9.15.2017

wax on, wax off


A surprising sidebar came up in a recent post, the original topic of which was surprising in itself (however, said surprises were most likely surprising specifically to me, which is unsurprising, as I am surprised by A LOT these days.)

Of course, the post was about anything but the wax print dress pictured (and after 143 comments, I'm tapped out on that discussion). However, Gillian, one of the most thoughtful members of our stitching community, brought up a sewing dilemma:

Gillian: I've never decided if it's ok for a white lady like me to use Ankara fabric. Cultural appropriation, or awesome print used with knowledge of its history? I don't know, and it's not the kind of thing any one person can decree is ok or not, so here I am, Ankara-less!


Well, my friend, my FRIENDS, as Mixed-Chick-Party-Of-One, I am here to resoundingly decree this ever so much more than "ok." In fact: GO FOR IT!


Go for it, because it is fabric, and who better to treat a beautiful fabric with the respect it deserves than a home sewist?  A commenter pointed out:

Anonymous: as a white lady who appreciates the beauty of African and many other ethnic patterns I would hope that when I employ its use in my own creations others will perceive it as a thing of beauty and my joy in presenting it as such.


Go for it, because, as several commenters were quick to add, its backstory is as mixed as the chick who runs this here blog: it is of Dutch origins, but intended as a knockoff of Indonesian Batik. The "flaws" in processing spoke not to Indonesia, but to Africa, and the colors and prints were changed to suit the audience--geometric shapes and vivid colors, rather than the more muted floral design of Batik. It's now produced in Africa & China as well, and you could call those knockoffs, or you could say the original was intended as a knockoff in the first place. Is it distinctly an African fabric now? Yes. But in my opinion, it's more of an as-tweed-is-British and denim-is-American sort of thing, not a question of racial appropriation. Don't get me wrong, I understand, and am often hindered by, the lines in the sand drawn over race. Some are real, some are manufactured, some grow by perception. Two out of three of those lines should be crossed.

Karen: I am very aware of the multi-cross-cultural journey these patterns have made from Indonesia to West Africa, while both were under Dutch colonial subjugation, and are still being made in The Netherlands! Culture and language are very complex things, continually evolving to reflect current conditions. Let's keep our minds open to other peoples' truths.


Go for it, because, as its origins prove, MIXING IT UP A WONDERFUL THING. And something we are in dire need of today. Yes, I understand the ignorance of wearing a ceremonial Lakota war bonnet to a music festival, but I don't think any sewists wanting to dip their toes in wax print waters are talking about sporting a Kente head wrap.

Leigh: It's just fabric, unless you exact copy a traditional african dress. That could look a bit odd as they're kind of distinct, but you know what? They look comfortable, and how many people have made "kimono jackets" and didn't get crucified in the press?


Go for it, because of the joy you will create around you. Another commodity we are in dire need of today. It is impossible not to smile when you see 12,000 colors walking towards you. And if you don't want to wear 12,000 colors, choose a more docile print like the one I'm sporting here! YES IT'S DOCILE I MEAN IT'S PRACTICALLY A SOLID IN COMPARISON.

CinderellaRidvan: I will say that my ambuyas (grandmothers and aunties) are delighted to see my white friends wearing it, they say the everyone looks better in beautiful prints...


If a civilian raises an eyebrow? Politely divulge the bio of this glorious mixed up cloth. (You could also ask if they're into Rock n Roll, and if so, how much Little Richard do they have in their collection.)

Erika: I am a white lady, who has lived in Zambia and Uganda, who has several garments made of US patterns with African fabrics. I figure it will upset some people, and not others, and my job is to be ready to have a conversation with people who are upset, with a humble open heart.

If a sewist chastises you for using the improper name for it? Again, go for the origin story. There are many names for this stuff, and they are all proper. However. If you've chosen to call it Dutch wax print, and a homesick lass compliments you on your fabric from Ghana? Um, do not inform her of the technicalities of the origins of wax print. Recognize, as I did not, that she's lonely, and it lifted her day to spot some fabric from her homeland. Hey, Professor Sewist: technicality isn't always paramount.

CinderellaRidvan: culture is more about nuance and belief than technicalities.


Well, if you've been on the fence, I hope I've convinced you to jump in, along with these thoughtful words from my fellow sewists! If I had my way, wax print would be everywhere... and all the buildings would be painted in technicolor, and pizza would be free, and we'd have little wine spigots on the streets that popped on every day at dusk...

(One last GO FOR IT: Because you get 6 yards in every cut! Now, if you're like me, you will dive into your bounty with wild abandon, and come very quickly to a point where you realize that while you can make 3 garments out of 1 cut, you cannot print match across seams if you didn't plan ahead. That happened here, with Vogue 9253. Patience and planning. Who knew. Now go sew some wax print.)

71 comments:

  1. Hello and thank you for this Marcy. I have been waiting for your decree whilst hoping I don't have to give over my wax skirt :) gonna celebrate with a fresh 6 yard cut as soon as I can! Everyone looks beautiful in colourful patterned fabric yay! X

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    1. WELL! Of course, I'm glad to hear you were waiting specifically for my decree, as I really do like to feel all-powerful 😂. Would love to see your wax skirt!

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  2. I have never before commented on your blog which makes this next half a sentence super weird, but thank you, I love you and you make the world so much better. I'm going to go buy some wax prints!

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    1. I couldn't ask for a better first comment :)). I hope you've snagged some beauties!

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  3. This is a great topic... I think most people who recognize the fabric enough to know what it is will probably be happy someone appreciated it and found a way to use it in their "American" wardrobe. There might be times it was inappropriate -- like if you're visiting an African dignitary in Africa... then, many things could be considered appropriate and you would seek out a cultural advisor. And, wearing something of obvious religious significance (I'm thinking priest vestments, muslim burka) could be seen as being disrepectful of the religion.

    I work in a programming environment and about 98% of my staff are Indian. I wanted to dress in a salwar kameez I had custom made in India on a trip to my office Halloween party -- I was going as a programmer - lol. I asked a couple of my Indian coworkers, they thought it was great and painted a bindi on my forehead. They loved that I was interested enough in their culture to want to dress traditionally. And, I wore that same outfit at a Christmas party because it happened to be dark green with gold sequins... very fancy.

    Anytime I've dressed this pale obviously American body in anything from another culture, I've usually gotten positive responses from people who recognize it.

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    1. You know, I was nodding my head with you on the religious vestments...and then I remembered I made ties out of altar cloth as christmas gifts last year! Um, oops?

      I love your double party story! How wonderful, that in that (seemingly) small, (definitely) fun way, it brought y'all together to share cultures.

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  4. Marcy, I also want to think you for this encouraging and frank discussion. I love African wax prints. Your collection of me-made garments using them are divine. But I'm embarrassed to admit, I've been afraid to sew with them myself for exactly the reasons that sparked this discussion in the first place. I was afraid my black sewing friends would think I was being offensive. Or that I'd get labeled as an "appropriator." I didn't know if I was "allowed" to sew with them. Isn't that crazy? But you've inspired me to think about it entirely differently and now I don't know what I was so afraid of. Thanks!

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    1. I do hope this has changed your mind, or that you might start a conversation with your sewing friends if you're still worried! To be honest, it never entered my mind that this was a worry for people, but actually, several sewists had approached me about the question of wax print and race, in private. And my answer is always: wear ALL the color.

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  5. I have had these thoughts about the African looking prints too. My daughter who is mixed race told me when I was about to buy a cool looking tunic with an African looking design that I couldn't wear that because I'm white. I truly don't think there are any clothes that are unwearable for some people. That is a silly rule. Rules are made to be broken.

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    1. I hope your reply to your daughter included those last three sentences, because they are the truth! My sentiments exactly.

      I can relate as a mixed kid, we get pulled in many directions, with many conflicting rules, and there were probably six other people's opinions talking when she said you couldn't wear that...but those six other people, with their rules...well, as you said. They were made to be broken!

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  6. You are so very right that the world needs more joy. It's absolutely essential these days. I love how you said that a home sewist was lol treat this amazingly diverse fabric with the reverence that it deserves.

    Our creative community is all the richer for having you in it.

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    1. Muah Sarah! I mean, fabric is gold to us, who better to handle it?

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  7. You are a treasure!

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  8. This fabric is your spirit animal because you have made ALL the garments from it!

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    1. WAX FABRIC IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL?!!! YESSSSSSS!!!!!

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    2. Its hard reading these comments after such a thoughtful piece. In my region (Alberta, Canada), Spirit Animal being used in this context is seen as a pretty harmful version of cultural appropriation.

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    3. It would be easier to reply to this comment thoughtfully if you let us in to your reasonings on it being harmful, and helped us to understand your specific culture. But there are many cultures and religions in which the form/idea/icon of a "spirit animal" exists, and in my colorful vocabulary, I would absolutely regard wax print as such. Communing with fabric is my church.

      (Also, I'm Lakota. And fellow fabric lover Carolyn's positive intent should be taken into consideration. And colorful use of language is how I roll here. And I could, and would, just as easily say "I found Jesus when I first worked with silk crepe de chine," even as a lapsed Catholic, and offend a whole other group of people. To live a life where you purposely offend no one is likely impossible.)

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  9. LOOK at all those makes!! Amazing.

    I stayed in a small Maasai village in Tanzania for a short time. While it would have been completely inappropriate for me to dress in robes, I did have a couple of skirts made in wax print. The ladies who made them and Mama Judith who I was staying with were so happy to see me wearing bright colourful patterns rather than beige and khaki as they felt it was far more beautiful to do so. This made me feel that it was OK, if the people who 'owned' that fabric were cool with it and encouraging it then it wasn't inappropriate. but like you say - just one perspective and I actually haven't worn these skirt since I left Africa as it just didn't feel right. How's that for a contradiction.

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    1. Charlie, I LOVE this story! I can just picture your friends being so happy to see you out of beige! (Although you truly do rock a beige.) Now, are these skirts still in your possession? Could I coax you into a double wax print outing? Would a rooftop drink sweeten the deal?

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    2. Hi Charlotte,

      :-) I have a similiar story to share.
      My daughter lived in the Kongo for 2 years and was asked to wear more vibrant colours rather then the dull blue and dark green without any prints.
      She had made skirts from local garnment then, too and was complimented.

      Regards,
      Claudia

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  10. Your blog always makes me smile and most always laugh out loud. I have twice purchased said fabric but they are both still percolating. After seeing what you make, I head over to to Mood to check them out again. Jean

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    1. Thank you, Jean!

      No harm in percolating...I've had some silk CDC marinating for over five years!

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  11. Thank you for your thoughts on this! I wish we lived in a world where everyone felt good about wearing whatever gorgeous prints they want without worrying about intent being misinterpreted. But in the meantime, I'd still love to get my hands on some wax print. (I also wish that pizza was free, since I have two future teenage boys to feed!)

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    1. YIKES. Becky! You need a free pizza grant!!

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  12. YAYYYYYYY! Wax prints for all!!!! Thank you for tis post - and it's truly making me happy to the bottom of my heart sewists are awesome and open about discussing things. Always lovely to be able to ask any question, no matter how odd, and get a wonderful answer!

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    1. To be honest it wasn't an odd question, though it never occurred to me! I've had several ladies contact me in private to ask the very same thing, so I the concern is obviously out there. NOW. I wanna see you in wax print like it's ITY!!

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  13. Marcy -- I can't tell you just how much I needed to read this post at this very moment! Not too long ago, I was given an assignment to create a how-to article and video for a "mudcloth-inspired" wall hanging, and I was really torn up over the cultural appropriation question. I know that appreciating a textile on a wall may not make the same waves as donning another culture's ceremonial dress -- but the idea of making a faux (some would say bastardized) version of a textile associated with a cultural region instead of buying authentic handmade pieces from regional artisans (which can get pretty pricey) is frowned upon by many. BUT, I say if you genuinely love the aesthetic, and that aesthetic brings you joy -- why not reverently DIY it? I wrote an intro about the authentic mudcloth hand-dyeing technique and the symbolic significance of the patterns with the hopes of educating would-be DIYers, but still wasn't feeling 100% as to the ok-ness of it. Such an eggshell laden path this is!

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    1. HELLO BEAUTIFUL!!!

      Ahem. So! I totally get your concern-- but, yeah, I think taking the time to create something, and not say, walking into a Pottery Barn and buying some apothecary/Aztec/candleholder/religious icon (shades of Phoebe on "Friends" ;) is just worlds apart. (Plus, I just found your post, and not only is your DIY beautiful-- I learned about mudcloth, which I wouldn't have otherwise!)

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    2. Thanks for visiting!! So HAPPY that you like the DIY and that you learned a little something about mudcloth in the process. I envision a day we can all happily and freely wear/display/generally enjoy beautiful things from around the world for their inherent loveliness without fear of the socio-economic-political implications.

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  14. I'm going to take everyone's lovely comments to heart and take my question in a sewing direction: what is your favorite pattern/style to sew with wax prints? I have several fabrics my parents brought back from Malawi for me but I've struggled finding a project for them because the scale of the prints is huge and being on the far end of the big 4 size spectrum scale is a consideration for me. Thanks!

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    1. Oh man, good question! Hard question! I can envision just about any pattern looking phenomenal in wax print... but, the larger motifs can be easier to handle, placement wise, with larger pattern pieces that don't chop up the print. Any Big 4 skirt patterns with fewer pieces are a great place to start.

      The Vogue 9253 in this post has only 4 pieces, if you want to tackle a dress!

      I've got two of Mimi G's patterns from sewsewdefmag in mind for ankara:

      https://mimi-g-style-inc.myshopify.com/products/the-jessica
      https://mimi-g-style-inc.myshopify.com/products/the-katie (I've made the Katie, LOVE it)

      Dress wise, I've used BHL's anna dress (pictured in the upper left of the collage)

      https://byhandlondon.com/products/anna-dress

      You could even do an oversized shirt dress, like Simplicity 8340. Keep in mind that the fabric will change dramatically if you choose to wash it. The wax comes off and it becomes a much drapier, softer cotton. I've laid out pattern pieces on the cross grain as well, to take advantage of the placement, and it's always worked out fine!

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  15. Well, I actually work in the field of multicultural training, communication and healing so of course, this posting and the comments were riveting to me. But my actual first reaction was: Marcy - congratulations! You avoided the headlights on the boobs! Right? Those red flowers could definitely wind up in some compromising places. Good thing the cuts come with 6 yards!

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    1. HAHAAA!! YES! Since I played with the 6 yards pretty hard beforehand,I only had a bit left to play with for this dress, so the boob headlights were my MAIN concern. Good eye, Melinda!

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  16. When I saw Gillian's question I hoped you would answer, as I have often wondered the exact same thing. Thanks Marcy, for continuing to make sewing inclusive and fearless by giving this commentary about ethnic fabrics and helping with sensitivities. Keep it coming!

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    1. You're welcome, Cadi :)). Hope you've been inspired to try some!

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  17. I would love to use these prints but haven't seen them in local fabric shop. Does anyone know if they're available in Australia.

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    1. Hoping someone can answer this! I know that AKN Fabrics ships internationally, but I imagine the cost is prohibitive...

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    2. Yes ;) Both from online vendors like the lovely Brave Fabrics (bravefabrics.com) and locally if where you are has an african presence. I know there are suburbs in both Melbourne and Sydney that have wonderful fabrics, and supplies for curly hair, in close proximity ;)

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  18. You know, I have never thought about not using wax print. I love it. I love what you make out of it and my other favourite lady making with wax print is @sewvee on Instagram. So many gorgeous dresses. I'm Louise @louisemlewis on Instagram. I'm all for using what ever fabric makes you happy!

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    1. Yes, Sewvee's wardrobe is AMAZING! Can you imagine what the inside of her closet looks like? You'd need sunglasses.

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  19. As another old white lady, I very much thank you for a great conversation! While I don't currently have the skill and expertise to create such wonderful pieces, you give me something to aspire to. I love reading your blog and seeing your creations. Thanks for the joy you bring.

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    1. You are most welcome, and still: go for it! With 6 yards, the skill & expertise will come with all of that glorious, colorful, trial & error you'll get to do :)))

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  20. Thanks! I love wax prints and love clothes made with them!

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    1. hope you're adding some to your closet :))

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  21. So I read this post, then the older post, then checked out AKN Fabrics. Thanks for that link. I had been wondering where you got those wildly beautiful prints. Yes, this one is tame compared to a lot of them. Wow! I will admit, and I hope I don't get too bashed for this, that I consider all fabrics, of whatever origin or ethnic history, to be "fair game" for any home sewist. Sewing is about being creative, and using the raw elements to create something that expresses one's individual aesthetic. It is vey nearly art. At least, that is what I have thought. I never realized it had such potential to be a minefield for the politically correct. Live and learn, I guess.

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    1. Nikki, you won't get any bashing from me, I completely agree! And it's nice that we can diffuse a few mines (or is that deactivate?)

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  22. Wow I did not know so much thought went into whether to use beautiful colorful fabrics or not. It is amazing that thoughts of race apply to whether to use certain fabrics or not.

    I have been sewing (clothing) and making (quilts) for many years and I love colorful and vibrant'ethnic' fabrics whether they are Australian, Mexican, African, Indian, etc. I have never given much thought to whether I should use them but I use them because I love them. The colors and patterns speak to me.

    This thread of discussion has been an education for me. I say sew on, create on, use whatever you deem appropriate for you without the mental confines associated with who should use what because of.... In my eyes, fabric is a creative medium to be used to create something beautiful.

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    1. Absolutely, I agree with you completely. Color and pattern makes the world go round!

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  23. Just thinking about origins....
    Weren't both silk and flannel Chinese inventions?
    Are we counting the stiffer Thai silk as a separate product?
    Handwoven tentweight weavings from the Middle East....
    Saris, and so on.
    It's all just fabric, and meant to see use.

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    1. and, fittingly for this post, I think China also holds claim to pizza :)

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  24. I am an American living in Kenya. I sew often with African fabrics, and my Kenyan friends and colleagues are always pleased to see me using the local fabrics and compliment what I make with them. The joy in these patterns is definitely something to be shared and celebrated. I completely agree with your encouragement to anyone attracted to them (how can you resist!), Marcy. Love everything you make!

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    1. Thank you, Iove to hear about your personal experience! (And, applause on your handle, goddess of love.)

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  25. Thanks for your thoughts! Your post reminded me of a super interesting podcast I listened to a few months ago. The Stoop did an episode on whether African Americans can appropriate African fashion. I highly recommend a listen: http://www.thestoop.org/home/2017/7/17/1-nice-tribal-wear-now-take-it-off

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    1. oooo, now that looks intriguing...from the title, I'm going to guess I'll disagree with them...but maybe they're mad at hipsters? I get SUPER mad at hipsters.

      I love guessing games.

      I'll be listening this weekend (hopefully while sewing ankara, actually!).

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  26. So I gather there is NO black on black print available?! WHAT A SHAME!

    All this cultural stuff gave me an awesome idea... I will bother you with it on IG privately...

    :D

    You know, I like you Oona-Marcy.

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    1. HAHAHAAA! (you know I like you too, my somber hued friend)

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  27. First time commenting, but I have to tell you, that my BFF's daughter just got back from Tanzania, and she brought BFF an amazing piece of Wax Print. When she sent me the picture of it, asking what to do with it, suggesting home dec (!!!) I immediately sent your picture to her and said, "A dress!"

    So thank you for the inspiration!

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    1. OH! I do hope she leaves the home dec where it belongs (which, in the eyes of this sewist, is in the aisles of Target 😂. Home Dec sewing is the DEVIL).

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  28. I am in the middle of working on my dress made from Ankara fabric. (It said "Guaranteed Dutch Wax" on the selvage) I'm going for it and I'm loving it.

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    1. Yes, in fact that selvedge marking is the way to know you've got the "real thing" (but, in my eyes fabric produced elsewhere can be just as lovely). I LOVE the print you got from HouseOfMamiWata! Can't wait to see what you do with it :))

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  29. Oh thanks for opening up this topic! (and also the other discussion, the comment notification thingy didn't work an I only just popped back and was blown away by the time and thought you put into your replies!) I've always wondered about wax fabric, especially as they are so so gorgeous, going to look at dipping my toes in all that glorious colour for sure now!

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    1. That was a lengthy discussion...and thank you for your thoughts on it, they were illuminating.

      And: glorious color; SUPER YES. It's hard for me to imagine anyone looking at all that glorious color, and resisting!

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  30. I love color, I love big bold prints, but as a white lady, I am going to continue giving these types of prints a wide berth.

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  31. trellisSeptember 22, 2017 at 4:02 AM
    I did wonder for a while whether it was ok for a white person to wear it but as I understood more about the history of the fabric, I became at ease with it. I'm lucky to work near Brick Lane in East London and there are many stores selling wax print - so I have bought and used quite a bit of it over the years and have never experienced anything other than a positive reception. I think deep down most people are aware of what is and is not disrespectful and racist, but some unfortunately choose to ignore those instincts. For example, I cannot personally imagine sporting a wrapper and blouse except in very specific circumstances (e.g. at a Nigerian wedding at the invitation of the hosts) because to do so would be kind of strange - even though there is a big Nigerian/Ghanaian community in my area.

    As my partner is South African I've also used sweshwe http://www.africanfabric.co.uk/fabrics-textiles/african-fabrics/shwe-shwe-colours, which again has a long complicated international history. http://mrstrellis.cream.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/DSCF7722-e1467825159150.jpg It's a much more structured fabric and tends to be more muted than wax print and, like wax print, has a distinctive, pleasant smell that takes South Africans of a certain age on a nostalgia trip.

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  32. Hi Marcy! Thanks to you and Gillian I promptly ordered 3 pieces of gorgeous wax print fabric. It arrived yesterday and it went into the washer and dryer a couple times and this morning I pressed them all. I'm so excited to make something bold and colorful now. I'm looking at your dresses for ideas that would work on this older, wider, whiter individual. Keep sewing girl!!

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  33. I myself have often wondered if it was "okay" for me, as a white woman, to make/wear something out of African Wax print. I tend to be more a florals fan, but should I spot a wax print I like, I'll go for it!

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  34. I'm late to the party (as usual) but I wanted to thank you for the permission. I have some slightly imperfect fabric, I think it's wax print, that I've been procrastinating about. I've got enough for a maxi skirt (my latest obsession) & maybe a scarf. Whooo hooo!

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i thankya truly for taking the time to comment, i love a good conversation-- and hope you know my thanks are always implied, if not always written!