March 19, 2021 22 Comments on About Cultural Appropriation
Recently we have been called out on social media for our extensive catalog of patterns that originate in the folk cultures of Asia and Southeast Asia. We appreciate this calling out.
Let's be honest - Folkwear develops and sells patterns based on garments from folk traditions from around the world. Many of these traditions are not our own. We do this in the belief that these are more than just clothing patterns. We hope to inspire and provoke interest and understanding of the deeper value of how clothing has helped shape the world. We believe that sewing is made richer, and therefore more enjoyable, when you understand more about the garments you have been inspired to make - including their histories and cultures. The whole reason Folkwear exists is because of cultural appreciation. We are working to balance the historical cultural context of the patterns we sell and the very real objectification and othering that is experienced by the people who identify with the cultures that created these garments. We should, can and will do better.
Some actions we are taking and will continue to take:
Once again, we welcome your feedback on our efforts. We thank those in the sewing community for urging us to do better. We do believe that to gain a true understanding and respect of all people, it is equally important to look a little deeper into the truths and realities of history.
We would also like to recommend some writing on this issue by others in the sewing/craft world:
Textiles Of The World: The Line Between Appreciation and Appropriation – Sewcialists (thesewcialists.com)
(1) When Does Cultural Appreciation Become Cultural Appropriation? | Yala Jewellery
April 05, 2023
Thanks Jacquline for your very succinct response (mine would have been much more longwinded!).
Fashion is inherently hierarchical (from Fashion weeks to Bangladeshi sweat shops). It’s not enough to assume that avoiding fast fashion by sewing our own clothes takes us outside this system (even if you are using thrifted fabric) because our personal fashion choices reflect our own social and cultural status. This is particularly evident with the resurgence of cottage core aesthetics which hark back to Western culture’s colonial past either through inspiration from Western historical dress (eg Regency or Edwardian fashions – which appropriated all manner of cultural expressions) or from the countries we colonised (eg. India or Palestine). In this way each pattern carries with it the history of many relationships between cultures.
Even if Folkwear’s patterns were shared through cultural appreciation, the wearing of these patterns evokes a past that is still present in our contemporary cultural relationships. These relationships are rarely equal. Think about it – what was the last headline you saw that included “Palestinian” or “Bolivian”? Did the article place the Western reader in an equal relationship with the non-western subject? Because of this unequal cultural context, it means something very different for a majority culture person to wear a sari or gaza dress than it does for a minority culture person. As a white woman I might be looked at strangely in this garb but for a south Asian or Palestinian woman living in a Western country, expressing their identity through their clothing could invoke anything from sexualisation to unwanted ‘compliments’ to blatant racism – not every moment of every day, but often enough to become an unwelcome and exhausting soundtrack. This is why Jaqueline refers to assimilation as a survival tactic. Talk with an open mind to people from these cultures and you’ll understand why appropriation is an issue. It’s not their job to educate you, but it might be a good basis for genuine cultural exchange.
One thing I love about Folkwear is that they do try to show respect for the original designs. The dirndl (admittedly a little different from the sari/gaza dress as it’s only just emerging from its own dirty history of Nazi appropriation) is a good example of this as it avoids the sexy Oktoberfest stereotype seen in so many commercial patterns. At no point do I ever feel that Folkwear have created patterns that reflect the way Western culture often ‘reads’ folk garments a as ‘exotic’. A glance through Simplicity or Butterick’s costume section will quickly reveal the difference. If we are choosing a folk garment for ‘fun’ or because it’s ‘something different’, we aren’t respecting the culture it came from any more than Gucci when they dressed models in Sikh turbans.
To counter this kind of appropriation, I’d like to see more cultural information in Folkwear’s packages. For instance they could commission people from these cultures to write about the evolution of the garments within their culture and include pictures of and links to contemporary designs to show how the patterns link to a diverse and continuing tradition. The way the garments are currently presented is static, as if there is just one gaza gown or one kimono, which is why it feels closer to appropriation than to appreciation. I’d also like to know more about that embroidery – I’d like to know exactly what each motif means, who gets to wear it and why – that way I could find out whether I was entitled to reproduce it in my own context.
Yes all this costs money, but some of these patterns have been around nearly 50 years, and surely any business that relies on cultural appropriation (as this page states) should be doing more than just paying their designers and using a few diverse models (by the way, some successful indie brands trade free trial patterns for evaluation and/or pictures – if you’re relying on friends and family, this may be a good way to achieve diversity). Invest in the cultures you’re representing and include some of the info and links from the pattern package on your website. As well as showing as shift from appropriation to appreciation, it will inspire customers and make them more likely to buy the patterns!
May 07, 2021
Back in the mid-seventies I came upon Folkwear and cherished the few patterns I could splurge on-just like now. I now came upon this site as I return to sewing that’s more than functional in mainstream life. A five minute look at blog made me think “so white” aka “so western” (models and designs) but I know we Folkwear lovers are more than that. I do want sewers from my extended Alaska Native/Indigenous folks and many others to always feel welcome to explore fashion and ancestral function in a sustainable way so carry on with sensitivity and sense of sharing. Gentleness and observing is way to go. We are more than meets the eye and we all can do more and empathize more.
April 15, 2021
Excellent discussion! I have to say the only real dividing lines are 1. profit without credit, and 2. violating something sacred.
Other than that, CREATE!
April 02, 2021
I appreciate these pieces on cultural appropriation, but they raise more questions than answers. One view seems to be that I can only wear a dirndl if I have German heritage, but another suggests I can make a Russian sarafan just because I like the style and cut and am not trying to “be” a Russian woman. I wonder if it is offensive to my black neighbor that my living room has pillows of African fabrics because I enjoyed a visit there. I am still confused.
April 01, 2021
I too have sewn and appreciated Folkwear since the ’70’s. I love history and other cultures and have always appreciated the opportunity to further my knowledge with the information each pattern has provided. To me that is the expectation of a Folkwear pattern. The diversity is an unlimited trove of inspiration, and celebrates the wonderful diversity in cultures around the world.
April 01, 2021
What? This is fashion, and fashion is all about appropriation. People who love clothes will steal any idea that’s good. Denim jeans (miners), hi-top sneakers (basketball), cowboy boots, Russian shawls, fringed suede jackets, epaulets, nehru collars, “harem” pants…our clothes would be pretty dull without stolen ideas.
April 01, 2021
You are fine. Your products do not make less of the culture that inspired them. Sharing and increased understanding benefit us all. The creation of the ‘the other’ that allows us to make sub groups of one another is a dangerous construct. We never look into the eyes of someone that God does not love. Our differences make us beautiful and interesting and need to be shared and reveled in. Imagine if we only came in ‘builders beige’ how boring it would be.
April 01, 2021
Elizabeth says it better than I could, but then I suspect she is a writer. I have been fascinated by Folkwear since the very first Gaza Dress ‘way back in the 70’s, and experience the same thrill today when I look at all the beautiful patterns available. I am so glad this company has been able to survive the changes in ownership, etc., and am dismayed that Folkwear feels the need to have to respond or apologize concerning cultural appropriation. In fact, since the first pattern was released, details have always been included concerning the traditional fabrics, details, embroidery, etc., in addition to providing inspiration to anyone wanting to create a garment. This care has only helped to spread knowledge and appreciation for other cultures. Isn’t that the point? To escape ethnocentrism and embrace each other as equally valuable? If the root of the complaint about cultural appropriation was concerning the ethnicity of who was modelling the garments, the pattern envelopes do illustrate the “correct” people (along with “others”) wearing the clothing. If the complaint concerns the photography on the website, the response from Folkwear seems appropriate, if overly apologetic. Carried to the extreme, we should all have DNA tests in order to determine which clothing we are allowed to wear.
April 01, 2021
People have forgotten the old aphorism. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. I have loved Folkwear since the seventies. I’ve always approached these clothes as a celebration of multiculturalism. Don’t let the virtue signalling ‘woksters’ grind you down.
May 12, 2023
April 13, 2023
Thank you for comments on this post. This company was founded on appreciation of diverse cultures, times past, garment history, sewing, and the people (mainly women) behind most garment construction, design, and embellishment. In the past several years, we have striven to add diversity in age, size, and ethnicity to our models. This company has always relied on accurate information about garment history and culture, and almost always uses references from the actual culture they come from, compensating those who help develop the patterns and acknowledging their contributions. The level of detail for embroidery and design in some of our patterns is extraordinary. We have always acknowledged where these come from and who helped develop them. And we continue to always to more and better (and will likely not always get things perfect).