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.

On Sewing Notions

I have been on a trip down memory lane, thanks to a tutorial by British textile artist Anne Kelly on how to make a textile book. She presented it on the Stitch Club platform last week. She suggested the theme of mapping a journey, using ephemera such as photos or postcards, old receipts, tickets, maps and brochures. Because I did not have any of these to hand I decided to use my mother’s old sewing bits and bobs. It has been gratifying to enfold these memories into a concertina book. (Footnote: with thanks to Asta for the word “enfold” and an acknowledgement to TextileArtist.org, the Stitch Club organisers).

The book of my mother’s sewing notions, in all its wonkiness

Given the ambiguity in the title of this little book I could also use it to store notes on stitching ideas (ha!). Should I confess that I recently had to be reminded that sewing notions refer to haberdashery? Now that I have looked it up I also know that the word in this context is only used in the plural and the full definition is “miscellaneous small wares, esp. cheap useful ingenious articles or haberdashery” (OED).

The method for making the book is also ingenious. The collected items of ephemera are sandwiched between a layer of cloth and a layer of tissue paper and held in place with a thinned solution of glue. As you may have noticed, I used old dress patterns instead of plain white tissue paper. The glueing part was scary, but I am pleased I screwed my courage to the sticking place and did it, because the result is a lovely surface which Anne Kelly likened to that of oil cloth. Once the glue dries the piece curls up on itself and needs to be ironed flat.

After this I could start on the machine and hand stitching. I am happy that my mother’s old sewing notions have been collected in one place. One of her tray cloths was used for the front and back covers. My enthusiasm got ahead of me and I made a very large book. The front and back pages are overstitched and the edges stablised with old fashioned boning wire.

Anne Kelly has a quietly refreshing approach. She encourages one to play and experiment; and not to strive for perfection but to be empowered through creating work. This is the second online workshop she has given through the good offices of TextileArtist.org. I wrote glancingly about her first challenge, where I practised on a piece of overdyed fabric instead of an old linen napkin as she had suggested. After this I did feel confident enough to appliqué and overstich on a pair a napkins.

Finishing line

At last the African Hoopoe tapestry cushion cover is finished. I know I have twice posted progress photographs of this work, but could not resist celebrating its completion as it’s been a long time in the making.

On Concertina Books

This year I have been to two classes (one real, one virtual) where I learnt to make a concertina book and next week I will be making yet another one under the guidance of Anne Kelly at a Stitch Club workshop. They say things come in threes and I am happy to have discovered this simple but effective way of making a book and to have three opportunities to learn from skilled artists who are also good teachers.

Concertina book made from card and embellished with fabric, paint and stitch

This paper concertina book was started at an art journaling class with Sally Scott at the beginning of the year, when the Corono virus was but a vague threat on a distant horizon. (One of the things I really miss in our new reality are the monthly Saturday morning classes with Sally. There’s a previous post about this.) Even though I had taken a big bag of art supplies to that art journaling class, I found I wanted to work with fabric (ha!). A kind classmate gave me free reign to rummage through the pile of scraps and yarns that she had brought along. I used one of her textile scraps to hinge the short strips of paper and to decorate the front cover (15 x 15 cm) of the concertina book.

Sally’s classes are always liberating and I filled the first first page with some notes and a bit of stitching of wool onto card. When I got home I filled the blank pages with fabrics and materials given to me by friends. (Laura take note.) It has thus become a memento amici.

Last month Mandy Pattullo, one of the tutors for the TextileArtist.org Stitch Club, showed us how to make a fabric concertina book using textile scraps with collage and stitch. The book was made from a 96 x 12 cm strip of fabric, which was then folded to make eight square pages. The designs were stitched across a double page spread.

She encouraged us to use cloth from worn-out favourite garments and it was just what I needed to hear because it meant I could do something with a much loved scarf that had fallen into holes. I also used bits from an old silk shirt that had become threadbare around the cuffs.

A peak into the folded pages of the fabric concertina book made in response to Mandy Pattullo’s workshop.

I enjoyed the gentle stitching through the layers of worn cloth and embellished the pages with some kantha style stitching in variegated silk thread. It is difficult to photograph the book and the above is to simply give an idea of the fun I had in the making of the piece.

At least three of the artists that have given Stitch Club workshops use vintage materials in their textile art and have encouraged us to do the same. Here follows Mandy Pattullo’s statement on why she favours this way of working:

I treasure the old and worn, refashioning vintage textiles into new collages
which are then embellished with stitch and appliqué. I am a great believer
in using what you already have or can source second-hand. I recycle and
reuse very old and often disintegrating materials into new patchworks. I
cut up old quilts, unpick them, darn, appliqué and construct new textile
collages, usually embellishing with simple embroidery and traditional
appliqué techniques.

My work relates to the thrift and ‘make-do and mend’ culture of past times,
in particular utility patchworks and quilts made by women in domestic
settings. My collages, fabric books, large wall quilts and garments bring
together precious fragments to form evocative compositions. The viewer
is forced to re-examine fabrics that have become flawed through wear and
tear, to find in them a new beauty

Mandy Pattullo

On Distractedness

Although the word distractedness is “long rare” (OED), it aptly describes my present state. The choice this week was between not writing a post at all or publishing a failed piece of stitching. The stitching of my latest kantha sampler didn’t go smoothly and I think it was partly because of my distractedness and partly because of its subject matter (the COVID curve).

Kantha sampler for the month of July 2020. (19 x 29 cm; 7.5 x 11.5″)

The lesson learnt is to keep a careful check on the placing of the stitches when working along the concave side of a curved line, and also not to absent-mindedly reverse the direction of the stitches. This is why the stitching in the centre of the piece is messy and does not echo the pattern established by the plum coloured stitching. As noted before, a sampler is a learning device and does not need to be perfect. But if there were not six samplers that preceded this one I might have been tempted to put it into my scrap basket.

I will not write about the distressing coronavirus statistics. But there is an uncanny coincidence. It was mid-July when I started stitching the sampler and at that time the number of new daily cases stopped increasing and started to see-saw up to and below the highest recorded number. I tell you this to explain the other messy bit of stitching in the top right hand corner of the piece.

On a frivolous, but more cheerful, note here is a photograph of my current stitching project.

These African Hoopoe birds were stitched from a cross stitch pattern. Now I am filling in the background with tapestry wool and intend to turn it into a cushion cover once it is square. The monotonous green stitching is a bit painstaking, but is also a nice mindless activity as a salve to my distractedness!

Today I learnt that the word distraught is a variant spelling of distract. I had not realised it was such a strong word. For the record, the meaning that I had in mind was “diversion of attention from a particular object or course” and not “extreme perturbation of mind or feelings”.

A delightful diversion this past weekend was signing onto the Beyond the Festival of Quilts website to binge-watch the online lectures, and workshops, and to visit the virtual galleries of solo exhibitions and to view the competition quilts that had been entered. What a feast! Apart from the masterclasses, all these were offered for free. The site is still active.

Poem #34


Hovering not in but on a threshold,
I ripped and sewed strips,
layer upon layer,
band after band, 
unashamedly imitating
Klee’s painted lines from
In the Sixth Threshold.
Mesmerised by the line, the colours, the mystery 
of what threshold he crossed
and whether it was possible
to follow his steps, I sewed
in bigger bolder sweeps,
suspended thought
as line and colour, thread and needle
became the focus of uncounted strips
running downward 
through the sixth threshold
into unnamed realms.

On Circles

Thoughts about the shape and form and significance of the circle have been going round and round in my mind and have formed a kind of whirlpool of ideas that I can’t quite pin down. Strange times call for strange posts about strange thoughts. I have been appreciating seasonal certainties and am ever grateful for my garden with its regular tasks like sweeping up fallen leaves and pruning shrubs before winter leaves the southern hemisphere.

Stitching, too, provides a sense of certainty. My response to this week’s TextileArtist.org Stitch Club tutorial was this ‘unintended’ circle :

A piece made in response to this week’s Stitch Club tutorial given by Gregory T. Wilkins

The challenge from Gregory T. Wilkins certainly nudged me out of my comfort zone. He urged us to get rid of the blank page by first making marks on paper or cloth with paints, pens, or anything else to hand. I recently treated myself to a small set of Inktense pencils and blocks and used them to create the background on a piece of lightweight, wet canvas. When it was dry I started to stitch a small circle with fine tapestry wool. The circle became bigger and bigger as I settled into the good feeling of the sharp needle gliding surprisingly easily through the canvas. Then I decided to weave gold thread under the longer stitched rows and finally bordered the circle with two rows of gold stitches to define the round shape. I enjoyed the kantha-style stitching more than the painting (!) and am happily surprised to have made a shining sun against the dark background.

The circle is, of course, a weighty symbol. It is also a rich word and I looked it up (as is my wont) in the OED and was delighted to be reminded of some of its meanings and associations : a perfectly round plane figure; an imaginary circle on the celestial sphere or terrestrial globe; a ring; a luminous ring in the sky; a halo; the orbit of a planet; a fairy-ring; area on a playing field, court, or rink; dark mark below the eye; a crown; circus ring; a ring of standing stones; curved tier of seats in a theatre; the area of influence or action; a vicious circle; a class or division of society; a spiritual seance; a railway or road forming a closed loop; circle dance.

To return to the theme of gardening, I have constructed a paved circular path in my garden during the COVID lockdown. My gardening-stitching friend who is also a wordsmith referred to it as a flat cairn when I told her I was collecting flat stones during my daily walks through the veld (bush). It is a perfect description for this marker (or reminder) of the days of lockdown. After those first 21 days of complete lockdown I and my dog were so pleased to be able to walk in the wilds.

Finishing line

Tomorrow (25 July) there is another TRADE at Home virtual market on Facebook and I have made a new batch of draught excluders and a baby quilt for my “market table”.

NOTE to my regular readers. I inadvertently found the umlaut button and so next time can type lamé correctly. Yay!