What’s in a Name? How The Name of your Sewing Pattern Affects Racialized Groups
On March 16, 2021, a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, USA. What does this have to do with a sewing blog, you ask? Perhaps you like to think that you keep your sewing and politics separate. I would encourage you to look at your practice carefully. Have you participated in an “oriental” quilt challenge? Do you select a sewing pattern called a “kimono” or one that has a Japanese-sounding name because it seemed somehow cooler? Or do you believe that garments you buy that are made in the UK, Europe, or the USA and made better than those made in China or Taiwan?
In May 2020 as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in response to the killing of George Floyd, I remember feeling helpless and lost about what material changes I could make to help to support the movement, apart from donating and protesting. So shortly after the Atlanta attacks, I posted a list of things we can do in our sewing community to enact change in the face of Anti-Asian racism on my instagram. The response from our community was overall so positive and to be honest, I was shocked at the amount of attention my little post garnered. I think we are seeing material improvement in our community. Seeing some companies step up, make changes, and then publicly defend and explain these decisions shows compassion, learning, and steps toward anti-racism. Other places, however, I have been disappointed to see companies make a change and then allow their Instagram comments to get out of control, which has the effect of making it clear it was done for business reasons. I’d like to address some of the points I made in my original post in more detail, and I hope this will illuminate my reasoning.
In Atlanta, six of the victims were Asian women. It’s been reported that the shooter was a previous client of the spas and that he described having a “sex addiction”. Since all three spas where the attacks took place were Asian spas, I think it’s a reasonable assumption that his “addiction” specifically revolved around an Asian sexual fetish. But how does this relate to our sewing practice? Orientalism is a term used to describe depiction of “the East” from a Eurocentric point of view (Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books). In Western culture, we often use the term exotic to describe aspects of cultures other than our own. By using this term, we are separating the item/garment/design features from the people who created it and treating those cultures as “other”. This allows people to separate racialized people from their humanity and in extreme forms can lead to violent acts.
In the sewing community, we often see the use of Japanese words and terms to describe design elements (“kimono sleeves”) or entire garments (“kimonos”, “haoris”). This is known as cultural appropriation - where a dominant culture leverages aspects of another culture for profit. I know some readers will disagree with me, however, please ask yourself why a robe somehow seems more desirable if it’s called a “kimono” than a “dressing gown”. Those of us who have grown up in Western cultures have this desire for the “exotic” totally engendered into us. Emi Ito has written extensively on the appropriation of Japanese garment types and I encourage you to read her work. She speaks directly to the erasure of her culture through the incorrect usage of terminology.
When I open my copy of the classic patternmaking text Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear by Winifred Aldrich (2015), there are at least seven designs described as a “kimono sleeve”. Some of these are a dropped armscye, some are cut on sleeves, and some are raglan sleeves. Ironically, none of these sleeve types resemble the actual construction of a sleeve in a real Kimono. From this, we can see that the use of this term is very much a part of the larger fashion industry, including fashion education. Many of us who have attended fashion school have accepted these terms as the correct descriptive terms without question and have perpetuated their use. However, times have changed, and we are now more aware of cultural appropriation. Does it really hurt us to change the name of a garment feature to what is actually a more descriptive name, now that we are being asked to do so?
I often hear people say that they are inspired by garments from Asia, perhaps the Cheongsam or the Kimono and that by calling their design a kimono or a cheongsam, or by using a place name or other word that sounds “Asian”, that they are honouring that inspiration. I think that it is misguided. Personally, I think it is absolutely fine to say that you were inspired by beautiful Japanese minimalist design, for example, however I do not believe it is appropriate for white people to use Asian words or terms since you are then leveraging the exoticization of Asian cultures for your profit. If you have designed a beautiful garment, it will speak for itself, regardless of name.
Currently, we are seeing a great deal of popularity in our community of Sashiko (a type of Japanese embroidery), Shibori (Japanese resist dyeing), and Bojagi (Korean hand piecing). They are all beautiful techniques and I can absolutely understand wanting to learn them and I do encourage you to do so, however please learn from a cultural knowledge keeper (i.e. someone from that culture). To illustrate this, I will give a personal example. A few times a year, I travel to the Canadian Arctic for my work. Since I’m interested in sewing, I try and connect with local Inuk women. Many of them have been really generous with their knowledge and have taught me to sew handmade traditional Inuit mitts.
Ulus (Inuit traditional knives) used for cutting the mitts
Tracing the pattern pieces
For my first pair, I had to complete them back home (it’s time consuming) and the last step is to sew on fur trim around the wrist. I sewed the fur on and happily wore the mitts. The next time I was in the north, I showed an Elder the mitts I had made. She was so kind about my first attempt but then pointed out that I had sewn the fur on the wrong way around. The way I had sewn it on would direct snow into my mitts, instead of out of them.
The first mitts I made, complete with error!
Me, proudly showing my first hand stitched Inuit mitts
This may seem like a small detail, however culturally, it’s an important safety consideration. Imagine if I had taught others how to make “Inuit” mitts and perpetuated that error, and then someone who learned from me made another error, etc.? Maybe it’s not that important to the end user, but to the cultural knowledge keepers, this is important. And there absolutely could be other cultural teachings about mitts that I didn’t learn at all due to the language barrier or that it was not shared with me because I am not Inuk. Therefore, I implore you to seek out a cultural knowledge keeper to learn from – the profit should remain in their culture and they should be allowed to share whatever is appropriate for you to learn.
A different pair of Inuit mitts I hand sewed in Nunavut, made in a different regional style
You may be questioning why it’s so important to us to retain cultural images, teachings, and techniques. Ultimately, it’s because what we experience is racism on one hand (both overt and subtle) and then apparent “flattery” through cultural appropriation. What we experience is white people, as a group, taking the parts they like (for example, traditional crafts), whilst simultaneously complaining of differences in culinary practices, for example.
We are all learning to be better allies and I think one of the great strengths in our sewing community is its ability to bring us together to understand each other’s lives and lived experiences. One key part of being a good ally is to listen to a marginalized group and to honour their lived experiences, even if you have not witnessed it yourself. I think the continuation of these small changes we can make in our community will assist in lessening the number of microaggressions that marginalized groups face in their daily life.
Leila Kelleher is the patternmaker for Muna and Broad, a plus size sewing pattern company. She lives and works on Turtle Island, otherwise known as Canada.
Leila is doing so much to shed light on a complicated issue through her online platforms, with her business and by agreeing to write this piece for us, and I want to thank her for the education. I hope that everyone reading this will allow themselves the time and openness of mind to listen to marginalised people, and to examine the things that we so often take for granted that may be causing harm to others and perpetuating white supremacy. As Leila says, it is so easy to change a name and start to rewrite the narrative, and when you know that something like the name of a garment feature is causing harm, why wouldn't you want to rectify that?