Designing the Madras

Where to start? That was my first thought when tasked with figuring out how to create a fabric that not only represents the Virgin Islands pride that fills my heart but more importantly, capture the essence of who were are as Virgin Islanders. So, I asked, "Where to start?"

Let's backtrack briefly. It was a sunny afternoon, in 2015, at an Art and Collectables Fair in Limpricht Park in Christiansted, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, three of us sat under a tree, engaged in a compelling conversation. Mr. Bradley Christian of the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, who was there vending intricate madras head-wraps, was speaking with one of the organizers of the event and member of the Christiansted Community Alliance, Mary Dema. He was mentioning that the Virgin Islands, unlike some of the other Caribbean islands, did not have an official madras to call their own. Mary, recognizing an opportunity, called me over as a textile designer to hear more about it. All three of us animatedly discussed how important and meaningful it would be to create an official madras. Soon thereafter, we met again, organized a plan of action and Mr. Christian sought a grant with the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts to pursue this project. The term "project" doesn't really encapsulate what this truly meant. Having a Virgin Islands madras was indeed a long life dream of so many of our beloved cultural bearers. With the approval of the grant, the enthusiastic support of others, and most importantly, Senator Myron D. Jackson on board, the project was put into motion.

Back to "Where to start?" in designing a madras, here is how the story continues. Upon receiving the grant, the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, commissioned me to create a design. For those who follow my work, you know that I typically start with silk paintings that I use as a basis for my textile designs. As you can imagine, creating a madras plaid required a different approach. My first step was to learn all that I could about the madras fabric.

I went online, talked to many historians and cultural bearers, sought out different perspectives so as to be sensitive to how individuals related to madras. Being from St. Croix and living most of my life here, I still found that there was a lot about Virgin Islands history that I wanted to explore further. We had many meetings and discussions and from there, I began to develop concepts for the design.

As I mulled around various approaches, I realized that the technical aspect also needed to be considered early on in the process. It is a bit contrary to my usual practice. I come from the school of thought of letting creativity flow before getting bogged down in the details. During my early architectural studies at the University of California at Berkeley, we were encouraged to embrace letting your mind go wild on sketch paper first. The technical drawing would come much later. That sometimes led to some awkward moments of proposing a building design that never in a million years could technically be built. Most times, we would just shrug our tired shoulders after an all-nighter and say, "oh, well."

In the case of designing the madras, however, it mattered. It was even more evident after I was fortunate to visit a working textile factory. It was such an enlightening and fascinating experience to see the mechanics of large looms at work. I brought along with me a sample of my first concept and with their prompting, understood that I would have to adjust my initial approach for the design to work logistically. 

 

 

With the new information, I went back to the drawing board to map out my concepts. I use the term "drawing board" loosely. For me, it's a series of moments starting from daydreaming, to sketches and doodles in the margins of my notebook  and then finally, the computer. My "comfort" program of choice is Adobe Photoshop.

It was quite challenging to translate the spirit of an expressive colorful concept into a simplified linear plaid format. And with the restrictions of weaving a fabric, I knew every element introduced had to be meaningful and intentional. 

When I landed on the concept of Virgin Islands colors to represent key elements of our history, culture and rich beauty, it felt right.

The bright colors each represent a specific aspect of our beautiful islands:
TURQUOISE for the Caribbean Sea that embodies our natural beauty.
ROYAL BLUE for the deep seas that allowed for ease of transport and made the deep harbors of St. Thomas an attractive commercial port.
PINK for the color of the conch shell, a poignant symbol of our Call to Freedom.
YELLOW for the Ginger Thomas, the national flower of the Virgin Islands. (by the way, it's a perfect match for the official Virgin Islands bird, the Bananaquit)
GREEN for the vast natural resources.
WHITE in acknowledgment of the original cultural attire of the Virgin Islanders who wore the fabric of the bleached flour sacks.
RED that represents love and strength and appears in all the flags the have flown across the Virgin Islands.
RED STRIPES to represent each of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the fourth line symbolizing our unity.

In seeing the story board and the printed image of the proposed madras, we all instantly knew this was the one. It truly stands out from the other madras fabric currently available which was a priority for Bradley Christian from the very beginning.

As we tweaked the colors and layout, the new design really began to pop off the paper and even more so on the digitally printed swatch that we so proudly carried around as a sample. Over the course of five years, with many discussions, town hall meetings and Legislative proceedings, at last there was momentum on the project.  We even dared to believe this could really be happening.

One of the obstacles weighing on our shoulder was sourcing a manufacturer to do the actual weaving. The initial plant that I had visited in the grey skies of Manchester, UK did not stock yarn with the bold, Caribbean colors of the design so we frantically searched all around the globe looking for a good match. Fortunately, the lovely, Vivian Ebbersen-Fludd of Ebbe's Store came to the rescue. She was able to source out a manufacturer and have our very first woven swatch produced.

I remember that day she called me into the shop and I held the woven fabric in my hands for the first time. My eyes welled up with such joy and pride. The whole process from start to finish (with a lot of exhaustive moments in-between) came flooding through my mind. Here we were, witnessing a concept turn into something so meaningful and beautiful and more incredibly, would be worn by Virgin Islanders and beyond.  It was a moment to truly celebrate.

On June 5, 2021, after the bill was enacted earlier this year, the official madras of the Virgin Islands of the United States was unveiled. The fabric began as a life long dream of so many cultural bearers of our past and present. Thanks to Mr. Bradley Christian, a seed was planted one sunny afternoon, a plan of action took hold, a design was conceived and now there is a tangible fabric that represents our pride and binds us all as Virgin Islanders. After the many years of hard work and perseverance, we can now say that the Virgin Islands has a madras to call our own.