I fell in love with large print African fabrics about 30 years ago on a trip to Washington DC where I saw women walking down the street wearing dresses created from fabulous material that I’d never seen before. Colors were purposefully bright. Patterns were intentionally huge. Dresses with matching head wraps were audacious in design and the use of color was inspiring. In a plaid skirt and turtleneck sweater my style paled in comparison. I loved African fabric first time I saw it and I’ve been chasing it ever since.
On that pre-Internet-no-cell-phone-era trip I sought direction from the Yellow Pages. I asked women where they shopped. I took the subway and trains to suburbs I’d never heard of before. African fabric remained elusive. Eventually, I found two pieces of fabric to buy – one in an African dressmaker’s shop in Maryland, the other in the gift shop of the Smithsonian’s African Museum. I didn’t know what I’d do with the fabric, I just knew I needed it, and I left wanting more.
The fabric I found then was packaged the same way it is today – approximately 40” wide and six meters long- not on a cardboard bolt to be cut – but folded flat. I had to buy it all, or buy none. Each side of the fabric parcel boasted a sticker stating “Genuine Dutch Wax” holding the selvage sides together like a sticky paper clip, and a huge label stuck to the fabric with the company name “Vlisco”.
The two pieces I found 30 years ago may well have been the real deal. Today, the fabrics – called African Fancy Prints – found in most African markets are printed to resemble real wax processed batiks – but they are indeed – just printed fabric. Andrew, my Nigerian friend and fabric seller in Cameroon, tells me that real batiks cost 20 – 30 times more than the ones he sells. Now referred to as “African Fancy Prints” this fabric it is largely printed in China, India and a few African countries such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal. (Shwe-Shwe is a separate style of cotton fabric printed in South Africa.)
But what to I do with this extraordinary fabric? I could not figure out how to use the large splashes of color and huge patterns – the very things that make African fabric so special. They sat in my fabric stash gathering new fabric friends as company, for years. As I accumulated more African fabric my stash got bigger but I used very little in projects. When I did, it was just a few inches here and there and I did not use the fabric in the way it deserved.
At the same time, I saw a trend in American quilt designs to make blocks out of smaller and smaller pieces. These precision paper piecing techniques has assisted us to make incredibly complex designs that are exquisite, but they are definitely not suited for big, bold, African prints.
I began to find my way when I made a trip to equatorial Africa and saw what women there accomplish with Fancy Prints and foot powered treadle sewing machines. In Cameroon, women wear beautiful, unique dresses called “boubous” bringing honor to the colors and designs of fabrics sold in their local open air markets.
Cameroon is a hot and humid place – and people routinely leave windows open seeking a breeze. It is also one of the world’s poorest nations – so leaving windows open for easy access for thieves is not advisable. Nothing reinforces this fact of life like the welded iron grills used for security on homes and businesses alike. As we drove around the country I began to notice the patterns of these grills. They were very different than any I’ve seen before.
I believe this is largely because the makers have not been influenced by western designs The more I looked, I began to see these grills as quilt blocks. And the more I visualized quilt blocks, I saw them created in African fabrics.
So I began documenting what I saw, photographing when possible, sketching the rest. Cameroonians are very sensitive about being photographed and it not a good idea to snap photos walking down the street or out the window of a vehicle. More than one person angrily shook a fist at me and others cursed me in French. The few times I was able to show that my photo was of a building, the person shook their head in disbelief as if I wasn’t very smart. Whew.
So that is my source of inspiration. The patterns are fresh and new and can be made in large or small scale African – or American fabric. All patterns were inspired by designs I saw on my trips to Cameroon, Kenya and an architectural design in Ethiopia.
Returning from Cameroon with six pieces (36 meters) of African Fancy prints, I thought I had a lot of raw material to work with, but found I it difficult to cut into this precious stash of REAL African fabric. So I started out small, making women’s handbags to sell at a community craft fair that supports our nurse’s aide training center in Kribi. While sewing one night it dawned on me that the women of Cameroon who make beautiful dresses should also be making fabric bags. They could sell fabric bags to each other for use when shopping in the markets (replacing plastic bags used now) and to women like me who would be thrilled to buy them. This is how the “Kribi Women’s Sewing Project” was born. In May, 2012 I travelled back to Kribi and taught 15 young women how to sew bags, baskets and other items that can be sold to better support their young families.