batik mccall’s m6279 + porte de non retour

greenbatikportedenonretour01Doesn’t this look like a simple shirt dress? Why it is, and it isn’t at the same time. It is McCall’s M6279, from surprise surprise, that same care package from Susan and Miss Lulu.

greenbatikportedenonretour02As much as I wanted to sew with knits, I had some other Benin related goals I needed to get out of the way because of my impending departure. So let’s visit this certain backyard, okay?

greenbatikportedenonretour03Meet Euphrème. During the school year he is a teacher at a local high school, but on the side he makes batik fabric. Batik is a type of wax resist dyed cloth originally from Indonesia (I think) but thanks to colonization and trade, it’s now fully adopted into West African culture. Bonus points if you spotted a little face in the bottom right corner.

greenbatikportedenonretour04Why hello there! While papa works on fabric, the son plays underneath the table with wood scraps.

greenbatikportedenonretour05Euphrème has a large collection of stamps to choose form – all carved by himself. He has two kinds, wooden stamps as well as sponge stamps. Wooden stamps must be redipped in wax each time it is used, whereas a sponge stamp can make about 4-5 imprints before needing to be redipped. With the sponge he can work more quickly, however they are less permanent than the wooden stamps.

greenbatikportedenonretour06I just had to choose this stamp – might you recognize it? It’s Ouidah’s most famous tourist attraction – La Porte de Non Retour aka The Door of no Return. It is a monument built in 1992 to mark the spot where captured slaves were shipped off to their new life. This, I decided, was going to be my subtle souvenir fabric, in contrast to the mayors office fabric.

greenbatikportedenonretour07The first step was to pick out some cloth and  heat up some wax. Interesting note – the cloth is none other than achouta aka secondhand fabric from… where else, Europe or the USA! So if you visit W. Africa and buy batik fabric… know than more than likely it is made of sheets thrown away from your country. Life is indeed circular, isn’t it? I asked him why he didn’t use local fabric, and his response? “There’s only one place that produces fabric here, but their quality isn’t very good, it is very thin. The imported stuff is much better. Foreign factories have better machinery to make better fabric”

Back CameraOn a side note, here is a peek into the secondhand wholesale clothing shop in Cotonou. There’s a whole row of shops like this, run by Nigerians. These packs of used clothing are pre-divided and sold by the kilo. So if you want to sell jeans, there is a bundle pre-packed of jeans you can purchase. If you want to sell baby clothes, there’s a bundle for that. Etc. That is how they arrive off the ships, so the organizing is not done in country but rather in the country that sent them over. And don’t think you’ll find any gems here. Those are long filtered out and probably in vintage shops or other expensive boutiques in the states/europe. What you find here is old navy, target, etc – used discards from fast fashion chains. It’s not just the USA and Europe though. I see a ton of stuff from Korea as well, especially men’s outdoor hiking vests.

greenbatikportedenonretour08Let’s get back on topic. While the wax is heating up, Euphrème goes to the well to get water. The key to batik is water, he says, and lots of it. His kid is not allowed to help as he is too young and might accidentally fall into the well.

greenbatikportedenonretour09However the kid can do other things where the possibility of falling into a well doesn’t exist, like collecting wax scraps.

greenbatikportedenonretour10Time to start!

greenbatikportedenonretour11He shoos his kid away because hot wax + a kid = potentially very awful situation. Then he starts stamping away.

greenbatikportedenonretour12Keep in mind that what is stamped will be white later, but the parts that are white now will be a dyed color later.

greenbatikportedenonretour13My turn! greenbatikportedenonretour14Stamp, dip, stamp, dip, stamp, dip, stamp, dip, stamp, dip, stamp, dip…

greenbatikportedenonretour15His mom is planting tomatoes outside. He has his own place with his wife and kids, but he set up his studio in his former room at his mother’s place.

greenbatikportedenonretour16Finished! I asked him to leave a section blank so I could have some solid fabric to use as a contrast. He was confused at first but then I explained that I wanted some solids as a contrast so I’m not overwhelmed by print.

greenbatikportedenonretour17He presoaks the fabric and proceeds to start a fire.

greenbatikportedenonretour18While that heats up he starts work on a second piece. I couldn’t decide which stamp I wanted more… so I decided to get two fabrics made. Besides, I wanted to give him a bit of extra business for allowing me to come over and watch and photograph his process.

greenbatikportedenonretour19By the way, it is 8,000CFA (16USD) for 4 yards of batik fabric. Costs of course can vary by person depending on material used, but he assured me that he only used the high quality stuff. ? Who knows, I’m no expert.

greenbatikportedenonretour20I asked him to switch to another stamp for the border since I wanted the little fish.

greenbatikportedenonretour21Then he worked on other fabric not for me since he had his studio set up. This is one that has previously been dyed, and now he’s doing the second round of wax to make it multi colored and multi patterned.

greenbatikportedenonretour22A simple “splatter” design with the help of a handbroom.

greenbatikportedenonretour23Now he brings out his bag of potions… the powdered dyes. They’re actually from Nigeria but he prefers going to Ghana to buy his supplies.

greenbatikportedenonretour24Checking on the fire.greenbatikportedenonretour25Workspace.

greenbatikportedenonretour26The powders are carefully measured. I chose green for my first fabric. I know it doesn’t look it… but this is chemistry!

greenbatikportedenonretour27Then hot water is poured in. And man does stuff bubble! Also it smells terrible. I had to distance myself as the fumes were awful.

greenbatikportedenonretour28On goes the rubber gloves and the dyeing begins.

greenbatikportedenonretour29Does it look a bit more green?

greenbatikportedenonretour30Hmm, not yet.

greenbatikportedenonretour31Time to let it dry for a bit. And who needs a fancy drying rack when you’ve got a pile of twigs? It does the same job, and better yet, its free!

greenbatikportedenonretour32Then repeat as he starts work on my purple cloth… still doesn’t look very purple.

greenbatikportedenonretour33Ah, better! I asked for half of it to be solid with a border fish print so I could use it as a contrast. This whole dyeing process has made me realized something. What happens to the used dye? Well he dumps it in a certain area in the field next to his yard… and nothing of course grows there. I only had two fabrics dyed but when I saw him dump out the dyes on the ground I felt a pang of guilt. And I’m sure 100% of all my other fabric or clothing purchases also are created by these dyes in massive factories who knows where… and who knows how they are disposed of? As a consumer in the states, I’m removed from the creation process so I don’t see any of that and can live happily in denial. But here, it’s right in my face, and I can’t say that I didn’t see those toxic chemicals seeping into the ground. Not only did I see it, I’m responsible as well. I’m sorry.

greenbatikportedenonretour34Then he dyed the yellow cloth he was working on red.

greenbatikportedenonretour35While all of that is drying, he prepares amidon aka starch and boils in the fabric in yet another mystery mixture to set the color.

greenbatikportedenonretour36That is hot fabric. Stay back!

greenbatikportedenonretour37Then when the starch is ready he coats the fabric with it to seal everything in and make it nice and stiff.

greenbatikportedenonretour38Side note, just look at this kid’s backpack.

greenbatikportedenonretour39American kids would just make fun of him for having such a tattered backpack… but here it’s perfectly fine. As long as it still works, appearances don’t matter. For kids at least.

greenbatikportedenonretour40Repeat for the purple cloth.

greenbatikportedenonretour41This kid is too cute. He was running up to my butt… making fart noises… and then running away before I could catch him. There are just certain things that all kids do, regardless of cultural differences!

greenbatikportedenonretour42But then he left with grandma to run some errands.

greenbatikportedenonretour43I snack on some corn, since it is corn season and corn is everywhere. But this is no soft sweet corn that your mom makes. It’s the corn that Americans call “inedible” and usually reserved for our animals aka feeder corn. It’s tough and leathery. Here, don’t complain, corn is corn, eat up! Anything is delicious when you’re hungry.

greenbatikportedenonretour44Nothing goes to waste here. Here is some leftover wax, to be remelted and reused over and over.

greenbatikportedenonretour45My lovely fabrics, hanging out to dry.

greenbatikportedenonretour46He wanted me to buy this one but I told him that 2 was more than enough, but thank you! There’s only so much batik I’ll wear.

greenbatikportedenonretour47Then it’s time to say goodbye.

greenbatikportedenonretour48He throws my fabric into a bag and then gives me a ride home. (I’ll let it dry at my place, to avoid having to pick it up at his place on a later date)

greenbatikportedenonretour49But we make a pit stop at his house to drop something off and… his kids! Don’t know what to do with fabric scraps? Give them to your kids, they make the perfect wigs and provide hours of entertainment!

greenbatikportedenonretour50Fast forward a few days/week later – the fabric has dried, I’ve ironed it to remove any leftover wax crumbs and set the starch, and now I’m ready to cut into my batik fabric!

greenbatikportedenonretour51I found the original tag and snipped it off. Green Hills? Anybody heard of them?

greenbatikportedenonretour52I decided to make view A of McCall’s M6279. Honestly I wanted it to make it long sleeved but I didn’t like the poofy look in C. So A it was!

greenbatikportedenonretour53I didn’t have enough fabric to make view C. in any case. Each time I pin a pattern piece I hang it up to get it out of the way and off of my cutting table. Then when I’m ready to cut I just take a piece 1 by 1 off of the line. A laundry line is super handy for sewing as it’s a great way to temporarily hold/store things.

greenbatikportedenonretour54The scrap bag piles up… This dress was sewn exclusively during the evening, so no process photos here.

greenbatikportedenonretour55And it’s done! Also if you squint you can see my bound buttonholes which are basted shut. I just love them, they take the same amount of time as handstitched buttonholes but they look 100x better! Once done I moved on to other projects as I waited to schedule a photo shoot.

greenbatikportedenonretour56Here we are! At the real Porte de Non Retour.

greenbatikportedenonretour57I mean, if my fabric has said monument on it, the photoshoot must happen at said monument at least once. Those are my rules!

greenbatikportedenonretour58Here’s the plaque… a bit faded though.

greenbatikportedenonretour59Oh I forgot to mention, when I was having the batik cloth made, Euphrème asked me “Do you like t-shirts?” I said yes, of course, who doesn’t? Then he gave me a free batik t-shirt (a dyed secondhand t-shirt, of course). Uhhhh. I like plain t-shirts. I didn’t have the heart to reject his gift. But I do not wear dyed t-shirts. Just no. So I accepted, pretended I loved it, then gave it to Gabriel later. I’m a master at regifting. It’s a kinder fate than wallowing in a dark pile in my closet, don’t you think? At least with Gabriel the shirt has a chance to breathe and see the sun and enjoy life!

greenbatikportedenonretour60 Here’s the back! Note the figures on the monument, it now shows their front instead of their back.

greenbatikportedenonretour61Digital zoom… my eyes are shut. I didn’t have a lof of photos taken here, because, well, do you remember poor Gabriel and all those photos he had to make at the mayor’s office? Well these were taken on the same day and I didn’t feel like being cruel and overworking him with camera duty.

greenbatikportedenonretour62Also this isn’t just any monument. It’s a monument that marks the spot where captured slaves were forced onto ships against their will. This is the point where they had one last look at their home, never to see it again. It’s somewhat like a grave – what happened here was awful, and I would feel uncomfortable doing a full blown cathy photo shoot here, as if it would dishonor what happened here. Better to do a few discreet photos and be on my way. Just because it is a tourist trap today doesn’t change its dark history.

greenbatikportedenonretour63I’m very lucky that I can return to where I came from.

greenbatikportedenonretour64Here Gabriel is standing next to a revanent, which represents the spirit of the dead. They face the ocean to welcome back the souls of those who died abroad. So while the body may never come back home, at least the souls can be reunited with their motherland.

greenbatikportedenonretour65I think I am going to add another button on the right (my left) side of this dress because the way the hem “dips out” bothers me quite a bit. It’s all I can look at. You can’t tell, but there’s a lot of hand stitching on the inside for the facing and hems – lately I’ve been putting more TLC into my sewing since if I have to lug back a heavy suitcase of clothing, I want it to be good clothing. No sloppy messes will be allowed to return to Texas! Decision day is coming soon when I’ll have to decide what goes and what gets left behind…

greenbatikportedenonretour66The end! Thanks again to Susan and Miss Lulu for the pattern.


Fabric: Green Batik

Pattern: McCall’s M6279

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