Listen to the episode
6. Cultural Appropriation in Sewing, Part 2 – The Asian Sewist Collective Podcast
Patterns & Designers mentioned
Adriene Blouse by Friday Pattern Company
Acacia Underwear by Megan Nielsen Patterns
Resources and Sources
12 Most Notable Philippine Folk Dances That Will Get You Grooving, written by Cielo Fernando and posted on Zenrooms.
The originals and traditions of Chinese oil-paper umbrellas, from the Global Times news website.
@made.by.yuki, Yuki’s Instagram account.
@little_kotos_closet, Emi Ito’s Instagram account.
@gail.sew.glasgow, Gail’s Instagram account. (Her kimono-related stories can be found on her Project Kimono highlights.)
The Chinese Community in the Philippines: Status and Conditions, written by Arturo Pacho, on JSTOR.
Objects that Matter: Terno, written by Camay Abraham and posted on The Fashion and Race Database.
Filipino Friday: Drafting and Sewing the Butterfly / Filipiana Sleeves, posted on the Shilyn Sews YouTube channel.
#StopEast+SoutheastAsianHate, posted by @gemma_chan on Instagram.
Please note, we are a Bookshop.org affiliate, so we may make a small commission if you choose to purchase books via these links:
Yellow: Race in America beyond Black and White, by Frank H. Wu.
Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, by Helen Zia.
An Open Letter to White Makers & Designers Who Are Inspired By the Kimono and Japanese Culture, written by Emi Ito and posted on Ysolda.
So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.
“Wait, am I culturally appropriating?” flowchart diagram to determine whether or not what you are trying to do is considered cultural appropriation or not, created by Emily Sear (@hiya_m8 on Instagram) and posted by @fash_rev on Instagram.
PSA: Solidarity video on the problem of addressing groups as a monolith, posted by @amandaseales on Instagram.
We stand in solidarity with the AAPI community against racism and the continued rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and white terrorism, posted by @blackbirdfabrics on Instagram.
Charm Patterns update post on Instagram and Crowdcast announcement with @br0ck_n_r0ll
Nicole: I’m that weird person that wants to be like, “Oh, you’re Filipino!”, to the woman who I’ve seen in the yard speaking in Tagalog and like I could hear their voices carrying down the street and I was like, I want to say hi and like.
Ada: Then you’re gonna have an auntie down the street!
Welcome to the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. The Asian Sewist Collective is a group of Asian people from around the world brought together by our shared appreciation for fiber and textile arts, and our desire to see more Asian representation in the sewing community. In this podcast, we explore the intersection of our identities and our shared sewing practice, as we create a space for Asian sewists, and our allies. I’m your co-host, Ada Chen, and I’m recording from Denver, Colorado, which is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples. I’m a marketer turned entrepreneur and these days you’ll find me running my own all natural skincare business called Chuan Skincare, that’s C-H-U-A-N, and sharing my marketing tips on my blog, The Cultivate Method. Most importantly, for this podcast, you can find my sewing account on Instagram at @i.hope.sew.
Nicole: And I’m your co-host, Nicole, I’m based out of Chicago, the original homelands of the council of the three fires, the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa people. I’m a Filipinx-American woman, a lawyer and a sewing enthusiast, you can find me on Instagram at @NicoleAngelineSews.
Ada: So before we dive into this week’s episode, Nicole, can you tell us about your current sewing project?
Nicole: Sure, I am working on an Adriene blouse from Friday Pattern Company to give as a gift to my brother’s girlfriend. The Adriene blouse, you’re familiar with that pattern.
Ada: Yeah, we wore matching ones!
Nicole: That was I mean, that was amazing. It’s so it’s, for those unfamiliar, it’s a knit top with billowy statement sleeves that are gathered in the shoulders and elastic sleeved hems. And I rarely make for others because I have so little time for sewing anyway, but I just want to keep it for myself. But the Adriene blouse is so simple and easy to make. Like there’s three pattern pieces. And one of them is like a tiny neck band. So it’s so high impact. It’s so easy to make that I think it’s probably one of my tried and true patterns, you know, like a TNT pattern. So I have some fabric already in my stash that I know she’ll like and I’ll make one to give her for her birthday, which was in April. So better late than never I like to say.
Ada: Does she know that she’s getting it?
Nicole: She does. You can’t make something for someone without like talking to them about it. At least I don’t think I can. I saw, you know, I have to ask her about her measurements, etc. But she understands. It’s fine. It’s great. What are you working on?
Ada: I am stash or scrap busting. And I’m starting out with some underwear. So I made a bunch of knits over the winter in spring. So I had a bunch of knit scraps, which seemed very wasteful. So I’m making some underwear from the free Megan Nielsen pattern called the Acacia undies, which I think is a low rise bikini cut is the technical name for it. And so since I like to cut scraps as I go, I have been sitting on these cut out underwear pieces for a while. And I have like 10 pairs of them ready to go in different colors and with different elastics. But I’m, I’m also desperately in need of new underwear. It’s shameful how long it has been since I have gotten underwear. And it’s the only thing that’s holding me back on these is like the elastic because it’s kind of a pain in the butt you have so many options. You can use picot elastic, fold over elastic, and other types of like you could even use quarter inch like mask elastic and wrap it around. So the options are really endless. I’m trying out fold over elastic, which is flat and already kind of creased in the middle. So when you fold it, it’s easier, but it’s just so finicky because it’s such a small seem. It’s I mean, you know, I’m not saying that my legs are super small or the leg holes are super small, but compared to like the length of a bodice or a dress seam. It just feels so much more like tiny and minute and I have to be very detail oriented.
Nicole: I have really big clumsy hands so like working with tiny pieces seems like it would be a nightmare for me.
Ada: Exactly, pins everywhere.
Ada: So for those of you who’ve been with us since day one, you might remember that our first episode on the Asian Sewist Collective podcast was an introduction to cultural appropriation in sewing and we defined cultural appropriation in that episode or we tried to. And we basically came to the conclusion that it is pretty difficult to pin down the concept of cultural appropriation. And we shared some examples in sewing and outside of sewing. And in that time, we had a few listeners send us emails and messages in response. And so we thought it would be interesting to go through them before we dive into this week’s episode. So first of all, we got an email from Katie, who asked about instances of non-white groups, dominating other groups such as the idea of pan-Asian culture purported through East and Southeast Asia by the Japanese.
Nicole: And we’ve intentionally avoided bringing up examples of people of color taking cultures of other people of color for their own, because we really want to keep the focus on white supremacy here. And when I say white, I am specifically referring to white people and not people from other racial groups with lighter skin tones. Remember, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant group of people, most often white people, takes from an oppressed and marginalized group of people and profits from that action in some manner. That’s honestly like a 10,000 foot very high level statement, but I know you know, we’re going to dive into it later in this episode.
Ada: Oh, for sure. And before we do that, maybe we can address another message that we received. So if you recall, in Episode 1, we talked about a Simplicity pattern, the S8654 that I found on the simplicity website as an example of cultural appropriation in the sewing community. And this pattern is a vintage style two piece set. Cute vacation top, I think is what I called it, a tie top with sleeves and shorts. And I called it out because the garment had been styled with a paper parasol umbrella, which is a cultural icon or object. And I shared my experience teaching for a summer in Meinong in Taiwan, which is a village that’s famous for their paper parasol umbrellas.
And Gwen, who goes by @gwenstella.made on Instagram, hey, Gwen, brought it to her attention that the paper parasol umbrella is a very popular accessory in the rock and roll, rockabilly and vintage community. And so in that context, it’s still being used as a prop, but it is being used with the intention of being a prop. And she pointed out that that specific pattern was likely being marketed towards people who are part of this subset of the sewing community. And she shared that she’s attended events geared toward this community before like vintage fairs, car shows, dances, and she seen people, predominantly white people, carrying them around and along with paper fans. And so apparently, if you google rockabilly and parasol, you will see plenty of images of people in very similarly coordinated outfits.
Nevertheless, Gwen still felt that it was appropriation in action and wanted to share that she also cringed at herself looking back at previous photos, feeling that white people have helped her feel that her culture is cool. Gwen, if I haven’t mentioned at this point, is Asian. And she shared that she was feeling a little bit of that cringey like, “why did I do that?” Which I think many of us at least I have definitely felt that way as well about certain situations looking back now too.
Nicole: Yeah, totally. And thanks, Gwen, for sharing your thoughts with us on paper parasol umbrellas. Now, these parasols were on my mind for quite some time after we recorded Episode 1 as well. And maybe like you listeners, or if you listeners are doing the same thing, I have been thinking about, you know, instances in the past where cultural appropriation may be lurking, and I didn’t realize it or perhaps I perpetuated it myself.
Now, the story I’m about to tell with that, I am sharing it with permission. My sister got married 11 years ago this year. And for her wedding, she sourced several items from the Philippines, including a lace parasol for her, fans for her guests, and paper parasols for her bridesmaids. So it was a beach wedding, very hot. And her thought was “I would like parasols that my bridesmaids could carry with them”, you know? And my sister, like me, is also Filipino American. All items were purchased in the Philippines. My dad was physically working with local vendors. He was there for a vacation or something and he brought back the lace parasol.
So a payaong in Tagalog, the fans, pamaypays, also, the Tagalog word, and both the lace parasol and the pamaypays to me were very distinctly Filipino in style, but the paper parasols I had never really thought about them as being Filipino. And if I just set them next to those items, they definitely don’t look distinctly Filipino. But I also now today, you know, was wondering how paper parasols and up in a venue with a vendor that, you know, provides wedding stuff, you know, like, there was offered for the Philippines in the Philippines for wedding ceremonies.
So there was the, the payaong, the pamaypay, and the parasol. They were all together. So after we recorded Episode 1, and Ada asked me, “Well, you’re not going to make that Simplicity pattern and walk around with a paper parasol, right?” And I remember I responded during the episode and you can probably hear like the gears grinding in my head. I was like, “Uh, no, no,” and go to our Instagram account, that clip is on there as a preview. And right after I said, “No”, I just my sister’s wedding flashed into my head, which again, mind you happened over a decade ago. I know, it’s not the same as someone using parasols as a prop, you know, but I want to share this because thinking through cultural appropriation is something that has been a journey for me just, you know, in doing this podcast, and you know, of course, for that I am grateful.
I know that very broadly there’s a complex centuries long history of travel, trade and colonization with regard to the Philippines and the rest of Asia and Spain and America. For example, there is a cultural dance that is performed called Singkil which originated from the Maranao people in the southern, now-predominantly Muslim region of the Philippines and is the pre-Islamic interpretation of the ancient Hindu Indian epic, the Ramayana. The traditional clothing associated with this dance looks nothing like the cultural dress that evolved from Spanish influences in the northern regions such as the Maria Clara or terno. All that is to say, neither my sister or I considered whether the paper parasol was part of Philippine culture. And as of now, I’m still not super clear.
And all that is to say, you know, neither my sister or I considered whether the paper parasol was part of Philippine culture, and I’m still not really super clear on this. I did what most people do, and I did a Google search. I searched about paper parasol umbrellas, and I soon after found that oil-paper umbrellas were first created in mainland China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), They were spread to Japan and Korea during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and then to other Asian cultures over the centuries. There is a long history of Chinese people traveling through and settling in the Philippines, trading with Filipinos even before Spain colonized the Philippines in the 16th century. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the oil-paper umbrella were adopted in the Philippines.
Do I have an answer? I do not. Google didn’t give me the answer. But I do know that there’s cultural significance to these umbrellas there were and still extensively used in Chinese and Japanese weddings, as well as traditional performing arts. So, was using the parasols at my sister’s wedding cultural appropriation, when you consider all the facts above, and also acknowledging that my sister and I are not aware of or celebrate any Chinese or Japanese ancestry? I still don’t have an answer.
Ada: You know, I don’t think it’s the appropriation to carry a paper parasol umbrella as part of your sister’s wedding. It’s clearly you know, by the fact that you shared all of that context, part of Filipino culture now and setting aside the question of how the umbrella has got to the Philippines in the first place. I’m also not saying that like, these umbrellas only belong to anyone of Chinese or Taiwanese or Japanese descent, it just definitely doesn’t belong to white people, like 100,000% doesn’t belong to you.
It does go back to the definition of cultural appropriation and the context of the situation right, like your situation is very different from modeling a Simplicity pattern with the parasol as it was done for the pattern photoshoot, which now with one’s context tells me that the pattern was purposefully shot and meant to be marketed towards white rockabilly folks who treat parasols as a prop, and not as a cultural object.
And I know that some of our members of the Collective and some of our listeners don’t have a problem with us enjoying each other’s cultures as long as it doesn’t perpetuate oppression. And so here’s one opinion from our researcher, Jana:
If you want to collect Japanese fabrics, because you’re a fabric lover, and they bring you happiness, she thinks that’s fine, maybe even wonderful. It becomes problematic when you don’t know any Japanese people. Or you do know Japanese people, but you commit racial microaggressions against them in your daily life. You fetishize Japanese culture, and perpetuate racism towards Japanese people, Japanese Americans, Asian Americans, you whitewash their culture and their history or claim it for yourself or profit off of them while centering yourself and decentering Japanese people and their businesses and so on and so forth. And that’s when a Japanese fabric collection becomes problematic. And it all really basically comes back to white supremacy, right? Like, if that didn’t exist, we could totally just love everything and it would, the world would, be amazing.
Nicole: A world without white supremacy. Sure would be. Yeah. And with regard to cultural appropriation, you know, I’m an over-thinker, I’m also very, I’m a critical thinker and critical of myself. So I’m a critical over thinker. And this has just been a real journey. And Jana echoes my thoughts to a T. I feel like she’s defined cultural appreciation without sounding like she’s granting permission in any way.
So moving on to another listener feedback that we got, we received a message from Gail, who goes by @gail.sew.glasgow on Instagram. She asked if, as a white Scottish woman, it would be disrespectful for her to repurpose fabrics from kimonos and other projects. She bought two from a vintage clothes fair where there were literally hundreds of kimonos on sale. And she only bought the kimonos for the fabrics, so presumably going to deconstruct them and make other things.
Ada and I are not experts in this matter, and neither of us are Japanese. So rather than to give a straight answer in this case, we’d like to highlight what Gail’s doing in her effort to find an answer. And she does have a game plan in progress. She plans to learn more about kimonos and their cultural significance, figure out why they ended up at a vintage clothes fair in Scotland. Learn you know what kimonos are, what they can and should be used for today. Learn more about cultural appropriation in general, and then come to a conclusion on whether she can celebrate the beautiful fabric and their origin without causing or reinforcing harm.
We also directed Gail to a couple of great resources to learn about kimonos by @made.by.yuki on Instagram, a prominent voice on the cultural appropriation of the kimono. So we recommended that Gail check out her work as well as the work of @little_kotos_closet, whom we referred to in Episode 1. Gail has saved her kimono journey stories in a highlight on her Instagram. So if you want to check it out and learn with her, by all means, I encourage you to do it. It’s her Instagram again and we’ll link it in the show notes is @gail.sew.glasgow. I can’t speak on behalf of Japanese people to say whether it’s okay to repurpose kimono fabric, but it seems like she’s making room and being respectful of the Japanese culture.
Ada: Yes, and don’t forget to support Emi and Yuki for their work. So that’s @made.by.yuki and at @little_kotos_closet on Instagram if you enjoy their work and you benefit from the information that they’ve shared.
We also got another email this time from Farrah, who’s Pakistani American. And she says she’s alarmed that white people are being told to stay away from using foreign terms all together to name garments. So if you remember in Episode 1, we talked about many pattern makers removing the word kimono from some of their patterns that were not kimonos and did not resemble actual kimonos. And Farrah feels that by doing this, the white majority that are designing most of the patterns available to all of us are being encouraged to stay away from appreciation of other cultures, whether this is through the naming of their garment or the construction techniques.
But the thing I want to point out here is that we don’t actually need white people to be actually actively appreciating our cultures for us to be represented. Representation and appreciation are two different concepts. So appreciation, which we’ll dig into shortly, comes up when there’s a mutual relationship of respect and love from both sides of the equation. So that person with more power commits themselves to truly understanding the culture that they’re taking aspects from, they don’t profit in return from this action, and has some sort of connection or tie with the other person. This is not a white pattern designer making a pattern based off of an Asian garment and profiting from it. And I would argue that the patterns that we’ve seen pulled or updated have been pulled or updated because the white designer has recognized that they have not taken the time to do that work right to understand the culture they have taken their design inspiration from and that they personally profited from those designs.
Representation, on the other hand, means actually having a diverse set of people who reflect the real world and not just a white only world appear in the media and other mainstream channels. This normalizes us and our cultures and everyone’s lives and you hear representation matters a lot because it creates the context in which we believe that we can exist and succeed.
So take Kamala Harris for example. She is mixed race Black and South Asian. And she has many firsts, right? If you look at why so many people, including myself, were excited to see her become the Vice President, it’s because by her actually achieving that position of power, we all saw that a woman and a woman of color, a mixed race woman of color could specifically, with immigrant parents, make it in politics and rise to the second highest office in the land. And even if you might have gone around saying, a woman can become VP or president before that in the US, I don’t think any of us truly, really believed it until we saw this happen.
And when you have representation, then you’re actually on the right path towards inclusion. So back to appreciation versus representation, appreciation by someone in power could lead to them making room for the other person to be seen and heard. But it’s not a prerequisite for representation, right? Representation can happen without it.
The question I would pose to you, Farrah and anyone else who wrote in defending whiteness is, why are you seeking white approval? Like, why is it so important to you? And I would suggest taking some time to unpack that and maybe dig into how white supremacy has potentially invaded your own perspective or influenced your perception of culture. For me, the more I’ve learned about white supremacy, and how it’s really infiltrated our communities, for example, with the model minority myth, the more angry I get about how we’ve changed our own cultures, and we’ve changed our own communities, just so that white people could feel comfortable, like we should be comfortable too.
And it’s taken, it’s taken work to get to that point, right?. And I think personally, the bigger issue here is that we just need more representation in the pattern making world and I can count on one, maybe two hands, how many Asian indie pattern designers I know of, and I’m sure there are more. So if you are an Asian independent pattern designer, please reach out to us. We would love to include you on our website, we have a directory page. But we need more of you. And wouldn’t it be amazing if we had more representative pattern designers who we saw so that us and you saw us could see ourselves in the craft and leading the way? And I think it’s worth reiterating something we said in Episode 1, which is there’s plenty of Asians who are okay with white people naming grown on sleeves after kimonos or collections after cities in Japan, and so on.
But you are not the spokesperson for your nationality or ethnicity. And neither am I. I mean, like that would be a lot of work and pressure and responsibility. And so I don’t think any of us want to be that person. And the problem here is that we aren’t seeing true cultural appreciation when the word kimono or a Japanese city’s name is being slapped on a garment. And we’ll talk about some examples of appreciation later on. But cultural appropriation does have a negative impact on many Asian folks within the diaspora, within the US and other Western countries. And as we saw in the voices of many Asian users who commented on Instagram posts from makers announcing the removal of these terms and patterns, it does make a difference.
Nicole: You raise a lot of great points here Ada, and I’m looking forward to reflecting on them more after we wrap up this episode because that’s, that’s what I do. But let’s move on to another email from a listener.
Mia is a white Jewish New Yorker who used to live in Japan. And she wrote in and shared that she felt conflicted when her friends in Japan who had children at the same time she did suggested she sew up some traditional Japanese garments for her children. She’s wrestling with avoiding cultural appropriation when her life was so intertwined with the Japanese culture. She also had questions and how to respond to cultural appropriation besides not participating in it.
Now, these are some great questions and issues that we’re going to unpack in addition to appropriation versus appreciation. We’re also going to address how you know if you’re culturally appropriating, and some actionable steps to take when it comes to cultural appropriation, namely, how to keep learning about the topic and how to address it when you do see it happening.
One last question Ada before we dive in, it’s not a question, it’s a thing. It’s a thing that I want. And I wanted to share an example of cultural appropriation in sewing that recently came up and that is very close to my heart and that is my experience with the terno sleeve. Now you’ve heard me talk about the terno before or terno with the Filipino pronunciation. The terno sleeve is the key feature of the terno blouse, or sometimes dress, which is a national dress of the Philippines.
Growing up, my mom would call it filipiniana but I’ll use the term terno here. I won’t be digging into the history of the terno today, but there will be a link in our show notes if you want to find out more about how the terno came to be. And if you’ve never seen a terno sleeve it’s a flat, oversize, high peak sleeve that is rounded at the shoulders by pleats. It’s easier to just google it than to imagine it for sure. I’ve worked like I was growing up as a kid primarily to perform traditional Filipino cultural dances and you know continue to wear it through college performing in some international showcases. And the making of the sleeve is highly specialized, and generally needs to be made to fit the wearer because the drafting is based on the wearer’s measurements.
When I started to learn how to sew, it became really important for me to learn how to make these and also incorporate them into modernwear. It’s a dream of mine to make neat looking terno garments that were traditionally for special occasions, but to bring it into a new era for myself. And I did make my first attempt last year, it was such a rewarding experience to be able to connect with my Filipino culture by making this garment. I watched a video by Shilyn, who is a member of the Asians Sewist Collective and that’s how I found her on YouTube. And then I found her on Instagram, so and we’ve just been, I liked it, good friends ever since. She may disagree, but whatever, Shilyn.
Here’s what I want to talk about: You all may have heard of a TV show called The Great British Sewing Bee, maybe, I don’t know. So the Great British Sewing Bee is a home sewing competition, there are usually eight contenders who compete for bragging rights and a trophy. And that’s it. As far as I understand. It’s very popular, it’s I would be surprised if our listeners, you know, if they’ve been sewing for some significant amount of time, they’ve probably heard of it by now. And I think it’s on air at the moment. They are either contenders are either given a pattern or a task, and they need to complete a challenge related to that pattern or task.
Now, I wasn’t really aware of it. I am a newer sewist. But someone at some point told me that they have a quote unquote, international week, every season or most seasons. And from what I can tell international week is highly problematic in terms of cultural appropriation, but nobody is talking about it. And before you think, “Oh, you know, they’re appreciating and highlighting different cultures sharing these cultures with with the world” or you know, the presumably the primarily British audience, let me tell you exactly how infuriating it was to see the terno sleeve on this show.
I need to take a breath there. Okay. So contestants were given a terno pattern. And there was also a sample terno garment on a dress form. While this garment was being described, it was three, you know, white people who are the hosts, and they were breaking down the general construction of the garment. There was maybe 43 seconds about the history of the terno.
Ada: You timed it?
Nicole: I don’t remember exactly. It was short. It was brief, but I wanted to say less than a minute for sure. Now, why was this so upsetting? Maybe listeners are wondering about this. Like I said, making the terno sleeve is a highly specialized skill. It’s difficult to learn. I’m struggling with learning from it. There are people in the Philippines who are considered master terno makers. There’s also an entire movement in the Philippines to bring it into the modern era. So like I said, it’s something that is proud to be part of Philippine culture. And look for something called Ternocon. It’s a terno making convention and contest for regional designers that’s held annually in the Philippines. Find hashtag #ternocon on Instagram, and I guarantee you, you’ll love what you’ll see.
So just backing up, the episode was season six, episode eight, so came out in June 2020. It wasn’t a terno sleeve. It was just a puff sleeve, that flat side, that distinctive flat side, was nowhere to be seen. And frankly, this was insulting to me. The Great British Sewing Bee took a garment that is personally significant to me, and distinctive to my Filipino culture, a recognizable national emblem of the Philippines and bastardized it for the sake of a three hour sewing contest.
Also, when they were being handed this pattern, this terno pattern I was like, did they even consult a Filipino designer in this? And maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t, but we don’t know. I would say presumably not someone of Filipino descent, because they would incorporate the flat side. And if they were of Filipino descent, and this was their interpretation of the terno, their work should have been acknowledged. The designers should be, we should know who the designer is, know what their work is about. That’s appreciation.
And I was already mad about all of this, you can tell, I was already mad about it. One of the hosts again, a white man, made a joke about something “terno-ing” him off. No. Sorry, I’m at a loss for words, there was a lot of like pausing and yelling when I was watching this. And my understanding that this gentleman or man was, it’s my understanding that he’s a comedian. And this is like his type of humor, but I was not having any of it. And I should also add that this was maybe in the first eight minutes of the entire episode. My blood was boiling.
Now, I do want to tie this back to cultural appropriation since we spent some time in Episode 1 defining it. So we have white people who have power, taking from an oppressed and marginalized group of Filipinos. Now, I don’t know who the producers are, or the directors or the showrunners. I do know that the host, the three hosts are white. I think in a vastly predominantly white country, I would assume that folks at the BBC or whatever network this is on are going to be predominantly white, I would imagine there aren’t Filipino voices, or at least many, if any, at any of these tables out there profiting off of my culture here.
Viewers aren’t directly paying them, of course, but the hosts are being paid to be on the show and talk about a garment that’s so important to my culture. And no doubt they are getting paid far more to be on the show as a Filipinx person who is maybe making and selling the terno for others to wear. And by making this bastardized version of a terno, on a show that’s widely viewed in a western country, they’re contributing to the erasure of my culture. Probably the most upsetting thing about all of this, that I keep coming back to is, for a moment, just a split second. Is that I questioned whether they were right. I was just learning how to make a terno myself. It’s been less than a year since my first attempt. Maybe they knew more than me. They’re presumably experts, right? The judges are, you know, experts in home sewing at least. And maybe they knew more than I did. And I checked in with Shilyn, someone I’ve mentioned already a couple times, and she reassured me. She said, “No, you’re right. The flat sleeve is literally what makes it a terno.” So I was just so upset that I let these people who took a piece of the national dress of my people and corrupted it. And I believed that for one second an instant, a moment that they knew more about my culture than I did. And you know what that is? That’s white supremacy ingrained in my thinking. Maybe just maybe these white experts in sewing knew better than me, when deep down, I know, I have more experience than them. Having lived with it having worn the garment, and I’m studying it now. So I just wanted to share that.
Ada: I remember talking with you about this, and you were working through a lot of feelings about it. And I’m glad you were able to share them with our listeners. And I’m sure you’re not the only one.
I rewatched when you were telling me about your reaction, I rewatched the episode, and I googled what a terno was after and I remember thinking like that’s, that’s not it. Nicole is right. And so then I went back and I rewatched all of the quote unquote, international or global week episodes from all the past sewing bee seasons. And I think the running theme that I felt in the episodes from the last four seasons where they’ve had these is that they are perpetuating appropriation by not actually stopping to give context, explain or talk about the garments that they are having people do in their pattern challenges.
They gloss over them and give not even a minute or two to a clip and then they exoticize the garment to make it seem cool. And I think part of that is just culturally British. And part of that is lack of awareness by just telling contestants to do a pattern challenge of a qipao top or a terno sleeve or dhoti pants. And you’re telling people to cut up saris. I was like cringing when I saw them cutting up saris just hacking away to refashion them, while also not appreciating that like saris are very difficult to put on, and wrap and pin in place, or tuck in place. And by doing that, and kind of glossing over the significance of these garments to their respective cultures. They are giving people permission to appropriate without critically thinking about what they are doing.
So, for example, they did have another challenge for a qipao top or aka cheongsam, I am not Cantonese, I have asked many people, including our producer, Mariko, and my very good friend for help on this one. So that is my try at pronouncing it. It’s a traditional Chinese garment, you probably can visualize it, it’s usually in the form of a dress it has what is called a Mandarin collar. And the dhoti, the dhoti pants are a garment that are usually worn on the lower part of the body. And it’s a part of the national costume in the Indian subcontinent. It’s kind of like a sarong, but tied in a manner that resembles loose trousers. And with all of these patterns, they kind of went into a little bit of the technical aspect of what it takes to make them like what side the certain things go on, and how many pleats.
But in general, I think international week episodes are problematic, as is the unpaid nature of the show, like if you’re a contestant you’re not paid to go on, which inherently means that only the people who can afford to do that unpaid labor can be on the show, which in COVID times means you’re taking off weeks from work and your family. And so there’s just a lot of problems.
Does that mean I can’t enjoy watching it? No, but does that mean I now watch it with a different perspective? Yes. And I think UK racism is definitely a little bit of a different flavor from US racism. I think the history and dynamics that created the racism experienced in each country right now are all rooted in white supremacy but have just developed differently. And, you know, not only have there been anti Asian attacks in the UK, so it does make me sad and angry to know that our ESEA friends in the UK have also been the targets of increased hate crimes. ESEA stands for East and Southeast Asians, which is more predominantly used in the UK than AAPI which is used in the US. I’ve included a link to an Instagram post from Gemma Chan, the actor who played Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians in our show notes with more details about what’s going on right now.
But I think when it comes to cultural appropriation, personally, it’s just been a journey of watching these things, and reading more and learning more and understanding like, at first, when I watched these episodes, I knew it was wrong. And you don’t have to understand the definition of appropriation or be able to recite it, to spot someone doing it and then be like, that’s a wrong feeling.
It was only relatively recently, I think, over the last few years, where I learned more about it and more about where appropriation stems from and why it’s wrong. That really helped me articulate my thoughts, I think around things like how the terno sleeve and many other garments have been appropriated by the show. And most of my race-related reading up to the last year honestly had been solely AAPI focused. So I was focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders only, and not focused necessarily on racism and white supremacy as a whole, even though I understood concepts like the model minority myth and how they played into the bigger picture. But if you want to read more about the evolution of AAPI, as a community in the US, I recommend reading Frank Wu’s “Yellow”. And Helen Zia’s “Asian American Dreams”. They’re a bit dated now, but they still provide a lot of great context and history. And we’ll include links to them and other reading in the show notes. So to come back to this whole topic. Now that I’ve had my rant. Some people may argue that if others adopt the terno sleeve and other cultural garments into their sewing projects, it should be considered cultural appreciation instead of cultural appropriation.
Nicole: So I have heard this argument from other people from even Asian people about their own cultures that you know, it can be appreciation and not appropriation, but with the Great British Sewing Bee. I mean, it wasn’t appreciation, and it’s not appreciation.
Ada: So let’s unpack that today. So if you recall again in Episode 1, cultural appropriation stems from white supremacy, the white dominant culture in the US and other Western culture countries like the UK, were developed by erasing the cultures and identities of those that they colonized and enslaved. We quoted Emi Ito, a multicultural educator, on three P’s that are involved when it comes to cultural appropriation: power, profit and people. Power that the dominant culture has taken from another historically oppressed culture. Profit that the person from the dominant culture is typically making in return, and people, so the people of the oppressed culture being erased in the process. And the full text can be found in a blog post that we’ve linked to in our show notes.
From these definitions, you might start to see that the key to cultural appreciation is decentering whiteness, so this is why it’s not truly appreciation at play if there’s an element of exoticism or fetishization involved. Emi says in the same blog post where she mentions the three P’s, and I’m going to just read her quote directly: “Cultural exchange and appreciation at its best happens when there is a depth of commitment on both sides, that is based in a relationship of mutual respect, and even love.” And similarly, here’s another quote this time from Ijeoma Oluo in her book, “So you want to talk about race”. She says, “Appreciation should benefit all cultures involved, and true appreciation does. But appropriation, more often than not, disproportionately benefits the dominant culture that is borrowing from marginalized cultures, and can even harm marginalized cultures.”
Nicole: Thanks for sharing those quotes on cultural appropriation Ada, I do want to revisit the wearing a qipao to prom, we shared in Episode 1. And I know you were personally wondering that, you know, if a white person excused for doing this if they purchased a dress from a Chinese vendor?
From our research for this episode, we can conclude that this action doesn’t necessarily excuse the purchaser from appropriative behavior. Because there isn’t any evidence that they’ve deeply committed to learning about Chinese culture. There’s no evidence of any relationship of that mutual respect that the quotes we’re just talking about. In this case, it’s just a fancy transaction, which doesn’t predicate the appreciation of a culture. But even the act of purchasing and wearing a cultural garment just because they think it’s pretty or unique is rooted in whiteness. For example, the colonialist mindset that they’re entitled to everything, including things that are not theirs. And on the flip side, I’m trying to understand when it’s okay to wear or use items belonging to other cultures, rather than just preaching “No, don’t do whatever.” Like, for instance, you know, who can give permission to someone of another race to do it does one friend you know, saying it’s okay means that others can’t be hurt or complain about it.
Ada: Those are some really great questions and a cue for us to jump into how to know if you are culturally appropriating. And there’s a really great flow chart that was posted a while ago by @fash_rev on Instagram that you can refer to, we will obviously have a link to it in our show notes. But for those of you who can’t pull it up right now, I will do my best to boil it down into a few key questions to ask yourself.
So number one, where did your idea originate? Unless you’re absolutely certain that it’s completely unique, you need to keep asking questions like number two, whose culture were you inspired by your own or someone else’s? And if it was truly your own, then you’re set… otherwise, number three, has the culture you were inspired by been historically oppressed and exploited by your own or other cultures? And last but not least, number four, will the outcome of your idea contribute to cultural erasure or exploitation of other cultures, while enriching and profiting your own?
You can see those questions tie back into white supremacy and the three P’s. Again, this flowchart is by no means the only way you should assess yourself. Consider it a basic starting point in your education, and you’ll have to commit considerable time, like months and years, not just a few hours to this topic. Listen to a large variety of people, cultural groups and organizations talk about what they think is appropriative to form an educated answer for yourself.
Nicole: I don’t think answers are ever clear when it comes to cultural appropriation. You’re not going to get a yes or no that applies to everyone in every situation. For the most part, let’s try to answer some common questions that come out and other concerns now. And let’s cover the questions I asked earlier: Who can grant permission for someone to wear or use items belonging to a minority and does this concept of granting permission exist?
To answer this I’m going to refer to a reel posted by @amandaseales recently on Instagram. Amanda Sealse is an actor, comedian and host of the podcast “Small Doses”. Her father is Black, and she’s a dual citizen of the US and Grenada. And the gist of her video is that racism is more than just individuals. It’s about a system of oppression that individuals, groups of people and other systems, uphold. Cultural appropriation is not about individuals liking or not liking something that other people are doing. Again, it’s just another way in which individuals are upholding larger systems of oppression. Just how one black person saying they don’t experience anti-blackness doesn’t mean anti-blackness doesn’t exist. An individual person can’t excuse appropriation on behalf of their group.
Ada: And I think you also had another question that we should address. Is it cultural appropriation, if you are asked to wear something that doesn’t belong to your culture to a party? Or what if someone gets you an item and asks you to wear it? I’ve seen these questions come up, and a few examples: so mixed race couples getting married and cultural dress, even though one of them is white. Or personally, I attended an Indian wedding in Australia in 2019. And I struggled with whether it was appropriate for me to show up in a sari, which is a traditional Indian garment. And you might have seen it in some films. It is a garment that consists of a very long strip of fabric wrapped around the waist with one end and draped over the shoulder and it’s usually worn with a fitted bodice and a petticoat underneath. And let me tell you, draping it and putting it on is actually very difficult. Those YouTube videos make it look way easier than it actually is.
And in this case, my friend, the bride, offered to lend me something but I didn’t want to impose because you know, she had a big wedding to plan and I ended up buying something off of Etsy and following YouTube videos to dress myself and it was so embarrassing. I did it very, very wrong. And I am definitely not alone in the struggle because there were other Asians and white people at the wedding wearing cultural dress, Indian cultural dress, and I’m sure there are many other non-Indians who face similar dilemmas. And it just, I went through the whole night being like, why did I wear this incorrectly? I bet you all the aunties are judging me right now. Oh, and I just got another invite to another wedding that says wedding attire is semi-formal, feel free to wear either Indian or American, by which they mean Western attire. And I’m honestly, I think I’m gonna take the easy one out here and wear my Western wedding guest attire to this one. And you’ll remember that I defined cultural appropriation earlier. These examples tie back to the “requirement”, for lack of a better word, that there should be a mutual, close relationship of respect and love between the two parties. Mixed race parties dressed in cultural garments obviously have that close relationship. I had that friendship with the Indian bride, a relationship of mutual respect and love for each other and our cultures.
Nicole: Our producer Mariko has a friend named Shana who used to live in Japan, and she asked if it had been a cultural appropriation when she wore a yukata gifted to her by a Japanese neighbor to a summer festival. A yukata is an unlined summer kimono worn in casual settings. And the two most popular places to wear them are at summer festivals and to nearby bath houses. In this case, Shana obviously had a mutual close relationship of respect and love with her neighbor, for the neighbor to have given her such a gift. While this friend, you know, lived in Japan, she immersed herself in the culture and built strong ties with people there.
Ada: Right, so hopefully those examples will help many of our listeners understand if they are culturally appropriating in their daily lives. And next up to address that email we mentioned in the beginning on how to address cultural appropriation when you see it. Neither Nicole nor I are experts in this matter. So instead, I will share some anecdotes on how I’ve addressed it in the past and you can take from it what you will. So I’m personally a big believer in public praise and private criticism, it doesn’t really benefit anyone to have an all out flaming comment or on social media. And when I’m online, and I see a friend appropriating or perhaps not understanding what they’re doing, I prefer to message them privately instead of calling them out publicly.
For example, a white friend of mine really enjoys different Asian cultures’ food and she kept posting pictures of quote unquote fried rice that she made, but with her chopsticks stuck straight into the rice, which she was doing to clearly stage it to look more Asian. Right like how else would you know it was fried rice, but I can already, yeah, you groan, some other people are probably groaning. Listeners, if you didn’t know, sticking chopsticks into your rice is a big no, no, because it looks like incense sticks at a funeral and is an indicator of bad luck. This is something I got yelled at for doing when I was very little, and it stuck with me. And I think many people might have picked that up from their parents or their relatives, but not maybe known the meaning or the significance behind them. So I DM’d to this friend saying like, “Hi, I know you appreciate my culture and other Asian cultures. But FYI, most Asians would never stick chopsticks and rice like that.” And I explained the incense and bad luck part. And I was like this is, this is why we don’t do that. And I thought she was gonna get defensive. And that’s why I provided all that context. But she actually took it really well and hasn’t posted something like that since.
In another food related example, a local pan-Asian fusion restaurant where I’m based, is run by a white woman. And they posted that they were hiring, quote, unquote, samurais for their team. Samurais were warriors in pre-modern Japan, a ruling military class that eventually became the highest ranking social caste of the Edo period from 1603 to 1867. Obviously, she should not have used this term to refer to her restaurant stuff. But that day I was honestly, I was just too tired, just to talk about it. And so I shared it privately. And two white friends actually said in response, “I understand why this is wrong and why you are tired. I’m gonna go reach out and try to teach this other white woman like, you can, you can take a break today, I’m going to take this one on”, and I so appreciated that.
Nicole: Those are some good friends. Yeah, but my face is stuck in this like a face like when you were talking about those specific examples.
Ada: Oh, yeah. Ninjas, gurus, any job description that has those two either like? No.
Nicole: No. Yeah, I mean, those are some great friends. And I think something to think about is who should be doing the labor of understanding and explaining cultural appropriation. And it really shouldn’t be the people who are being oppressed.
So you know, we’re not the cultural appropriation police. And you know, people who are marginalized and oppressed shouldn’t be expected to fill this role. We’re not here to do the emotional and mental labor of correcting every instance of cultural appropriation and teaching everyone how exhausting it really is, it is and you know, so we need white allies. If anything the second anecdote is an example of people in a position of power investigating how they culturally appropriate, how they correct themselves, and so on and so on.
Now, when I say people in a position of power, I am referring to literally all white people in society, plus any people in a hierarchical position of power in an institution, addressing how you culturally appropriate and what to do about it is a small way to contribute toward active daily anti-racism work.
Ada: And for individuals or businesses who think they might be culturally appropriating or get called out on it, like we said in Episode 1, if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable, we encourage you to really unpack those emotions and try to understand its root cause. Right, take a step back, do some research and do the deep critical thinking that will help you identify where you might have appropriated a culture that’s not your own, and really identify where the three P’s so power, profit and people took place.
Nicole: An example of a business that effectively responded to cultural appropriation is Blackbird Fabrics. Blackbird Fabrics is a sewing fabrics and supply store based in Vancouver, Canada. They put up a great post, which again, we’ll link in the show notes where they you know, one, publicly stated that they stand in solidarity with the AAPI community to amplify Asian voices such as quoting Leila of @leila_sews on Instagram, on the use of language when describing fabrics as well as the language used to describe patterns they sell and promote in their shops. @leila_sews is the pattern maker at Muna and Broad, which she started up with Jess @fat.bobbin.girl on Instagram.
Blackbird Fabrics also clearly and transparently outlined their game plan. They reviewed their inventory and removed any patterns that included appropriative or fetishizing language within their titles and descriptions. They also reached out to pattern designers whose patterns have similarly problematic language and said that they would not restock the patterns until the references are removed. Then more importantly, they moderated their comments and responded appropriately, hateful and unconstructive comments were deleted. Another user pointed out that the term anorak refers to a traditional Greenlandic Inuit garment, and that was being appropriated as a name of a generic waterproof jacket pattern. And Blackbird Fabrics acknowledged it and removed it immediately. There are also several instances where they address questions and basically took a stand and stuck by it.
Ada: Yeah, they definitely stood out I think in the last aspect by properly addressing comment moderation, and this was in a huge contrast to Papercut Patterns’ Instagram posts on removing their pattern collection named for Japanese cities. Papercut Patterns is a New Zealand-based sewing pattern design house and they turned off comments overnight and their timezone which is daytime in the US or North America but they still freely allowed others to attack Asians in the comment section, including a few members of our Collective, myself included. Only time can tell how legitimately committed Blackbird Fabrics is and Papercut Patterns are to anti-racism work. But addressing and correcting cultural appropriation is a step in the right direction. We just have to see what their long-term actions will look like.
Nicole: That’s all we have today on this topic. No doubt. You’re now more aware of cultural appropriation. Hopefully you’ll notice it more and more because really, it’s just everywhere. And the key thing is to keep learning. Check out the resources we have in our show notes, but also do your own research. Keep listening to people who call out cultural appropriation. You should seek multiple opinions on the same issue because individuals again, don’t represent their larger group.
But seek these opinions in a way that you’re not further burdening, marginalized individual with zero compensation for their time and effort. Look out for common themes that echo Emi Ito’s three Ps, reread her article where she dives into cultural appropriation and what appreciation really looks like and don’t forget to support the work of folks who are doing this cultural appropriation work like Emi and Yuki.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Ada and I wrapping our heads around this concept and we still struggle to get it right even though we talk about it within the Collective. So keep on learning, we can only get better.
Ada: Hey listeners, before we end this episode, after recording, it came to our attention that there was another example of continued cultural appropriation in the sewing community that needed to be addressed. A few years ago, Gertie Hirsch of Charm Patterns collaborated with Butterick and released the B6483 pattern which is a quote Asian-inspired dress. But really let’s call it what it is, a bastardized qipao or cheongsam.
In a video on the McCall’s YouTube channel, she says the pattern was inspired by a cheongsam and then tries to rationalize the design by saying it was, “Borrowed very heavily from Western culture around post World War Two. So what I’ve done is sort of a 50’s take on the cheongsam.” Now, I do have to say it looks like this pattern is now out of print, thank goodness. But if you’re not familiar with Gertie’s work or style, she focuses heavily on vintage and retro patterns.
And like we highlighted with the rockabilly targeted prop styling earlier in the episode: sewing vintage style clothing isn’t a free pass to culturally appropriate. If a pattern or garment was appropriated in the 50’s, that doesn’t make it okay to call it vintage and keep doing it now. We all know better now and we should be doing better. But in this case, it doesn’t seem like any changes were made or learning happened because last summer, Gertie released the Harlow pajamas which were originally called the Hostess Lounge Set and featured a Mandarin collar and frog closures. And she said that this pattern was based on vintage tea timers from Hawaii and there was immediate and swift backlash.
Looking at the photos, the pattern is basically exoticism and appropriation all in one. So it was revised and renamed and now it’s a round neck pajama top that still has frog closures, and Gertie made a donation to the Asian American Arts Alliance. She then filmed a video to address the history of the cheongsam with Renee of @br0ck_and_roll on Instagram, which is not publicly available anymore as of this recording. And I think it’s important to again highlight that even though one person from a culture might say it’s okay, appropriation isn’t about individuals not liking something that other individuals are doing. It’s just another way in which individuals are upholding larger systems of oppression.
And if we go back to the three P’s, when it comes to cultural appropriation: power, profit and people. Gertie is still profiting off of marginalized and oppressed cultures that are not hers, and by continuing to defend her decisions, despite the backlash from the AAPI community and Asians around the world, hiding behind artistic freedom and calling the output “her take” on these cultures, she is also contributing to the erasure of these cultures. And this is yet again a clear example that the sewing world has a long way to go if someone with this much influence still felt it was okay to launch a pattern like that.
Thank you so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. Next week, Ellie Lum of Portland-based brand Klum House will be making a guest appearance on our pod. If you like our show, you can support us by following us on Instagram at @asiansewistcollective, that’s one word Asian Sewist Collective.
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Nicole: This episode is brought to you by your co-hosts Ada Chen and Nicole Angeline. This episode was researched by Jana Ai Morimoto, produced by Mariko Abe and edited by Leslie Rehm Hunt and Henry Wong. Thank you so much to other members of our collective who made this week’s episode a reality. This is the Asian Sewist Collective podcast and we’ll see you next week.