Five years ago, I went to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African nation. I never wrote a full blog post about it, mostly because I was there for a training conference and had only a few opportunities to venture outside of the hotel. But on arrival the first day, my friend and colleague Jessica and I made our way from the hotel’s leafy lakeside neighborhood to Ouagadougou (pronounced wa-ga-doo-goo) proper. Later that year, I would get into a serious car accident and lose nearly all photos from 2014-2015 when my computer melted into a puddle on the passenger seat of my burned-out Honda Civic. So all I have is my memory, five years later, to recount our market adventure.
We hailed a shared cab – a cross between a private cab and a very very small bus – from one of the usual stops. In terrible French, I told the driver where we were headed, and handed over the required fare in cefas, the currency shared by a handful of West African nations. He motioned us out the door at the stop and we made our way to the central indoor market. The market that I remember was a brutalist structure, somehow both an indoor and outdoor space, with a looping path through the building, up stairs, across elevated walkways, with patches of sunlight between floor after floor of stalls lit with bare lightbulbs. I was immediately disoriented: a market is enough sensory input on a good day, on flat ground outside, but here, I was reminded of the winding bowels of the Warsaw Centrale train station, where time seemed to suspend.
As usual, two white women created a minor spectacle: the hawkers calling in French, children suddenly appearing at our side, adamant that they would guide us through the market. I don’t remember what Jessica was looking for, but I had a mission: indigo fabric produced from Mossi artisans. I had done a little textile sleuthing before flying from Rwanda to Burkina Faso. I’d expected a textile culture similar to Malian Bògòlanfini mud cloth, which is currently enjoying a moment of popularity in on Pinterest boards and modernist-Boho interior design*. Burkina Faso sits at the edge of the Sahara; the desert’s hot harmattan winds roll through during the dry season. And from Google satellite, the color of the land is an ombre from desert to dusty green in the south, with Ouagadougou squarely in shades of tan. I remember that same color when I arrived: everything a muted, dusted, brown. I assumed that the cloth culture would match: the muted tones and simple but striking figures of tannic palette mud cloth. But instead, in my pre-trip research, I came across the deep blue of indigo. Indigo. Blue gold.
Blue gold across the world.
Indigo, that rich blue hue, shows up in textiles across the world. The dye is derived from plant members of the indigofera tinctorial family: leaves are boiled or steeped and the resulting deep blue plant tea is fermented and then used for dyeing processes. According to Indigo Arts, indigofera tinctorial grows across Asia (India, Indonesia, China, Japan, and Korea), the Americas (Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and Peru), and all across Africa. Each region has its own recipe and approach, from fermenting the dye to techniques to affix it and pattern the textiles.
In Sri Lanka, I visited AMMA, a non-profit collective that trains women in weaving, dyeing, and sewing techniques. Their dyes were far more muted that what indigofera tinctorial would produce; the women of AMMA choose instead to use food scraps and local flora to dye their loom-woven fabric. One of the women showed me a book with samples of the dyeing compounds and time required for their bespoke colors. In the kitchen attached to the workspace, a large pot bubbled away with a cut of loomed fabric and avocado skins that looked like pieces of old tyres. The color result, though, defied the messiness of the production process.
Avocado skins and their resulting hues at AMMA.
The first step for dyeing any textile is, of course, having some form of textile to begin with: in Burkina Faso, Mossi indigo artisans would initially use strip weaving – like the strips that form the basis of Ghanaian kente cloth – which allows textile makers to use small looms and stitch each strip together to form a larger piece of cloth.
Historic kente and a loom at the National Museum of Ghana, Accra
I didn’t see these versions for sale in the Ouagadougou market – and perhaps would not have been able to afford the high price tag for such labor-intensive goods. Instead, we were presented with the more budget option: artisans used pre-manufactured damask fabric as the canvas for resist dyeing. Jessica and I found ourselves in a closet-sized stall, plastic-wrapped cuts of the indigo-dyed damask surrounding us from floor to ceiling. I didn’t even know where to start, but left with six cuts of the fabric, two of which, five years later, house-bound because of the coronavirus lockdown, I am using to hand quilt a bed-covering that I started sewing with my grandmother in California.
Today, when I hold the Ouagadougou fabric up to the English summer sun, I can see the base underneath the rich color: it’s a lightweight material with a subtle embossed pattern, the fabric of tablecloths and curtains beloved by grannies the world over. The pattern is like a watermark, adding a subtle texture, perceptible when I begin a running stitch to sandwich the pieces of the quilt together and begin to produce that slightly puffy, textured quilted surface.
The embossing of the damask.
So many of the traditions which utilize indigo dye – Japanese shibori, Indonesian batiks, Nigerian Adire cloth – specialize in different forms of resist dyeing, either through some form of tying or stamping or painting the fabric with a substance that will be removed after the dyeing process. The Yoruba of Nigeria produce Adire cloth; they employ raffia resist methods, such as tying small portions of the fabric or binding up stones or sticks (see Indigo Arts). As with the rubber band tie-dye method favored by American summer camps, the bound and scrunched spots remain white whilst the rest of the cloth becomes rich blue. Similar methods are practiced with Japanese shibori (a word which means to wring, squeeze, or press). The primary fabric with large sunbursts that I’m using in the quilt – one I am loath to cut – was created with this method.
Adire and shibori artisans also use folding methods, where fabric is elaborately folded and bound around pieces of wood or cardboard. The piece I use for the edge of the bedcover displays this method, where some sort of accordion folding, binding, and dyeing process results in a subtle herringbone design. Tapered oval shapes are embossed on the damask under the dye – visible in the photo.
Herringbone design from a folding method dyeing technique.
A final method – and perhaps the most common throughout Africa, especially in manufactured cloth – uses wax (or, for Adire, starch). During a trip to Ghana, my friend Annie and I tried a basic wax dyeing process: large andinkra stamps were dipped in hot wax and then stamped onto white fabric. That fabric was then dyed, fixed, and rinsed; the final stage involved a rinse in very hot water to loosen the wax. What remained was the crinkled white fabric beneath. I used the resulting fabric for a throw showcasing what will be the final stage for the Ouagadougou fabric: the old world tradition of hand quilting.
This is the stage where my textile adventure becomes more domestic and home-bound. I got back to the States mid-2015, a two month break between contract projects in East Africa. I brought back fabric that I bought for my grandmother in Rwanda: the vivid Dutch wax fabric ubiquitous in East African markets. I remember one pattern I brought her: a rich chocolate background decorated with vines, ferns, birds … and yo-yos. To me this was emblematic of the artistic joy de vivre of East African prints: another favorite included a design of mustard yellow background dotted with 10-inch electric fans. Another fabric that I commonly saw fashioned into wrappers, headscarves, and full Rwandan dresses had symbols for money: British pounds, U.S. dollars, Japanese yen, and the € of euros. These patterns were downright dull in comparison to fabrics I saw in DR Congo and throughout West Africa: limited-edition prints of politicians running for office (and others that celebrated America’s first African-American president) or in memorial of the recently departed, their faces looking out seriously from shoulders, bellies, backs, and calves.
My indigo fabrics, I decided, were destined for quilts. I had one print made into a dress, but every time I wore the dress, my stomach and upper thighs were patinaed blue like the skin of a washed-out Smurf. Multiple washing could not compete with sweat and friction and it continues, to this day, to leach a subtle cool hue: thank goodness we don’t have any white furniture.
My grandmother, the artisan.
I learned how to quilt from my grandmother, Nancy. When I was in university, I would join her at a Meissner’s sewing machine store, for one Friday night each month. The store called it “UFO Night” – “unfinished objects”. You paid $5, contributed a potluck dish to share with the other quilters and seamstresses, and brought a project that you had started but just couldn’t manage to finish. I was always the youngest by multiple decades. My grandmother would bring a machine for her and one for me, and we would work side by side: she often worked on quilt blocks from block-of-the-month clubs; I made ill-fitting garments that usually went unworn. The Meissner’s store, a large industrial building off of the I-80 business loop in Sacramento with a giant sewing needle outside, carried a selection of expensive quilting fabric alongside sergers and long-arm quilting machines. I was quickly seduced by the prints which mimicked Japanese designs: untranslated red kanji on a black backdrop, intricate cranes and women in kimonos, gold-edged koi. I would buy fat quarters (1/4 yard cuts) of the fabrics that spoke to me – more than 20 in total, over several months. Watching the cutting and piecing techniques of the women around me, and (usually) heeding the prudent advice of my expert grandmother, I machine pieced my first full-sized quilt top, managing the required geometry and seam-allowance math for a straight, flat finished piece.
Quilt geometry: trying to ensure that corners match — always a little unsteady with hand piecing. Detail from a quilt of East African fabrics made for my supervisor’s sister.
For weeks after finishing the quilt top, I sat on her sofa, watching black-and-white war era rom-coms like The More the Merrier and Dear Ruth and completing by hand the actual quilting for the finished product. A quilt consists of three layers: the top, the batting (or wadding as they call it in the UK), and the backing. Stitching goes through all three layers, holding the pieces in place and creating that slightly puffy, textured quilted surface. My grandmother once told me that stitching should be a maximum of one inch apart on all sides: otherwise, the batting inside of the quilt would slip around and degrade or get bunched up. A properly-made quilt has stitching running across all of the surfaces – perhaps not as tight as the lines in the andinkra quilt photographer earlier, but tight enough to pucker the surface and keep the quilt sandwich from disintegrating.
My grandmother hates hand-quilting for exactly the reason I love it: it’s tedious, laborious, and often awkward; a full-sized quilt takes more hours than I care to add up. She prefers machine quilting and usually takes her completed quilt tops to a woman who has an expensive long-armed quilting machine that can be programmed with different designs. The results are beautiful and the process is mesmerizing to watch. I tried to approximate the results and attempted top-stitching with a regular sewing machine – and hated the results.
On a trip to Pennsylvania, she had purchased a round table quilt from an Amish collective: a sweet wedding ring design in Provençal colors, dusty roses and robin egg blues. I remember it sitting atop the clear plastic tablecloth that she used to protect the oak dining table. The tiny quilt was hand-stitched: the white stitches were fluid, following perfectly the gentle arcs of the ring design. Each stitch was perfection: not the machine perfection but the near-perfect possible only by an expert hand. I wanted my quilt to look like that, with the small neat dashes that complemented the patterns underneath. So, for my Japanese-patterned quilt, I sat with a large hoop draped across my lap and sweated through August, gold thread slowly tightening and centering each square of the design.
Women for centuries have quilted. Quilts have functioned as dowries or markers for weddings and births. Unlike jewelry, they serve a very useful and domestic purpose. I have long associated patchwork scrap quilts – those built slowly, piece by piece, from the remnants of other garments – with American culture as the work of pioneers and ex-slaves who needed to conserve and utilize every last scrap. Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and Arleta Richardson’s Grandma’s Attic series probably recall the references to scrap quilts, pieced together from remnants of other sewing projects. These quilts were evocative for their owners: each fabric and pattern recalls memories of other garments, events, house furnishings, relationships, dresses handed down.
An AMMA finished product: a pillow cover, hand-made from start to finish, which mimics a scrap quilt design and is finished with wide hand-stitching.
At Jane Austen’s home in Hampshire, the quilt pictured below is on display. The placard that sat beside the quilt behind glass indicated that it was constructed by Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother – like many scrap quilts, it was a group effort, scraps shared and gifted from various homes. The quilt (actually a coverlet, as the sign reads – it didn’t have wadding, only a quilt top and backing) consists of 64 fabrics from both upholstery and dress fabrics, and more than 3000 separate diamond squares. Jane wrote a letter to Cassandra at one point asking, “have you remembered to collect pieces for the patchwork – we are at a standstill.”
Detail of Jane Austen’s quilt from her house in Chawton, Hampshire.
Quilting continues to be a thread that binds my grandmother and me, even if we are separated by thousands of miles: she in Northern California and me in Southwestern England. We send each other pictures of our projects: she’s been less able to work these days, but what she produces is still impeccable. She takes far more care with her cutting and her lines; my work is more impatient and home-spun. I sent her East African wax fabric placemats for Christmas – just three, since I ran out of fabric, and all of them a little kittywompous since I stitched them by hand in a hotel room in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka during a work trip last year. But knowing her, she is treasuring them, keeping them in her drawer of placemats, using them when the occasion calls for something brown and green and African.
And when this project nears completion – the one that I started at her house, cutting the indigo fabrics and cursing the rich dye of the fabric coming off on my fingers and using one of her machines to stitch the border – when I have completed the top-stitching and the quilt becomes something useable, I will send her photos, and she will tell me that she is happy that someone, like her, sees the joy and beauty of this practice. It remains for me a strange bridge between my life and my loves: my grandmother, this art form, and the rich and storied textiles that I’ve stumbled across in traveling in East and West Africa.
With love for my grandmother, Nancy.
My grandmother and I, in 1985.
*On a separate note, it’s worth noting that African (and a multitude of other indigenous textile and art forms) designs and ascetics are routinely appropriated and used by prominent designers (e.g. here and here and here) without permission or without consulting the tribes and cultures that produce and value them. There’s plenty of cheap versions of patterns like mud cloth, but please consider what you are buying, who you are enriching, and who is being erased from your purchase. So rather than shell out for cheap version of mud cloth from a big box fabric store, do some research to purchase a more expensive (but probably more durable and far more beautiful) product from the artisans who originated it.