Kosedo Studios: Sewing in the Netherlands

0.75x 1x 1.25x 1.5x 2x 0:0000:49:57 Kosedo Studios: Sewing in the Netherlands


Episode Summary

New Episode Summary: Today’s heart-to-heart is all about the global narratives that stitch us together. Join Lisa in meeting Vanessa Martina of Kosedo Studio! Vanessa lives and sews in the Netherlands, and she’s an old hand at making patterns that flatter Black bodies. Listen in as Lisa and Vanessa explore the tricky history of Dutch involvement in African print fabric. From colonial markets to modern-day copyright law, it’s a piercing look at who really owns cultural property in the sewing world.

Episode Notes

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Read Full Transcript

Lisa Woolfork 0:00

Hello stitchers! Welcome to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation, so sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together. Hello everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And we are talking today with Vanessa Martina of Kosedo Studio based in the Netherlands. I am so excited to have Vanessa on the program today. We're going to talk a bit about, of course, her sewing story, the work of Kosedo Studio, her belief in pattern inclusion, as well as some contro—not controversial—but as well as her opinions and our conversation about African print fabrics in the Netherlands, because that's where a lot of this started. So she is a Black woman who is right there in the Netherlands with some very interesting opinions on the Dutch involvement in African print fabric. Vanessa, welcome to the program. And thank you for being here.

Vanessa Martina 1:14

Thank you, Lisa, for having me.

Lisa Woolfork 1:17

This is fantastic. Can you tell me, Vanessa, what is your sewing story? How did you get started sewing?

Vanessa Martina 1:24

So I started sewing quite young, actually. I got my first sewing machine when I was five. It was this handwheel, wooden machine. But sewing has always been around my family. The women in my family— [indecipherable], and we're all sewing. And yeah, so that's where it started. I got some classes in primary school, too. And yeah, during my teens I always sewed, and I decided to also start studying dressmaking and product development later. And that's how I got started in fashion.

Lisa Woolfork 2:04

That is fantastic. I'm going to ask you to tell me a little bit more about your handwheel, wooden sewing machine. Did you say wooden?

Vanessa Martina 2:12

Yes. Yeah—

Lisa Woolfork 2:13

It's made out of wood? A sewing machine? Oh my goodness.

Vanessa Martina 2:16

The outside is made out of wood. And then this handwheel thing. It used to work. It's not working anymore. I'm looking for someone to restore it. But yeah, it used to work, and then you turn the wheel, and then you can sew with it.

Lisa Woolfork 2:35

That is incredible. I have never heard of a wooden sewing machine before. See, we've just started talking and I've already learned so much. So it's also interesting because I think the Dutch—aren't you all known for, like, wooden shoes in Holland? Those little wooden shoes?

Unknown Speaker 2:56

Yeah. It's true.

Lisa Woolfork 2:57

And so I'm like wooden shoes, wooden sewing machine. I really feel like my mind is actually being a bit blown right now. I had never thought about a wooden sewing machine. Thank you for bringing that into my life. So let's talk a bit about studying dressmaking when you started to go into fashion. What does that require, the study of dressmaking?

Vanessa Martina 3:20

Yeah, it's more like bespoke dressmaking and tailoring. So you learn the bespoke—how do you say?

Lisa Woolfork 3:27

Like techniques?

Vanessa Martina 3:28

Yeah. It's more bespoke techniques, handmade techniques and pattern drafting by hand and not by computer. And yeah, just for working with clients and that sort of thing.

Lisa Woolfork 3:45

That is pretty exciting. I always find patternmaking to be intimidating. So the idea of learning to draft a pattern, not using computer software, but just using your skills of either the tape measure and measurements and drawing just that way—that's very nice. So when you started Kosedo Studio, what was some of your goals? What were some of the things you had in mind about building your own fashion brand?

Vanessa Martina 4:18

Well, I came from the fashion industry and worked for a couple of brands. And I felt like the size system and the patterns we were drafting were not for people like me with my body type—the curvy body type. So I really wanted to start a brand—a bedroom brand—that served that market. And that's a curvy bust, a booty, swayback.

Lisa Woolfork 4:48

Yes, that sounds like you're describing my actual body. I call it booty blessings. I've got some booty blessing. I have a swayback that I often have to adjust for. So you were able to take these things and apply them to some of the lessons you had learned in fashion school. Was it a surprise to you that, when you started studying, that the designers or the models or the templates that people were using to create patterns were not reflective or that they were so narrow? Was that something that was surprising to you?

Vanessa Martina 5:22

Yeah, the whole industry serves a—sort of a standard body shape, which is a Eurocentric body shape. And all the size charts and all the measurements we used were also geared to that. And some of the brands I worked for, it was the same thing. The target market was not reflected to who I am. But we expected to make garments and make products for that Eurocentric body type. So I really wanted to start something that reflected my body type and body shape. And I also believe curvy is not only plus size; I believe curvy, can be small and be curvy, which is something we as Black women know.

Lisa Woolfork 6:16

And that there's a way to think about curves. There's lots of—there's lots of different curves. There's lots of different types of curves on a human body. And I think it's interesting to me, too, when you go to fashion school and you're studying, that they're training you in just one narrow way to view the body. Which is interesting to me—that there's no, like, prompts for this to say, okay, let's do this, but let's increase the bust size. Because there are people who actually have bust sizes larger than this. Or let's increase the waist size, because people have waists that are larger than this size. These kind of things I find, I find pretty surprising. But you were able to work around those or work through those. Would you say that's true, that you were able to find your own vision? You're able to say, I am going to, I'm going to create this in a way that makes sense to me?

Vanessa Martina 7:08

Yeah, for me, that's really important, because I bought patterns that didn't fit my body type. So I had to make lots of adjustments. And I felt you cannot serve everybody. But you sort of need to choose a body type you're serving so that—so that you can make solutions for people that otherwise couldn't find that particular pattern or size. And that's what I was trying to do. I also, when I worked in the industry, we used to grade up from smallest size all the way up. Which, of course, you can make lots of mistake by doing that.

Lisa Woolfork 7:51

Not just, let me just—let's just click and drag and make it bigger, because someone might have a bigger bust and bigger hips and waist, but their shoulders aren't going to be that much bigger, their head or neck is not going to be that much bigger. And so it really takes a type of deliberate work in order to create the sizes that are going to be truly reflective of a variety of people.

Vanessa Martina 8:13

Exactly. And in the industry, because you want to make it as simple as possible, because you're mass producing, so you don't want to have too much of a difference between sizes. So they simplified their size chart. And when doing that, they're excluding a lot of people. And that's something that I didn't believe in anymore. So I wanted to make a difference.

Lisa Woolfork 8:39

I think that's such an important reminder that when you were training and working in the fashion industry, the patterns, you may were going to be sent to manufacturers, and people were going to manufacture these garments in large quantities. You weren't sending these patterns to individual hobbyists or individual sewists or people who just love to sew so that they could make one or two garments at home. You were sending them to places—how many would they make? If you were—like, I'm not sure, I don't understand. I don't think I understand the scale of what mass production is. Are they making hundreds? Are they making thousands?

Vanessa Martina 9:16

Thousands. We used to only fit one size. And then because we had the block and the grading was set, the responsibility of making the actual pattern was with the supplier overseas.

Lisa Woolfork 9:32


Vanessa Martina 9:33

And, of course, a lot of suppliers don't look like us, or even look like Europeans, these European brands. So they were making a pattern and then they sent the garment back. So a lot of the responsibility of making it better for mass produced products are with the suppliers. Not always with every company, but especially with the, sort of, the fast fashion companies, that's usually the rule. The responsibility for the patterns are with the supplier. And then they sent back the samples. And then we in the office used to fit those samples on fit models, which were also always European women.

Lisa Woolfork 10:19

And very lean people.

Vanessa 10:20

And people fit the garments, and then yeah, it got graded. And then it gets into the stores. And one of the companies I worked for, my responsibilities was to make sure there was consistency between all those suppliers. So that brands in size had somewhat of a consistency, because you had a factory in China or factory in Turkey. So, and it all had to look the same and have the same sort of fit.

Lisa Woolfork 10:55

Yes. And even though they were coming from different places, the brand, the company wanted to make sure that this is a size 42. It's the size 42 for everybody, whether it's from the Turkish factory or from the factory in China. We just want to make sure this is all the same. And so you're saying they weren't really thinking very much about even being able to reach a variety of consumers with different body types, that it was just about selling as much as possible as quickly as possible.

Vanessa Martina 11:27

Exactly. And of course, you have, we have also in the industry, the problem of vanity sizing.

Lisa Woolfork 11:33

Yes, yes.

Vanessa Martina 11:33

And yeah. So that also plays a big part in the confusion between sizes between different brands.

Lisa Woolfork 11:45

Yes, that's true. That's so true. That one brand's size 12 is another brand's size 16 is another brand's size 8. Like, it's really hard to trust the numbers. Because they're not consistent.

Vanessa Martina 11:58

No. And the reason why the there's so much consistency is because they use the size label as a sort of a marketing tool. So when a size is labeled smaller, that increases sales.

Lisa Woolfork 12:16

Yes, that is so interesting.

Vanessa Martina 12:19

We're such emotional buyers. So if we think we're a size smaller, that increases the sales of the product. And also, it's to exclude—it used to be to exclude people. Because if you're a younger brand, you don't want to size all the way up to plus size, so that you were focused on this—yeah, a younger consumer.

Lisa Woolfork 12:40

Yeah, a younger consumer. And it's also reinforcing a lot of these negative ideas that if you are a younger consumer, you don't have a curvy body. Because—which makes no sense. What's so funny about the vanity sizing, something I had been thinking a lot about, Vanessa, if you buy underwear in the store, at least here in the States, if I want to buy—which I don't do often since I sew a lot of, I sew pretty much everything: I sew my husband's and my kids' underwear, I sew all of it. But when I was buying it, do you know how hard it is to find a pair of men's briefs sized small?

Vanessa Martina 13:14

Yeah, for men's it works the other way around. Then smaller instead of smaller.

Lisa Woolfork 13:22

Isn't that so weird? I do find it—I think it's of course it's about patriarchy. It's about power. It's about men wanting to feel bigger. And, scarily, women wanting to be smaller, like—

Vanessa Martina 13:36

And also different regions have different sizes. So there's a difference. So if there's a global brand, but they're selling their products all over the world, but they're still focusing on that Eurocentric body standard? Yeah, that also creates a lot of confusion.

Lisa Woolfork 13:58

Yes, yes, I could definitely understand that. Because, you know, that that it's also because—and that goes back to as you say, we are emotional buyers. And I'm wondering if you think sewing for yourself is also—does it have that same kind of emotional weight? Like, I think for me if you described a situation that I've had before, like, getting a pattern, a commercial pattern, and it's okay, I really like this, I know it's going to fit in the shoulders and bust. But I'm going to have to make adjustments at the hip and the center back because it's not going to look right. And I think one way to think about it is that, "Oh, the pattern is too narrow. The pattern is not designed for me. The pattern is the flaw." But there are also some people who would take the opposite effect and say, "Oh, no, I need to be the same size as this block that this company made," and then start to feel negatively about themselves. And so I was just wondering if you feel as though that you had an opportunity in creating your own patterns to really make people feel included?

Vanessa Martina 15:07

Well, I make my own size chart with my own descriptions of the sizing. So I basically emphasize a Group A, a Group B, and a Group C. And in those groups, I have one block, and I grade two times: two sizes down and two sizes up. So I don't grade from a small size all the way up. And because I have my own sort of description of the size, I don't really get the standard names of sizes don't mean that much anymore for me. Yeah, because I just took that, the names out of it, or the numbers. The numbers—we're so emotional about the numbers. I took the number out of it. And I tried to make my patterns as easy as possible for people to adjust at home to their needs, if they—but I still focus on that curvy body shape. And try to make sure that for that.

Lisa Woolfork 16:11

I think that's great. I noticed that in your size chart that you had letters. So I'm glad to hear you explain that. Because I was like, wait, I don't see what the number—yeah, no, I think that's I think that's wonderful. Because what you've done is to say I—and also how you say you started it on your own body. And thinking about what is going to work for me, will also work for a lot of people. And it'll importantly work for a lot of people who are unrecognized by the standard industry. That we know that there's a set of people who are not being spoken to, and that you can step in and speak to them. So I think that's really very powerful. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to talk more about her pattern. Talk about the Lena pattern. I want to hear more about that, as well as a bit more about what the sewing seen in the Netherlands is like for Vanessa. So stay tuned, we'll be right back.

Lisa Woolfork 17:06

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Lisa Woolfork 18:00

Welcome back everybody. And this is Lisa. I'm your host of the Stitch Please podcast and we're talking today with Vanessa Martina of Kosedo Studio based in the Netherlands. And we were just talking before the break about size inclusivity and how important it is. And, Vanessa, can you talk a bit about the two patterns you have out right now? I am looking right now at the LUNA Peplum Top, which is so beautifully illustrated. I'm looking at the image of the Black woman with the beautiful hair and the beautiful bright colors. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration behind creating this top? The peplum top?

Vanessa Martina 18:41

Yeah, a peplum top is always a classic for me. I love to wear a peplum top. It hits me in the right places, so I'm always say—always want a peplum in my wardrobe. For this one, I'm now working on making two additional bust sizes to add that to the pattern. And I really wanted a style that you can work with jeans or with a skirt or dress up or dress down. So that's my inspiration behind it. The illustrations I make myself. I just last year started to do illustrations, and I love doing fashion illustration. So that's what I always tried to do in the collection, as well.

Lisa Woolfork 19:27

It's really quite lovely and I love the cartoon drawing. I just, I'm really a fan of that type of style. I love that style. But I think you're also in here as well. Isn't this a picture of you modeling the peplum top?

Vanessa Martina 19:39

Yeah, that's to me. It's true.

Lisa Woolfork 19:41

It's so pretty. And so when you say—I'm looking at the large pictures, as well as the small ones, and if you look at the thumbnail sizes, the small pictures, you can really see the silhouette of the peplum doing the work that you described—that it just it hits you just right. I like peplums for that reason as well. Even though I have have booty blessings and hips, I really think that—I think maybe because of that, that peplums look really good on me. I really like that. And so I'm definitely getting that look from looking at the LUNA Peplum, but you have it on with some beautiful red heels and jeans, but it's very easy to imagine changing it up and doing a different, doing a different look, a different bottom, doing sequins or something to make it—it can really go from night to day very quickly. And so I really love that about the peplum top. So tell me about the LIMA. Now, the LIMA is more—it's a complete dress. Is that right? Yeah.

Vanessa Martina 20:34

Yeah, that's the dress. Also with the princess seams. I like princess seams, because sometimes when you dart, because I have a large bust, it's too, like, pointy. Yeah, so I like—it's just a nice silhouette to do a princess seam. And it's gathered at the waist and then I have a maxi skirt and a shorter version. These are PDFs—now, I know how you feel about PDFs, Lisa. But I hope in the future to add some printed patterns to my line.

Lisa Woolfork 21:12

Yes, look, I don't have to do all of the PDFs. I'm not gonna say anything bad about them. I know that my opinion on this has probably been made pretty clear. It's not that—I like PDF patterns. It's the taping. That's the part that is hard for me. The taping—oh my gosh, that's the thing.

Vanessa Martina 21:28

One of the advantages of PDFs is that you can select to print only your own size. And I have also the seam allowance in a separate layer than the actual pattern. So if you need to do adjustments, you can just turn off the seam allowance. So you can only work on the actual pattern.

Lisa Woolfork 21:28

That is so smart. Especially since so many folks have different seam allowances I think the same allowance for lots of folks in different—it seems like in Europe that they like the three-centimeter seam allowance?

Vanessa Martina 22:06

Yeah, I use usually one centimeters. But the patterns we buy here—the European patterns don't have seam allowance a lot of time.

Lisa Woolfork 22:14

So they have no seam allowances? So you use a 1-cm seam allowance? That's right. That's right, one centimeter is 3/8, and we use 5/8. Which is so interesting, because some have argued that 5/8 is far too big for a seam allowance. And I know that some companies use 1/4 inch, which is just a little bit smaller than the one centimeter. But the idea of having no seam allowances—I know that's true, right? Because I know that from some pattern magazines, you buy the pattern, or you buy the pattern magazine, and you trace it off. And then you add your own, you add it yourself. Something that I did used to do, now, I did used to do when I was sewing from those magazines, I would find my colors and trace the lines onto pattern paper. And then I would put the pattern paper under the needle of the sewing machine and I would sew my seam allowance. Just, yeah, I would just put, like, some dark thread and use a basting stitch. And just, so, put the left side of my presser foot next to the line that I traced. And then that's the seam allowance I would sew for sewing the pattern, because I had already sewn it once. And I found it much easier to do that than to maintain—at least for me, because I'm not a designer, I'm not trained as you are in pattern making, I had a hard time keeping a consistent drawing line at the proper distance between the stitch line and the seam allowance—the stitch line and the cut line. I just kept, I kept messing it up. And I kept trying to find different ways and taping two pencils together. And it just, I just couldn't figure it out until I stumbled upon this idea a long, a long time ago. But it was really helpful. It really did help me to maintain those, those seam allowances.

Vanessa Martina 24:04

I'm used to doing it without seam allowance. Then when I started my patterns, I didn't have seam allowance, and then my testers actually pointed out you need to have seam allowance on your patterns, so I added them. But I was so used to it, and also I just cut it by hand—one centimeter seam allowance, and I also have a magnet that you put on your scissors that you can have one centimeter or whatever you need.

Lisa Woolfork 24:33

Yes, now that I have heard of. I have heard of that. I have seen that in photos. But I have never—I saw that. I am so excited. You have the best toys. You have—I just want to remind everybody, if you missed this in the last segment, she has a wooden sewing machine. And now she's telling me that she has these special one centimeter tall magnets that she can attach to her scissors and not mark the seam allowance on any pattern, just cut. That is very, very impressive. And I love it because it sounds like a really great time saver. I'm always looking for little shortcuts with sewing. Can we talk a bit about your illustrations? And I know you've mentioned before about how you started doing this illustrations. I am just loving these beautiful Black women that are modeling these patterns. Can you say more about what kind of mood that establishes? Or what kind of story or brand identity or whatever that that establishes for you? Because I think they are so cute.

Vanessa Martina 25:35

Yeah, I've seen a lot of fashion illustration, also on patterns, and usually, it's white women. And I really wanted to represent, like, myself on the patterns. And also show off the clothes what I'm—that you can see a little bit of how it's fitting and how it's looking and make a mood—a fashion mood—around the patterns. And give sort of like a magazine feel with the patterns, which makes it, maybe, also a bit more enjoyable to buy a sewing pattern. And yeah, I love just drawing and drawing our hairstyles. And the whole mood and feel around it.

Lisa Woolfork 26:22

It does, I think it does make it more enjoyable because at least for me, when I go to your page, and I see these two images, I like—I want it—I smile. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, they're so pretty. They're so pretty." I feel like someone is really trying to speak to me, as opposed to a lot, a lot of different companies where I don't see myself reflected or anyone that looks like me reflected. That's a choice, too. And so I just think the idea, the idea that you have made this choice to emphasize and address and speak to Black women is just really beautiful. I want to transition to talk a bit about life—not so much life, but I know we talked about—can you share any information about what the sewing scene is like for you in your community? Or if it's possible to talk about the Netherlands as a whole? What is the sewing—what is sewing like there for someone who is just a regular person that loves to—I know, for us, I had this great experience when I talked with a woman, Choma, who lives in Nigeria. And she told me about her sewing scene, which was very different than mine here in the States. And I was curious about how that worked for you, as well. Do you just go to the store and buy patterns and buy fabric? Or is there a market? Is there—are there lots of fabric stores? Are there very few? Are people interested in garment sewing? Or is it more of a different style of craft that people are doing there?

Vanessa Martina 27:48

Yeah, there's, in terms of stores, fabric stores, there are not so much anymore. And the sewing scene is also not that much. I noticed that because of the pandemic, a lot of people are starting to pick up sewing again. So it's beginning to become more and more popular. There are a couple of good stores, which are here, which are quite old stores. But in terms of finding patterns, no, not so much. I find most of my patterns online.

Lisa Woolfork 28:26

And I guess it's interesting to me that you—that there's not that many patterns, because it makes me wonder, at least as I was talking with the woman from a previous episode, she did not learn to sew with patterns. She learned to sew with, with measurements. So I thought that it really, it gives you a different set of skills. And I thought it gave you even a bit more confidence. Like similarly, as you're explaining that a lot of the European patterns do not have seam allowances, which allows you to make adjustments to the pattern before you add those. And it just gives you a whole different set of skills than what we, what we get here.

Vanessa Martina 29:04

We do have the patterns magazines, the Burda, and we have a few French pattern magazines. American patterns, then you have to really go to a, yeah, like a fabric store. You can get them there. But the—what I see, see what you have so many choices. No. That is—

Lisa Woolfork 29:05

It's interesting—

Vanessa Martina 29:18


Lisa Woolfork 29:27

It's interesting. It's okay. It's interesting to me, because what I'm realizing after talking to so many sewists from around the world and different places, is that, at least here in the US, with us being—at least, I can't speak for everyone, for myself, as someone who learned to sew with a bunch of patterns, the big four pattern companies and now more independent companies, which have the benefit of reaching an international audience with the PDF—that's one, another great thing about PDFs. I feel as though it encourages a type of dependency, at least for me. I have, I don't know, I might have 700 commercial patterns in my house right now.

Vanessa Martina 30:10


Lisa Woolfork 30:11

I'm pretty sure I do, I'm pretty sure. And I think 700 is probably a low estimate, because I can buy them when they're $1 or $2. Or now the sale might be $4 or $3. So they are—they're plentiful. They're widely available. They're not that expensive. If I want two sizes of a pattern, I'll just buy two patterns at the $3 or $2 sale. But which—but what I get in convenience, though, I feel like I've lost in certain essential skills.

Vanessa Martina 30:45

Oh, yeah, I can understand.

Lisa Woolfork 30:47

Right? Yeah. So like, you know how to do adjustments and measurement, you know how to do adjustments, you know how to make these changes, how to get things to fit on your body. I tend to just buy the pattern size that I think is going to fit the best, and then I might tweak it a little bit. But there's a lot that I don't know how to do because I never really had to learn it. And so that's one of the things I appreciate about learning the way that people sew around the world, because everyone is getting a different—we're all doing the same thing, but we're just doing it in a—

Vanessa Martina 31:21

Yeah, yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 31:22

In a different way. Yeah.

Vanessa Martina 31:24

Yeah, and I was raised with the idea that I always have to adjust the pattern. So even though I buy a pattern, I always have to adjust, make adjustments to make it fit better. Yeah. So I never use a pattern straight out of the envelope. I always make some adjustments and check the pattern to fit my size.

Lisa Woolfork 31:51

That, and that's the smart way, that's the smart way to do it. I think it's such a good way—I've started to be a little bit better about that. And I think it helps me also to tell a different story. I think that something that one of the things that I learned from you, Vanessa, is based on what you learned, if you started sewing, as I always have to adjust the pattern, you don't have an emotional attachment to that, at least—maybe you do, I don't know. But for me, if someone like me, who is trained to say, "Okay, just buy the pattern, and sew the pattern and the pattern will fit or not fit." That very limited training, or that very limited approach to pattern wearing or pattern sewing, it can, say, it can, it can wear on you—I think it can wear on some people's, like, self esteem or self image. If they feel like instead of the pattern being broken, or the pattern being limited, you turn this against your own body. And that I think is one of the most very tragic and sad things, when people are sewing in such a way that says, "Oh no, the pattern is correct, I need to make sure that I squeeze myself into these things that really aren't meant to fit me." And so I think having the skills of adjustment really make a big difference there. They really do. I wanted to pivot a bit and talk a bit about your approach or your thoughts on African print fabrics. I know we've talked about this a little bit before, but I'm really interested in that story. And I know—I'm not sure if how many folks know the story of how, like, when you see, if you buy some African fabric that it'll say "Dutch Wax Prints" on the side, or it'll say "Holland" is often marked on the sides of these fabrics. Some of the major companies that are in this industry have been in the industry for hundreds of years—has it been that long?

Vanessa Martina 33:45

175 years.

Lisa Woolfork 33:48

175 years.

Vanessa Martina 33:50

I'm talking about Vlisco.

Lisa Woolfork 33:52

Mhmm mhmm. And yes. And so these folks are known as, like, the superstars of African print fabrics. And it's a Dutch company. It's based in the Netherlands. And it's interesting, because it seems like the story of the Dutch involvement in African print fabrics aren't—I don't know how well known it is. I know about it, but I don't know how well known it is more broadly. So can you tell us a little bit about the—as a Dutch woman, I think you have this great attachment to the history. So can you talk a bit about the history of the Dutch involvement in African fabrics? Like where that all started and came from?

Vanessa Martina 34:30

Yeah, sure. So the company started in 1846. And it's called Vlisco, and it's based here in Helmond. And it's about an hour and a half away from my house. And they started with making imitation batik fabric, and batik is the tradition of making wax-resist, dyed fabric. And they do that in Indonesia. 170 years ago it was not called Indonesia, it was the Dutch East Indies. It was colonized by the Dutch. And that's sometimes a detail people forget when they tell the story about the Dutch—going to Indonesia. The Dutch were really good at imitating the batik, but they were not as good at the—

Lisa Woolfork 34:33

It's like, why do we want to buy this from you? We are Indonesian, and we have our own ancestral practices of making this fabric. So why would we want to buy that from you?

Vanessa Martina 35:30

But the Dutch made it cheaper, that's true, but not better. And also, they protected their market against imitation and fabrics coming from outside. So that's why they didn't really kick—they didn't start in that industry that much. So then they were looking for a different market. And around the same time, there's the legend of the Belanda Hitam. And those were around 3,000, mostly Ghanaian recruits, recruited by the Dutch to fight in the colonial army in Indonesia. And those Ghanaian men, when they went back to West Africa, they took with them the batik fabric. And it was around the same time that Vlisco started to sell also, particularly in West Africa.

Lisa Woolfork 36:28

Oh, so the Ghanaian soldiers who were there as part of the colonial army to help support the Dutch and the East Indies. When they returned home to Ghana, they brought some of the fabric with them, or did they? Did they bring the fabric with them? Or did they just say, "Listent, this is what we saw," so that essentially—

Vanessa Martina 36:47

They brought fabric with them when they returned, and the story goes, that's how the Dutch got the idea to sell their batiks, because they saw that it was getting popular by these soldiers. And to be honest, we still don't know if they were enslaved, or, like, free soldiers or free.

Lisa Woolfork 37:12

Right, right.

Vanessa Martina 37:14

That's a little bit strange history—or not strange history. They're trying to figure out what actually happened there.

Lisa Woolfork 37:23

Uh huh. But in either case, this was—it's an interesting story about global expansion and, and imperialism slash colonialism. And, like, using African soldiers to help the Dutch keep their control of Indonesia, or what they called the Dutch East Indies. So these different connections and these different relationships, which are, which we might understand in one way on a global political scale or geopolitical scale, actually also influence fabric and the fabric that we buy, which is such an such an interesting story. So you're, so now—so what's going on today? Is there a long—has, I know, I'm sure a lot happens, of course, over 175 years. But what's, what are your opinions or thoughts on what's going on today?

Vanessa Martina 38:20

Today, the company is here in the Netherlands, they have around 500 employees, mostly Dutch, their design team is Dutch—white Dutch. And in West Africa, they have around 2,000 employees, and the Vlisco Group—that's the parent company under them. They have a couple of other companies: GTP, Uniwax, and Woodin. And those are companies that are Ghanaian and in the Ivory Coast, so they do produce for those brands in West Africa. The thing that I find most interesting and also sad is that they made 3,500 prints over the 170 years, but the property of those prints are with Vlisco. That makes it a little bit confusing, because a lot of times we don't talk about property and with property, intellectual property—

Lisa Woolfork 39:26

Yes, yeah.

Vanessa Martina 39:27

Yes. So some of the prints that are over the years—first, they started with batik and sort of the prints looked, the design looked really Indonesian. And then some—then over the years, they started to produce prints that are specific for certain markets. And we feel like it's really cultural fabric, and it is. But it's still protected under the copyright law and Dutch copyright law. So that means that if you have something cultural, if the company wants to use it for something else, yeah, where do you have anything to say in that?

Lisa Woolfork 40:09

That is so interesting. I like that phrase when you say, "We feel like it's cultural fabric. but it's owned by the Dutch." Like, the images, the intellectual property of the art that's used in the manufacturing is not—it's the company property. That is so interesting. And how many prints that you say they have? 3,500?

Vanessa Martina 40:29

Over the years—yeah, over the years, 3,500. Not all are still in property. So after a while, some can be public domain, but yeah, the majority of those are, of course, under—and now you see a lot of collaborations they have with Adidas, Stella McCartney, Dior recently.

Lisa Woolfork 40:52

Yes, yes.

Vanessa Martina 40:53

So sometimes we are talking about the cultural, from a cultural perspective, if Stella McCartney has certain prints on the wrong way, people feel a certain way about it. But what can we do if it's not our property?

Lisa Woolfork 41:12

So what do you think the solutions are? Do you feel that the solutions are for more Black folks to start designing, to start developing relationships with manufacturers? What do you think the solution is for the problem you've identified?

Vanessa Martina 41:29

Protecting what the cultural fabrics that we have because they are still in Africa—so many different techniques and prints and symbols and prints that we should try to protect. And next to that, there are still companies and small businesses that print their own fabric in West Africa and across the continent, actually, which you can find. If it's Vlisco, it will say the name Vlisco. And I think it's important for us also to use the name Vlisco, so that you can identify where it comes from. Because the Dutch Wax, Hollandais Wax, they say "Authentic Wax Print" or—those are also all trademarked terms.

Lisa Woolfork 42:20

Oh, that's interesting. I did not realize that Dutch Wax is a trademark of Vlisco, which makes sense. That does make sense.

Vanessa Martina 42:26

Yeah. Now every—there's a lot of Chinese companies started 20 years ago, started to produce also these wax prints. But those are all, like, trademarked terms. Or "authentic" and "genuine" they use and all these things. And if we use those terms, it's—you don't know where it comes from anymore.

Lisa Woolfork 42:55

It does make it—it makes it what? You said it makes it difficult?

Vanessa Martina 42:58

Yeah. Because if there's something wrong, who do you go to? You only know the trademark, you don't know the company. And so—

Lisa Woolfork 43:06

There's so many of these different fabrics with different, like, marks on the selvage, and it might say Vlisco or it might say "Authentic Dutch Wax." But it might not be Vlisco. But the idea of having Vlisco, as well, being the only person you're supposed to get wax fabric from seems also very problematic. So that's a problem. So it's just—it's very interesting to think about all of these issues all being tied up together.

Vanessa Martina 43:32

But also for new designers, it's important to think about intellectual property when they start producing fabric. And making sure you get your copyright issues—that you know for your country how that works and what you can do to protect your own things.

Lisa Woolfork 43:54

Yes, yes, that makes sense.

Vanessa Martina 43:58

Where this whole story started with the Indonesian batik. Indonesia batik is now under the UNESCO so it's seen as an—

Lisa Woolfork 44:08

Yeah, that's interesting. So Indonesian batik is protected by UNESCO. That is interesting. Oh, that is so like—so that is the UNESCO designation. So UNESCO, y'all, they designate World Heritage Sites, they look out for and identify different cultural properties around the world. They, they designate buildings and all those kind of things as being things of great cultural importance, as well as having significance around the world. So, for example, the Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I actually work at a World Heritage Site, the University of Virginia. Yeah, the University of Virginia and Monticello are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. So the idea that Indonesian batik fabric is now listed as, as basically a kind of protected cultural property or recognized cultural property is significant. And it just is an example, as of what you were saying, for like when new designers come up and they're creating fabrics and print, it becomes useful for them to think about what it means to put boundaries around what you've created.

Vanessa Martina 45:18

Yeah. And what the rules are for your country where you created because, yeah, intellectual property law is not international. So you don't know. The rules can be different for each country, but it's important to—and also in the sewing community, I see a lot of people taking prints and then by themselves putting a wax print on a stretch fabric, not knowing that's copyright infringement, basically, because—

Lisa Woolfork 45:50

Oh, that's interesting, because these images are owned by somebody else.

Vanessa Martina 45:55


Lisa Woolfork 45:56

And so if you're going to start manufacturing something, you can't manufacture something that comes from someone else.

Vanessa Martina 46:01

No. But I see it a lot, that I see, oh, somebody's now selling stretch, but then it's a complete copy of a print. But then yeah, you cannot do that, of course.

Lisa Woolfork 46:17

Oh, that's so it's so interesting. And that's why it becomes important to have artists and designers that are aware of what other people are doing. Not so they can copy it, but so they can not copy it.

Vanessa Martina 46:29

Yeah, protect your own and not copy others.

Lisa Woolfork 46:34

Exactly. Protect your own and not copy others. Let me ask you before we wrap up, what is next for you, Vanessa? And what's next for Kosedo Studio? Oh, can you tell me what Kosedo means? Is that a Dutch word?

Vanessa Martina 46:47

No, it's a Papiamentu word that's from the island of Curaçao, where my mother is from, and it means, actually, sewist or dressmaker, or yeah. It's anyone that sews.

Lisa Woolfork 47:00

Kosedo. I really like that. And so it's from from the native Curaçao language.

Vanessa Martina 47:05

Yeah, yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 47:07

Oh, that is so cute. I'm so glad I asked that question. That was a good question. I should've asked that earlier. But what's next for you, Vanessa, and Kosedo Studio?

Vanessa Martina 47:16

Yeah, I'm working on new designs. I'm working on some new dresses, skirts, working for new solutions for our booties and making patterns for our booties. And yeah, I'm also continuing with illustrating. And I'm trying to also put some illustrations of fabrics.

Lisa Woolfork 47:40

Oh, that'll be fun.

Vanessa Martina 47:41

Yeah. So yeah, that's what I'm working on now.

Lisa Woolfork 47:46

That sounds great. That sounds really good. So that you'll have some more companion pieces to the current patterns you have out. That's fantastic. So tell us where we can find you on social media. I'll be sure to include the links in the show notes. But where can people find you if they want to find you out in the world of the internet?

Vanessa Martina 48:04

It's at Kosedo Studio everywhere, actually.

Unknown Speaker 48:09

Oh, excellent.

Lisa Woolfork 48:10

So we can find you there on Instagram. And you have a Facebook group and your website. Okay. So we've been talking today with Vanessa from Kosedo Studio, and Kosedo means sewist or sewing in the native Curaçao language. So that's really beautiful. Thanks for teaching us that. Vanessa, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate the time, and us dealing with the time change of about, I think six hours, for us to have this conversation. So thank you so much for that. I had a really great time. Thank you.

Vanessa Martina 48:42

Thank you so much for having me, Lisa.

Lisa Woolfork 48:45

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at BlackWomenStitch@gmail.com. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month you can help support the project with things like editing transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews. But for those who do, for those that have a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us and the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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