Another Man's Trash

I have to admit that my first quilt made from recycled clothing was not inspired by my otherwise fervent attempts to reduce my carbon footprint. Sure, I never take my tiny smart car grocery shopping, no matter how little gas it uses: I always walk, pulling behind me a little old-lady’s cart for heavy loads. I never use plastic bags, not even for produce. Don’t get me started on dryer sheets or fabric softeners... I use the same big bottle of perfume-free Castile soap for all my cleaning needs, including my own body. I have planted flowers and trees in my yard that benefit birds, bees and insects. I virtually never order takeout because of those pesky Styrofoam containers and I buy the majority of my clothing at thrift stores. If I buy in clothes in regular stores I make sure they are classy and last for years. 

At my local Goodwill. In the background you can see the crowds waiting for the 4 o’ clock bins to be pushed in.

At my local Goodwill. In the background you can see the crowds waiting for the 4 o’ clock bins to be pushed in.

It must have been on one of my Goodwill hunts that I noticed several good-quality men’s shirts that were stained too badly to be worn but still good enough to be cut apart and turned into quilts.

The insanity of our country’s consumerism is best epitomized in the long lines in front of electronic stores whenever a new gadget is released. Sadly, this consumerism is mirrored by quilting groups whose members proudly compare their gigantic stacks of fabric. In line with our fast-fashion culture, the members are competing with their plastic bins and shelves brimming with unused fabric. With new designs popping up every few days allegedly beating the latest trend, consumption and waste is encouraged. We want more and more, newer and newer, oblivious of the impact fabric production has on the environment.

“Textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping,” the journal Nature writes. “[L]arge proportions of clothing manufacturing occurs in China and India, countries which rely on coal-fuelled power plants, increasing the footprint of each garment. It has been stated that around 5% of total global emissions come from the fashion industry.” 

The UN estimates that “[t]he fashion industry, including the production of all clothes which people wear, contributes to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production.”

Via Trusted Clothes, a company that fights textile industry abuses

Via Trusted Clothes, a company that fights textile industry abuses

Even if we are committed to using the best natural cotton, we are faced with the following dilemmas, according to Textile Today: “60% of irrigation water in Central and Southern Asia is lost before reaching cotton fields because of poor infrastructure. 1.5% of world’s annual energy is consumed by industrial fertilizer production. Being a key consumer of fertilizer, cotton plays huge role in global climate change.”

The dyeing industry, with its toxic wastewater that leaks into streams and oceans poisoning and killing fish and marine life, is considered to be the most polluting of all the industries given its volume and composition.

And if this weren’t enough, each year Americans throw away 13 million tons of textiles, accounting for 9 percent of total non-recycled waste. 85% of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated because their materials cannot not be reused. While thrift stores generally appreciate the donation of gently used clothes, they, too, have their limits. “Since the reality TV show ‘Tidying Up With Marie Kondo’ made its debut on Netflix in January, used-goods stores have been inundated with donations,” writes the Wall Street Journal. Some Goodwill stores have seen an increase in donations of 35%, but not everything can, in fact, be recycled. Much still ends up on landfills. “Since the show launched,” writes Fox Business, “many secondhand shops are receiving mass quantities of unsellable stuff — from moth-infested clothing to broken appliances and toys.”

Gearldine Westbrook, “Blocks And Strips,” Work-Clothes Quilt. Made in 1950. Photo courtesy of Souls Grown Deep.  © 2018 Photo via    Design Sponge

Gearldine Westbrook, “Blocks And Strips,” Work-Clothes Quilt. Made in 1950. Photo courtesy of Souls Grown Deep. © 2018 Photo via Design Sponge

In the past, quilters have often used old fabric scraps to create unrivaled beauties. Out of necessity, the women of Gee’s Bend have for more than a century turned old work clothes into stunning quilts.

America Irby, “One Patch,” Tied, 1970, 91 x 78 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston via  Souls Grown Deep

America Irby, “One Patch,” Tied, 1970, 91 x 78 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston via Souls Grown Deep

Later, when some of the Gee’s Bend women worked at the Freedom Quilting Bee, which during its early years had a contract to manufacture dashikis, they incorporated leftover scraps of dashiki into their own quilts.

One could argue that the necessity of using old material enabled the women to invent modern abstraction long before modern painters like Joseph Albers, Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella came along and claimed hard-edge abstraction as their own invention.

Working with recycled fabric brings its own challenges—and opportunities. It has tested my integrity. How could I justify my allegiance with all things furry, scaly and feathered if I were to rely on fabric that contributes to environmental destruction? It is a challenge, of course, to create animals from prescribed patterns and a limited color palette. The fabric pieces I end up with are often smaller than fabric by the yard. This means I have to get creative when making my animals. I am lucky, though, because I prefer to use high-quality, 100% cotton, so men’s shirts are the perfect medium. For example, the blue and gray patterned hues so common in sea life lent themselves for a marine life quilt.

Sabine Heinlein, Fish quilt, 2018. To see the whole quilt and read more about it,  click here . Photo: Rebecca Krasnik

Sabine Heinlein, Fish quilt, 2018. To see the whole quilt and read more about it, click here. Photo: Rebecca Krasnik

One time I came across a gigantic pair of old long johns with flames on both sides. I was sure that no one in their right mind would wear this relic from the ‘80s but it made the perfect tail of a rooster. Crown, beak and feet I made from old silk ties. Believe me, it’s a regal beast.

Sabine Heinlein,  Rooster Today , 2019, Photo: Rebecca Krasnik

Sabine Heinlein, Rooster Today, 2019, Photo: Rebecca Krasnik

Luckily, the textile community seems to be catching on to the opportunities of recycling and upcycling fabric. The Brooklyn company FABSCRAP picks up fabric and clothes from designers and factories and consolidates them in their warehouse in Queens. The fabric scraps are sorted by volunteers, who in return get to keep up to five pounds of fabric of their choice. Artists, crafters, quilters, students and teachers are invited to make an appointment to shop for scraps. Larger pieces of fabric are sold online through FABSCRAP’S partner Queen of Raw.

I really appreciate working with the challenges of reclaimed textiles and making a small difference for our environment and the animals with whom we share this world. I don’t think I would have made a chameleon baby quilt had it not been for the shirt scraps that I had left over from my fish quilt. Access to the newest and “coolest” fabrics can, in fact, hinder the creative process. First, it excludes those who can’t afford to buy new textiles they think they need to compete with the larger quilting community. And second, necessity is the mother of invention – and the aunt of creativity, challenging you to improvise and come up with ideas you would have not otherwise had.

Chameleon baby quilt  made from men’s shirts from Goodwill. 2019. Photo: Rebecca Krasnik.

Chameleon baby quilt made from men’s shirts from Goodwill. 2019. Photo: Rebecca Krasnik.

PUPPETRY!

I recently awoke from anesthesia with the persistent idea that I must make a rabbit puppet from men’s shirts from Goodwill. I worked from mid-morning to night and voilà!

Sabine Heinlein, April 2019

Sabine Heinlein, April 2019

The next day I happened to come across Chacay Burial Dolls. (My bunny puppet is way too cute, I decided.)

Chancay    Textile Doll , between c. 1000 and 1450 AD,, cotton, wool, wood. 12 ″x5.5 ″x1.4 ″,   Walters Art Museum

Chancay Textile Doll, between c. 1000 and 1450 AD,, cotton, wool, wood. 12 ″x5.5 ″x1.4 ″, Walters Art Museum

Originally, Chacay Burial Dolls were placed in the graves of the dead 1,000-1,400 years ago in Peru. Today, indigenous women emulate these ancient burial dolls by making their own dolls out of ragged pieces of textiles looted from Pre-Columbian gravesites.

There are only speculations on what the ancient models were meant to represent. Were they depictions of the deceased? Or were they meant to be companions or protectors in the afterlife?

The burial dolls’ bodies and heads are composed of reed or other kinds of natural fiber; their tunic-like robes from fabric layers are held together with yarn and large stitches. String and bandanas hold together “hair.” Sometimes the figures cradle a baby or a musical instrument. 

Contemporary “Chancay Burial Doll,” with textile the seller claims is from 1200 CE. Via  eBay .

Contemporary “Chancay Burial Doll,” with textile the seller claims is from 1200 CE. Via eBay.

The way contemporary women recycle fabric and keep tradition alive via ancient textile fragments is fascinating. Maggie Ordon, curator of history for the Montana Historical Society, explains that the act of looting gravesites to recycle traditional fabric and turn it into dolls brings up a host of questions: “How do these dolls fit into the larger question of cultural property, Peru’s national claim to ownership of ethnological materials in the country, the rights of the indigenous population, and the relationship of tourists and museums to these objects and people?”

Chancay Textile Doll,  c. 1000-1400 AD, with woven facial features and carrying a coca bag with feather drops, Lucite stand, ht. 10 in. Via  Skinner Inc.

Chancay Textile Doll, c. 1000-1400 AD, with woven facial features and carrying a coca bag with feather drops, Lucite stand, ht. 10 in. Via Skinner Inc.

Completely different yet related in that they are wild-looking and made from used fabric, the dolls of Bauhaus artist Paul Klee look brutal almost and definitely dead. They have big teeth and heavy clown makeup. It’s hard to believe that his little son, for whom Klee made the dolls between 1916 and 1925, wasn’t haunted by these dolls in his sleep. A skeleton in a white linen robe; a ghost in a ribbed yellow dress; an angry creature with horns and patched scarf and brown cloak. (This Flickr gallery of Klee’s puppets is excellent!)

Some of the scary puppets Paul Klee made for his son between 1916 and 1925. Via  Flickr .

Some of the scary puppets Paul Klee made for his son between 1916 and 1925. Via Flickr.

Around the same time as Klee, Dadaists Emmy Hennings and Hannah Höch were creating their own puppets. Compared to Klee’s, Höch’s puppets are sweet looking and nimble almost. But their long skinny limbs are disproportionate to the rest of their bodies. Forced to balance their tiny wooden heads on small muscular rumps, Höch’s puppets often wear short and sphere-like skirts that surround their bottoms like an umbrella. A carefully designed fabric blouse only partially obscures their small round breasts.

Two of Hannah Höch’s dolls. Via  Artstack .

Two of Hannah Höch’s dolls. Via Artstack.

Swiss Dadaist Emmy Hennings with one of her dolls. 1917.

Swiss Dadaist Emmy Hennings with one of her dolls. 1917.

I’m not sure if I will follow Höch, Hennings and Klee down the puppetry path. Although I have to admit, I have already taken the first few steps. First the bunny puppet, and now… I’ve been spending a lot of time with the pigeons at the Wild Bird Center in Manhattan lately. I just couldn’t help myself. C’mon guys! Who can say no to a scruffy pigeon in a suit???

Sabine Heinlein, April 2019

Sabine Heinlein, April 2019

A Trip to Kuna Yala

I was wondering where my next adventure would take me when I came across the excellent book The Mola: Traditional Kuna Textile Art by Edith Crouch (Shiffer Publishing, 2011). Captivated by these colorful textiles, I started planning my next trip.

Mola artist in Playon Chico. Note the beaded leg wrappings. And the skirt. And the blouse. And the molas, of course. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Mola artist in Playon Chico. Note the beaded leg wrappings. And the skirt. And the blouse. And the molas, of course. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Hand-appliquéd molas form the bottom part of the blouse of the Kuna (or Guna) women. The blouses are complemented by a headscarf, golden jewelry, a wrapped, patterned skirt featuring palm trees, birds or pineapples. The women, who formerly painted their legs, now wear a type of bottomless “sock” made from tiny beads. I have rarely I admired a people’s sense of fashion more than that of the Kuna women.

In early March, my husband and I flew to Panama City. From there we took off to Playon Chico (“Big Little Beach”), one of the 364 islands in the comarca Kuna Yala, a semi-autonomous, indigenous territory located off the Caribbean coast of Panama, formerly known as San Blas. We wanted to visit some of the women who have been making molas for the better part of their lives.

Approaching Playon Chico (biting my nails). ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Approaching Playon Chico (biting my nails). ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

 After an adventurous flight in a tiny propeller plane, we landed at the minuscule one-strip airport of Playon Chico. It was good to see from the air the wide swaths of virgin rain forest, yet at the airport things looked very different. A plane had crashed only two weeks before our arrival, adding to the mounds of garbage surrounding the airport and beach.

A man returning to Playon Chico from his fishing trip. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

A man returning to Playon Chico from his fishing trip. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Our guide took us to the Yandup Lodge, a scattering of charming seaside cabins on another tiny island, a ten-minute boat-ride from Playon Chico. Yandup Island was pristine, and it was easy to forget the garbage dump surrounding Playon Chico.

Our oversea cabin on Yandup Island. It was a bit unsettling to sleep with the waves swooshing right under our bed. ©sabineheinlein 2019

Our oversea cabin on Yandup Island. It was a bit unsettling to sleep with the waves swooshing right under our bed. ©sabineheinlein 2019

 One afternoon we went into town, where our Kuna guide introduced us to some of the mola artists. (The artists, I read, are comprised of cisgender women, but also count some transgender women, omekit, who enjoy great freedom and acceptance among the Kuna).  

Laundry day. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Laundry day. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Playon Chico counts roughly 3,000 inhabitants who live in “pole”-style thatch huts with leaf-covered roofs and simple outhouses at the end of small docks. Fresh laundry was fluttering in the wind. This afternoon, a big boat had docked in front of the “town square,” which we were told “sometimes has internet.” The boat’s Colombian traders were in the process of picking up coconuts for the coconut oil production in their native country, whose border lies 80 miles southeast. Despite its small size, Playon Chico has a comparatively wide main street where women display their art and children play and roughhouse amidst raucous laughter, followed by a slew of dogs and cats. Sadly, many of the women’s molas were bleached out by the sun, and business seemed limited to two artisans whose molas were in spotless condition.

Main Street, Playon Chico. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Main Street, Playon Chico. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

 Molas are often judged by whether they are the more modern, conventional appliqué or the traditional, more time-consuming reverse appliqué, in which fabrics are first sewn together in layers, then cut away from the top in patterns revealing the fabric underneath.

Artist posing with a little wooden sculpture we bought. We were told that the sculpture helps shamans communicate with the sick spirit. I keep it close to my sewing machine. ©sabineheinlein 2019

Artist posing with a little wooden sculpture we bought. We were told that the sculpture helps shamans communicate with the sick spirit. I keep it close to my sewing machine. ©sabineheinlein 2019

 At first sight the difference is hardly noticeable and to me the judgment seems misplaced. Yes, reverse-applique is more labor-intensive, but who judges art by the time it takes to make? Besides, at $25 a mola, who could blame them for taking the faster route? After all, cost of living in Panama is almost as high as in the U.S. What counts is the concept, the composition and the sensitivity of the design.

Mola Display on Main Street, Playon Chico. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Mola Display on Main Street, Playon Chico. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

 Taught by tourists who have read that reverse appliqué is more valuable, regardless of concept and design, the Kuna women in Playon Chico were quick to point out the multiple layers that went into their molas.

Grinning Jesus mola. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

Grinning Jesus mola. ©Sabine Heinlein 2019

 The molas’ subjects are varied and range from flora and fauna commonly found on the islands—think crabs, starfish, exotic flowers and birds—to abstract geometric patterns, Kuna mythology and, occasionally, a grinning Jesus on the cross. (Naturally, I bought one of the latter.) One mola I saw featured pipes and, at first, I thought that this motif was geared at pipe-smoking tourists, until I saw that Kuna women commonly smoke pipes. Edith Crouch’s book also features molas tackling more “modern” imagery, such as helicopters and planes. Looking at the molas one can’t help but wonder whether Keith Haring’s work was inspired by the art of the Kuna women.

Me taking a close look at my purchases (secretly beaming). ©Giovanni Garcia-Fenech 2019

Me taking a close look at my purchases (secretly beaming). ©Giovanni Garcia-Fenech 2019

The sale of molas to tourists constitutes an important income source for women, who, Steven G. Snow writes, now often out-earn their husbands, who fish for lobster and sell coconuts to Colombians. This, some argue, has exacerbated the divisions among men and women. Snow laments that Kuna women have adapted to the tourism market, abandoning traditional motifs and selling instead “Hard Rock Café: San Blas” molas. This made me wonder why we want to limit indigenous people to their traditional motifs while we, tourists, are free to explore and follow our inspiration and business instincts. I didn’t find the often-lamented loss of artistic traditions a problem; as far as I could see, high-quality, artistically relevant molas were going strong, regardless of the subject matter.

The Saber-Toothed Tiger

I am a big fan of all things cat, and saber-toothed tigers have held a particular place in my heart and imagination. Characterized by long, curved saber-shaped canine teeth that possibly extended from the mouth even when it was closed (magic, I know), the saber-toothed “tiger” (“Smilodon”) wasn’t a tiger at all. She didn’t live or hunt like the modern tiger and she didn’t even have stripes. In fact, since fur decomposes much faster than bones we don’t know what kind of coat the saber-tooth wore. What we do know is that she was stocky.

Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis). Credit: Indiana State Museum, via:  Indiana University

Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis). Credit: Indiana State Museum, via: Indiana University

With a skeleton that compares more to that of a bear than a tiger, she was about a foot shorter than today’s lions but nearly twice as heavy. Found in North America and Europe, this type of cat ruled the world from about 16 million until 11,000 years ago. They used their saber-teeth to stab bison, horses, sloths and mammoths.

Unlike today’s tigers, saber-toothed tigers were social creatures. Bone fossils suggest that crippled saber-tooths limped around for years, which might mean that they were “cared for” by their peers.

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So if saber-toothed tigers were so caring and powerful, why did they go extinct? Researcher Larisa DeSantis, a vertebrate paleontologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told LiveScience, "The popular theory for the megafaunal extinction is that either the changing climate at the end of the last ice age or human activity, or some combination of the two, killed off most of the large mammals. In the case of the great cats, we expect that it would have been increasingly difficult for them to find prey, especially if they had to compete with humans. We know that when food becomes scarce, carnivores like the great cats tend to consume more of the carcasses they kill. If they spent more time chomping on bones, it should cause detectable changes in the wear patterns on their teeth."

The saber-toothed tiger’s long, stocky appearance make her a perfect subject for a king-size headboard. I was also excited that I could create my own fur pattern. Not that anyone dictates the patterns I choose for my animals, but I found that the more I know about an animal’s real appearance the less bold I get. And never mind that the saber-toothed tiger didn’t have a long tail but a stubby, lynx-link protrusion. Thankfully, I didn’t find out about her silly stub until I had created this beautiful large-tailed beast.

Made from Kona cotton, 100% cotton batting and Finca Presencia cotton thread, this kitty is for sale. Contact me for details.

Quilting as a Social Medium

Pacific Standard Magazine (whom I’ve written for in the past) just published an interesting article by Sarah C. Rich about the Social Justice Sewing Academy, which organizes quilting circles for activist youth in American schools. The organization was inspired by the 23-year-old founder Sara Trail, who first used quilting in high school to express her intense feelings about Trayvon Martin’s death.

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy:  Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy: Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy:  Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy: Social Justice Sewing Academy

While quilting has the reputation of just being a hobby for grandmothers, it has always been a mode of communication and, at times, a political tool. Lucinda Ward Honstain’s “Reconciliation Quilt,” from 1867, for example, depicts key moments of the Civil War. An anonymous 19th-century quilter made her feelings known about women’s suffrage. In 1987, the AIDS Memorial Quilt made visible the lives of those lost in the epidemic on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Recently, quilting as a tool of resistance has experienced a revival at QuiltCon 2018, the Modern Quilt Guild’s annual convention. While sometimes heavy-handed and failing to take the medium into consideration, the works serve as a good example of how quilts can be utilized to express political anger and fear.

Lucinda Ward Honstain (1820-1904): “Reconciliation Quilt,” 1867.

Lucinda Ward Honstain (1820-1904): “Reconciliation Quilt,” 1867.

What’s most interesting about Sarah Rich’s Pacific Standard article is her equation of quilting and social media. Maybe this is what it takes to get young people involved, as quilting might seem too quiet and slow to hold teenagers’ attention. But it goes far beyond that. 

“It’s hardly a modern hobby but has always been a kind of social media,” Rich writes. “For centuries, quilting circles have been a space for women to discuss their lives and to seek support. And quilts themselves have served as a mode of communication where others failed or posed a threat.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC

The AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC

Today it is rare that women sit together quilting one giant piece while discussing the world’s woes. We are no longer confined to our living rooms, and social media has made it easy to spread and exchange images and ideas, creating an illusion of togetherness.

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy:  Social Justice Sewing Academy

“The Activist’s ABC,” photo courtesy: Social Justice Sewing Academy

There is something to be said about the power of community of times past as it unfolded around the quilting frame. One could benefit from the meditative experience of quilting, while creating a “social medium” that has the power to spread love and fight injustice. Collaborative quilts for donation to children’s hospitals and Abolitionist Quilts that raised funds for the cause are good examples.

Modern social media, on the other hand, often leaves the quilter isolated, fighting his or her demons in the quiet of one’s home. The Social Justice Sewing Academy seeks to change that--ironically, through the help of real social media. “Through Instagram, Trail has built a worldwide network of seasoned quilters, to whom she mails the students’ fabric squares for final stitching,” Rich writes. “Most volunteers are older, white, and living in places where they rarely come into direct contact with youth from marginalized communities.” As such, messages of resistance are distributed not just via a tiny photo on Instagram to be “liked” by people who will forget it in seconds, but are carried out together. Quilts make protest real and tangible, building and reaching communities who would otherwise be spared from contemplating the injustice that plagues modern day America.

The Camel Quilt Is Done!!!

At long last, the camel quilt is done. And I’m very pleased with it. What fun to be able to incorporate tassels and pompoms and beads! What do you think?

As I wrote in a previous blog post, this quilt was inspired by my recent vacation in Jordan. The little “plaque” on the quilt reads “From the middle I pick you.” I saw it on the side of a 4x4 pickup. It was accompanied by a little graphic of five little figures and a hand picking up the one in the middle. I loved the sticker so much that I decided to incorporate its message in this quilt.

Please contact me for prices.

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The Mexican Tourist Jacket

I was searching the Internet for inspiration to embroider an old, black wool poncho that I had tired of, and I came across the little-known fad of Mexican tourist jackets from the 1940s and ’50s. Adorned with colorful folkloric scenes, these embroidered wool jackets were made in Mexico for American tourists. Unlike Mexican floral shirts, which were primarily intended for Mexicans but eventually caught on in the U.S., I think it’s safe to assume that Mexicans never wore these garments. Funnily, my Mexican husband had never heard of the Mexican tourist jacket, despite his keen interest in Mexican folk art.

As you can see, the jackets are made with care, featuring lively donkeys, cacti, flowers and village scenes. A popular trope is the couple engaged in play and dance. I particularly like that the embroidery in these jackets is kind of rough, with the artist using big stitches with thick wool thread, as opposed to thinner cotton or silk thread, which would have allowed for more detail. This gives the jackets the kind of folksy flair that I strive for in my quilts. That the jackets often feature animals helps, of course.

Courtesy  Petrune

Courtesy Petrune

On the other hand, the imagery raises a host of questions. What was it that attracted Americans to these garments? What kind of fantasies did they conjure up? And would it be insensitive to wear them today?

Life in America during that time was conservative and constrained, particularly for women, the target consumer of these souvenirs. This attire might have allowed the female wearer to express a desire that had been thwarted. As such, the jackets are a testament to an environment that was not only warmer, both physically and emotionally, but also more colorful and passionate. Maybe the jacket allowed American women to feel free and liberated, if just for a moment. Or maybe it was a convenient way to show off one’s worldliness? Like, “Look, I have been to exotic places and I am carrying a bit of their effervescence with me.” American couture of the time might have looked bland and inhibited in comparison.

Courtesy  Ohio Vintage JM

A quick search for “embroidered Mexican tourist jacket” on Etsy yields 41 results. The examples range in price from $30 and $215. Wondering if anyone shared my concern about the imagery, I quickly found out that there are, inevitably, two camps. On the one side are people like Atomic Redhead who, on her fashion blog, admits that she’s attempting to own a Mexican jacket in every color. “[I]t’s kind of hard to have one jacket that goes with every outfit, but since these jackets often have so many colors, it makes it easy to pair it with anything!” She writes. In her view, wearing a Mexican jacket is celebrating Mexican culture.

Courtesy  Petrune

Courtesy Petrune

The other camp argues that it is simply wrong to appropriate and exploit the styles of indigenous people, particularly if one knows nothing about their culture. Still, some people are more nuanced in their judgment, pointing out that these jackets were specifically made for Americans, providing income, pride and exposure to the women who made them. For the most part, they aren’t mean caricatures; buying and wearing a jacket like this honors the women’s labor and creativity. This, they say, differs from American companies who replicate and exploit someone else’s culture without giving back. (The popular Pendleton blankets have been in the crossfire for exactly that reason.)

But when it comes to cultural appropriation I wonder where the line is drawn. One perceptive comment, featured on Gertie’s Blog For Better Sewing, mentions our love for French couture. If I love to wear Paul Gautier, does that mean I, who may have never set foot on France, am appropriating French culture? Or better yet, was it insensitive of me to start cooking Mexican food before I had ever been to Mexico? Granted, my husband grew up in Mexico, but he can’t cook and, at the beginning, my food was far from authentic.

As always, I think, the devil is in the detail. Personally, I would shy away from wearing a jacket that features a Mexican in a sombrero sleeping under a cactus. This kind of stereotype is a personal insult to my hard-working Mexican husband and my in-laws, not to mention millions of other Mexicans. But is it wrong to find excitement and inspiration in the jackets’ floral patterns and their vibrant depiction of couples dancing among cacti? I don’t think so. In my book, nobody owns a dancing couple, or a cactus for that matter.

Courtesy  Trunk of Dresses

For now, I have decided on a different kind of embroidery for my poncho. Today the new Boden catalog arrived. It features wool sweaters with the Norwegian designs that are ubiquitous this winter. However, instead of reindeers, my poncho will feature camels that dance around my shoulders. If I’m not too lazy, I might add some “Florentine Embroidery.” Legend has it that the design was introduced by a Hungarian bride who married into the Medici family in Florence in the 15th century. The pattern has been found in Florence in great abundance ever since, making the question of appropriation moot by this point.

The Camel-In-Progres

This fall my husband and I went to Jordan. It was an adventurous trip that included a speeding ticket, a flat tire in the desert, a spectacular rescue and, most importantly, dromedaries. Dromedaries were everywhere. Unlike the donkeys who often seemed neglected and abused, dromedaries looked by and large well taken care of. We don’t know for certain because of the large animal’s stoicism. (Though I swear I heard them speaking whole sentences. Seriously, the variety of sounds a dromedary can emit is mind-boggling.) I love the dromedary’s weird way of getting up and down, its comical mouth, and, yes, its camel toes. Feeding cucumbers and apples to two dromedaries was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

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The interior of a communal Bedouin goat hair tent. The rugs here are similar to the ones seen on camels.

The interior of a communal Bedouin goat hair tent. The rugs here are similar to the ones seen on camels.

Another highlight was the long, meditative ride on a dromedary through the desert of Wadi Rum (pronounced like the liquor). While on the large animal’s back, I wondered how the saddle is designed to fit the hump. The saddle is a pile of geometrically patterned rugs equipped with colorful tassels, pompoms and tethered strings. It adds to the dromedary’s (or camel’s) regal appearance. Our Bedouin guide told us that camels and dromedaries are generally revered because their milk enhances male fertility. It turns guys into studs. One man in the village, the guide said, had 35 children because he drank so much camel milk!

Prehistoric petroglyph

Prehistoric petroglyph

Byzantine church mosaic, Madaba

Byzantine church mosaic, Madaba

In Wadi Rum, the sand is red. It’s a landscape that’s reminiscent of the American Southwest. There are drawings of animals and humans carved into rocks by the Nabatean tribes who once lived there. Later, at the archeological museum in Amman, we see a camel carved into red rock; in one of the fine church mosaics of Madaba, a spotted dromedary is led on a leash.

How could I say no to a camel quilt?

Camel quilt (saddle) in progress

Camel quilt (saddle) in progress