Why I Won't Be 'Going Tribal' This Summer



I've bit my tongue in the comments and passed over the blog posts, but today I'd like to talk about something that's been bothering me for some time: the growing use of the terms "tribal" and "ethnic" to describe fabric and prints.

I'm addressing it here not because I want to point fingers at a particular person, but rather challenge the way that we as a community use the term and talk about the clothes that we make. From cute summer dresses to geometric leggings, the word "tribal" has been popping up everywhere lately. But the problem is that it's not very helpful, kind, or accurate. Here are a few of my reasons for avoiding the phrase:

It doesn't give credit where it is due. By calling everything that we're not familiar with "tribal,"  we aren't acknowledging the contributions of various cultures to our styles and designs. Words like "tribal" and "ethnic" obscure the origins of a creation, while saying that you made a Tapa print dress recognizes the item's Pacific Island origins. Furthermore, if you truly understand the origins of the designs you are using, you could avoid potentially offensive uses of another culture's items, such as mistakenly incorporating the print from a prayer shawl into your bikini, or wearing a headdress to a concert.

It exotifies and commodifies other cultures. To take my previous point a bit further, generic terms not only de-identify a culture's patterns and art, but also lump everything into one big (non-white) "other" category. This "other" is often taken advantage of by the dominant white culture, which freely borrows and profits from its art and traditions. An example of this can be found in Urban Outfitters, who was recently sued by the Navajo nation for selling a line using their name and prints without their permission. Similarly, the generic "ethnic" prints sold at Jo-Ann Fabrics freely borrow and commodify parts of exotic "other" cultures without deference or thought to their origins. (For further reading, check out this article.)

It's not accurate. If this whole thing sounds too "PC" for you, think about it for no other reason than accuracy. I know sewists who take careful time to describe whether they used charmeuse or shantung silk, so why would we slap the term "tribal" on anything from batik wax fabric to an Ikat print?


The take-away. My point is not that you should all stop wearing Ganado prints or Indonesian batik. Instead, blogger Justina Blakeny suggests we research the origins of the things we buy in order to learn more about their true meaning and history. And instead of buying generic prints from big box stores, seek out more authentic versions of our favorite styles.

If you're looking for places to start researching what your "tribal" prints really are, Refinery21 has a handy little pattern dictionary to get you started. Or, learn more about regional fabrics such as Middle Eastern weaving styles or the history of African wax prints. You will be a better-educated sewist and a more intelligent-sounding blogger for it. 

33 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this! It seems like the online sewing community has used and proliferated some terms, such as batik and shibori, but these are more related to dying. I'm sad that, after looking up your pattern dictionary link, I didn't recognize the name of either of the Navajo patterns, although they were instantly recognizable. Let's continue to educate each other!

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    1. Aaaggh! I was intending to hit reply to say something and then I went and deleted the comment! Anyhoo... I will sum up my thoughts again: great points, I agree with so much, since we are so freakishly detailed in the type of fabric we use let's not just use some generic terms to describe a print.

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  3. Yes, I am so happy you posted this! I've been getting really uncomfortable with some of the posts I've seen popping up lately, and you have an excellent breakdown on why we should be more careful and considerate. I also really love that you link to the actual names and history. I'm checking those out now. Thanks!

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  4. Great points. I've never been comfortable describing anything as anything less than accurate (the sewing perfectionist in me) and will call something a 'print' rather than tribal if I didn't have a manufacturers name for it. I think I recognised the cultural significance of what you discuss on a level that made me feel uncomfortable to claim something I knew nothing about, and I am quite confident in the fact that I have very limited knowledge in tribal and ethnic prints. I would never have been able to verbalise this issue in the way you did, but I agree completely.

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  5. you just threw me down a rabbithole-- i searched my own blog for "ethnic/tribal" and found that my search widget pulls up post titles & comment snippets rather than post snippets...

    back on topic! i'm hard to offend, but i do try to consider the other side of things. it IS interesting that we can go nuts over using peplum correctly, but we happily lump unidentified prints into a catchall. i've definitely cringed at seeing the "ethnic" section at joanns, but i guess the general descriptor to me isn't really wrong, it's just huge and unspecific. and of course we should love getting specific, it's the nature of our art! i love that refinery29 link-- i wonder, is there a book on prints? how amazing would that be, a swatch book for prints and their history?

    interestingly enough, i got a little uneasy over the rambo remake that i was recently a part of, i don't know if you've seen it-- even though it's a costume from a movie, we're still playing with a fabric & print worn in current day, for some as part of a religion. in the end i decided to look at it as fabric, and i came away with something i adore and wear pretty much daily... and it somehow seems more important than a movie costume because of its history.

    longest comment i've ever written.

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  6. Thanks Oona. The Rambo project was an interesting one, but I like how Erin wrote a very detailed post in the history of turban use in fashion. I have no idea about how well turbans were used in the real Rambo movie, but I did appreciate the research on our end.

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    1. oh, the movie is, you know, and appropriately totally fun, totally un PC awesome action movie. but the discussion it brought up made it all the more special, so, yay action movies!

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  7. This is great food for thought! I always appreciate a gentle reminder to consider the implications of what and how I'm using words or saying things. I find it's easy to become desensitized to things over time, and being aware can go a long way!

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  8. Meg, thank you so much for this post! This exact issue has been raging in my head, but I had yet to pull the trigger on posting about it. A few weeks ago, I was *this close* to sending a note to an online fabric store, for selling a "Navajo knit." The only reason that label should be used, is if the fabric is actually a product of the Navajo Nation, which this most assuredly wasn't. Cultural misappropriation is never acceptable, even in our hobbies! You make so many excellent, thoughtful points here. Thank you!

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    1. I'm not sure why the only reason to label something Navajo is if its a product of the Navajo nation. Its a descriptor. If a print is something that is similar or reminiscent of Navajo art or prints, then it would helpful as a search term. There are books that are written on the Navajo, Navajo books, but that doesn't mean they come from the Navajo nation.

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    2. I'm certainly not an authority on this, but the legal reason is that the Navajo have trademarked their name as a way to product their cultural art. So in this case it would be akin to using the "Nike" name or logo.

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  9. Thank you for writing this. I never know what to do when encountered with "ethnic" or "tribal" fabric. I try not to work myself into a righteous lather too frequently, but, like Mary, I've been *thisclose* to writing a strongly worded note to several stores.

    More than an issue of specificity, the word misuse of the word "tribe" has a lot of baggage, as it is supposed to imply a primitiveness or even backwardness, which gets all the more complicated when we appropriate complex, elegant designs and repackage them with the dreaded t-word.

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    1. Yes, this is such an important point. There is so much to unpack with this terminology - thanks for adding!

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  10. Thanks for writing this! I've been struggling with this, too. The more I see these types of prints in stores and around the blogosphere, the more I like them, but I've avoided buying them for the reasons discussed above. I definitely think this is an important conversation to have, thanks for writing it!

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  11. Very good points and interesting information.

    To broaden the discussion:

    I totally understand (and agree) why it's important to note sources if there are sources and give respect to the specific culture or artists that were responsible for those sources.

    I would point out that there are many prints out there that don't actually have anything to do with a specific culture or history, they are just bold, geometric prints. "Tribal print" is a culturally pervasive aesthetic so an artist doesn't need to consult any source material to come up with a design that fits in the same category. So what do we call such prints?

    (Not trying to challenge you or disagree in any way, just throwing out some further discussion points.)

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    1. Hey, thanks for the comment! I thought about this a bit, too...

      A great example of a generic "tribal" print is featured as the photo in this post. I agree that it would be difficult to name because, as in this case, it seems like the manufacturers are attempting to reproduce or 'knock-off' specific regional designs in order to get in on the "tribal" trend (the one pictured here seems to resemble a Chinle pattern, but not quite).

      Whether you feel comfortable using what I would perhaps call a Chinle "inspired" or "knock-off" print is of course up to you. I think in some cases "inspired" art and fabric can be a sort of conversation with the original artist and lead to fabulous new art (see Pablo Picasso's Las Meninas), while other times "knock-off" fabric is a blatant ripoff that can have cultural and legal ramifications (see Navajo print or fake designer bags). Some questions to consider may be - what is the inspiration for this print? What is the artist adding to the original design by using or altering it? This post (and comments) from Male Pattern Boldness may apply here: http://malepatternboldness.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-ethics-of-home-sewn-designer-knock.html.

      There are also a lot of cool "geometric" prints popping up this season, which I would consider the "tribal" fabric to be a subset of. Some of these geometric designs strike me as a more creative and artistic way to engage with nature, history, and artists without appropriating protected designs. I like this feathers design in grey and white: http://alisonglass.com/blog/2013/05/introducing-sun-print/

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    2. This may be all very well and good in a store. But these labels do have a purpose. In the vast expanse of the internet I may be trying to find a "tribal" or "ethnic" print to buy. Google search can help me with this. I can't imagine having to research all the different types of prints, pick a specific band, and then punch that into Google...and then hope that the internet purveyor has decided to use the same word as me! This sounds completely frustrating. I also imagine most fabric store owners would shudder at that thought at doing that much research to sell a print. I'm not sure why its important to be that specific. As you saw from some comments above, if you call it a "Navajo print", they expect it to now be from the Navajo nation. Which would not be true. So if you are too specific you are misrepresenting and presenting a lousy search term, and if you are to generic you have somehow taken away credit from a culture. How about the people who are interested in where these prints came from look it up like you did. That satisfies the small subsection of people who would be upset about this issue, but allows others to find what they need on the internet.

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    3. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! My primary issue is with the fabric designers, who should be taking time and effort to document their inspiration and use appropriate terminology and not blatantly appropriate from other cultures without thought to origin or significance, just because it's "trendy." And there are historical and racist implications to using terms like "tribal," whether we like it or not.

      For fabric shopping, I see no reason why a store shouldn't have an international or imports section where you can find everything from African wax prints to Mexican weavings. And a quick look at some popular online retailers shows that many already separate out sections for batiks, ikat fabric, etc.

      If you're looking for that specific, geometric style print like the one illustrated here that is so trendy right now, the term tribal isn't even especially helpful, as a whole range of very different designs and dying techniques come up when I google that term. I'm so glad we're talking about this, so that we can figure out how to navigate these different styles together.

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  12. Thank you for posting this along with links so we can learn more. I already knew the names for batik, ikat, shibori, and sashiko (and I love all of these!), but the rest I didn't know - and there is a lot out there! I love prints and colours, and I love the whole Anthropologie aesthetic, but I've always felt uncomfortable not knowing the origins of a print and the fact that companies are always appropriating and profiting from other (often disadvantaged) cultures. That said, Erin brings up a good point - what do we call the prints that are not straight up copies? Art evolves and changes constantly as people re-imagine life. In my mind, I think of the prints that don't fit as "organic geometric", but I don't know.

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    1. I think that's a great description!

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  13. Brava!!!!! Thank you for this timely post. I wear gele (ghaylay) not a turban all of the time. Saying Dutch wax prints is more specific. There are many fabrics that from various countries in Afrika. Some that come to mind are kitenga, bogolanfini, adire, ask oke. As sewists we can enjoy them all, but one must keep in mind and respect the cultural aspect of these beautiful textiles.

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  14. Great post! I think we have the same issue with aboriginal art in Australia - it all gets lumped into a very generic group when really we should be identifying the particular groups who have very different artistic styles.

    I struck the issue of needing to match garment to fabric a few years ago when a friend gave me some Indonesian fabrics - all fine till she mentioned in passing that these particular fabrics were used for men's shirts, and I realised that if I turned them into women's clothes I was going to offend a whole lot of people!

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  15. Oh man, love this post. I refuse to buy any fabric labelled "tribal" or "ethnic", just because it makes my skin crawl!

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  16. thank you so much! I have been wondering what an actual Ikat fabric is and what it's about, and holding off on using a wax print because I wanted to know its story. Thanks for articulating this and even better, for providing resources to educate ourselves. <3

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  17. Yes, I agree; we CAN do better & we should expect it of ourselves. Cultural appropriation is *gonna* happen since imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery and gorgeous prints & designs are gorgeous, but there's no need for white or western privilege to just lump everything into an "other"category; it's lazy. sloppy, entitled & rude. BRAVO!

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  18. You make a really good point... I'm off to educate myself using the helpful links you provided. Thanks!

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  19. Oh my gosh THANK YOU for this post. I thought I was the only person offended by fabric companies' vague and misplaced pattern names, but of course that is never the case. And thank you for adding some resources for pattern identification!

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  20. Wow! This is one of the most interesting and relevant posts I've read in a long time and I thank you for it!
    This "ethic" catchall for any intricately printed fabric is inaccurate and lazy and there is nothing wrong with having a little knowledge. There is in fashion a tendency to either lump everything deemed "foreign, non-white or exotic" together or go the other way and pretend they don't exist - a good example is calling items "nude" ensuring that anyone whos skin doesn't match that feels ignored.

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    1. That's interesting about the term "nude" - I think that makes a lot of sense!

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