially like the part about the aliens coming here so we could take a bigger picture of ourselves as the human race, all inclusive, each person and culture important, and full of beautiful details that make our world such a rich place (I may have been influenced by my devotion to the Star Trek series but I do mean it). And I think her last sentence is perfect – you clearly have a love for, a cherishing, of kantha, and you are sincere in all of your work you have made using it, it seems to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mariss

    This is beautiful work Mariss.

    I would love to know how you do these. The sampler under the March one is especially interesting to me because of the cosmic theme about which I am fixated.

    How can I find a tutorial or such?

    Love Judith

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh Maris, where are we now?
    I am completely bemused by ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and think that your post is sane, well-reasoned and timely. I am fearful of the repercussions of the nervous panic afoot about hurting / insulting / denigrating / disrespecting (whatever you want to call it these days – depending on your politics) other ethnicities, races, cultures. But artists are magpies, always have and always will be – one of the definitions of a great artist is that they take what they want from where they can and if they are artists (and not just copyists) they make it their own, usually by sheer imaginative power and that their greatness comes from the influence they have upon their own and following generations. Would we value so highly the wood cuts of Hiroshige, Utamaro or Hokusai if they had not been bought, copied and transformed by the 19th century European Artists and Craftsmen?

    What will happen if we start to question the ethics of, say, Art Nouveau – destroy an entire era of European art, craft and architecture because we appropriated the ideas found when the 19th century American Naval Commander Perry sailed with his black ships ( think war ships) to trade with the closed country of Japan?

    And to be even more personal – who do I upset if as a straight haired Celt, I perm my ginger hair?

    I must say I am a tad nervous sending this to you, as you must have been nervous writing your post – but thank you and for your personal imaginative uses of this beautiful simple stitching technique, which I first discovered by pulling too tight on some running stitches in a large wool embroidery of a sky, then decided to steam out the lovely but inappropriate ripples……years later I saw the decorative versions of it again in an Indian Textile exhibition and here I am still working with this technique !!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Janet, what a wonderful, informative reply. Thank you for sending it. Yes, I was nervous about writing the post, and thus appreciate your response all the more.
      Was fascinated to read that you stumbled upon Kantha style stitching by chance, as it were.
      Your view of artists as magpies and the explanation of how art is created is remarkable.
      To end on a personal note — I was taken aback when one of my daughters had her blond hair transformed into corncob rows!!


  4. I am a member of a minority culture, which clearly doesn’t allow me to speak for all minorities, but here’s my take. I think it depends on what you take and what you do with it. (I am Indian, but not Bengali). If you take an ancient technique, say kantha stitching, I would be proud and honored that you appreciate my culture to do so. Indians as a general rule are more communal and group oriented so they generally wouldn’t mind sharing. Yes, I know that is a stereotype. But if you take something, even kantha, and make lots of money off of it, then that would make me upset, because you are reducing our potential revenue. Also if you take something that is meaningful to us, like a religious symbol, and then use it willy nilly in your projects, that would make me upset, because you are downplaying my religion. I have made a quilt with Adinkra symbols and I was worried about this the whole time. Most of the people I see complaining about cultural appropriation are of a majority group trying to tell you what the minority thinks. Yes, you should think about it, but maybe take the source into consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Mariss – this is indeed a complex issue to engage with, but I agree that it is important to think about how power asymmetries and ignorance may lead to behaviour that is inappropriate or insensitive even if not overtly exploitative. It is great that your thoughtful post elicited considerate comments especially as cultural appropriation can be polarizing in a way that prevents discussion. It is a subject that I often think about.
    Coincidentally, this morning’s Daily Maverick carries an opinion piece by Ismail Lagardien titled “Who polices culture to prevent appropriation? Is prevention even necessary?”, which I though you might find interesting. In his discussion he acknowledges that cultural appropriate is real and can be rapacious, but he also raises interesting questions around ‘syncretism’, that culture is dynamic, that ‘tradition’ can be invented, that identities can be fluid/multiple. Here is the link
    I hope the edited link works! I think it is interesting that responses to Adele’s styling for the Notting HIll Carnival photo were so varied. Hopefully, such differences provide space for enlivened discussion and learning and not just finger pointing and what is sometimes termed virtue signalling. I also think there is a lot of space for humility and consideration, space that can all too easily be shut down.
    Thanks for tackling this contentious topic and for sharing your love for Kantha stitching.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Here is the unedited link to the Lagardien piece:

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your post highlights conversations I’ve been having with friends and family. April in San Antonio is (cancelled for the first time due to Covid) two weeks of celebrating Fiesta. There are events that celebrate the different cultures in our town. Is it cultural appropriation for non-Hispanic, Latinos to wear Mexican dresses and guayaberas? I’ve always appreciated Fiesta to be the celebration of every culture. Tierney is right about it being history. But I do believe we need to rethink the way our history is taught. No longer can we have history being taught to our children in such a narrow, one-sided view. We need to learn from our history. How did we treat each other in the past? What was good? What needs to change? What can we learn from each other. Maybe if we start fresh, looking back only to learn from our mistakes, and moving forward with the appreciation and value of every human being.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Where does any “art” “form” “decor” actually originate – yes I know I’m being a bit naive – but as I look around my workroom and at some of my finished articles – I could well be stepping on someone’s toes – from the point of view of culture, colour, type and so on…

    Tierney makes some excellent points on where the “line can and cannot be crossed” depending on the commentator via newsworthy or expert places…

    I do a lot of running stitch because I’ve hand disabilities and I can’t always be neat, make curves or even do angles correctly. Plus I use my sewing machine for some of the issues I have. Let’s not go into how I might cut up fabric and reposition is wrongly…


    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post and for expanding on my point that it is impossible, really, to avoid appropriating or copying others. I am so impressed that you stitch despite your hand disablities. You must be very determined!


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