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Quilting in Exotic Places: SAQA Member Paula Benjaminson Quilts and Shops for Fabric in West Africa

A wondrous array of colors and prints on display for sale in Libreville, Gabon.

I met Paula Benjaminson several years ago when I was doing a book signing at the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show in Oregon for Wine Country Quilts (a fabulous book I co-authored Cyndy Rymer). Paula is an ex-diplomat/quilter whose husband had just been posted to Burkina Faso in West Africa for the U.S. State Department. I impressed her because I actually knew where Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso’s capital) was—hey; my brother-in-law and his family lived there for a while . . . pure serendipity—my knowledge of other African capitals is spotty at best.

Turns out Paula has been reading SHWS from Libreville, Gabon where she balances duties as the U.S. Ambassador’s spouse, mother to college-age children, and quilt maker/teacher/prowler of Libreville fabric markets.  Paula is an active member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) and teaches internationally. She’s on the teaching roster for the June 2013 London, Ontario International Quilt Festival where the event theme will be “Out of Africa.” I invited Paula to share some of her experiences of quilting and shopping for fabric in West Africa in a two-part guest post. AND, Paula is VERY generously hosting a GIVEAWAY of a selection of handpicked African fabric —check out the details below.  

Strolling the Fabric Markets of Africa with Paula Benjaminson

For close to a decade I’ve been living in several African countries as a member of the U.S. diplomatic community. I was a fairly traditional quilter with a small, fairly traditional fabric stash when I landed in our first posting to Burkina Faso. While I’d been teaching more traditional quilting skills and styles to both children and adults when we lived in Belgium, my years in Ouagadougou, Windhoek, and Libreville have changed all that! I’m now a resourceful, intrepid, venturesome, maybe even cheeky quilter!

In all of these places, I’ve taught quilting to groups of international students, drawing on the culture, colors, and designs available to us for inspiration and using whatever materials we could gather locally. Of course, we often need more fabric to meet our design needs—funny how universal that need seems to be among quilters—so we go off to the market to buy some fabulous pieces.

Fabulous Fabric Finds

Shopping for African fabric in the bustling open market is one of the things I love best about living here. In Ouagadougou, that meant browsing outdoor stalls crammed with stacked lengths of West African prints, batiks, and hand-dyes that I couldn’t resist buying. In Libreville, where I live now, there are outdoor market stalls and larger, indoor stores, again so stuffed with color and pattern that it makes it very hard to choose just one or two . . .

Strolling the fabric markets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Fabric is sold in 6-yard lengths in most of West Africa because shoppers typically are buying fabric to make clothing, and the traditional dress styles require just about 6 yards per outfit. When my students and I buy fabric for quilting, we agree ahead of time to each buy a different fabric (or several different fabrics). Then, when we get back to my house after shopping, we trade half-yard cuts of green drums for half-yards of brown circles or gold dancers for red birds! It isn’t the way we shop for fabric in the US, but it works for us!

After the fabric shopping spree . . . dividing and sharing the wonderfulness.

An African Spin on Wedding Fashions–The Guests Wear the Celebration Print Too!

What makes my fabric forays even more interesting is seeing how African social customs are reflected in the way fabric is printed and sold. It’s commonplace to see sample lengths of fabric displayed with signs telling you who has chosen that particular print for a wedding or anniversary pattern. The idea is that all the guests will buy some of the chosen fabric and have a shirt, or a complete outfit made from it, to wear to the event. It’s a wonderfully inclusive custom that makes each guest feel part of the special day, and whenever they wear that dress or shirt afterwards, they remember the event and the people that are associated with that fabric.

Another tradition here is that fabrics are used to communicate, much as we might wear a T-shirt with a printed slogan. Fabrics are often printed to commemorate special events like an election, a religious celebration, a film festival, or an anniversary of independence, as seen in the photo.

Prints celebrating Gabon’s independence.

Enter to Win a Bundle of African Prints from Paula’s Stash

In an amazing coincidence of timing, Paula’s sent me a bundle of wonderful African prints to share with one of our lucky SHWS readers. She’s just arrived in the U.S. to drop off her youngest at college and she hand carried (then mailed) a package to me. Here’s your giveaway entry question:  If you could visit Africa what country would you select as your first stop? (Easy for me:  Botswana! I LOVE The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall.) Name your destination in a comment below by Friday, September 7 and I’ll announce a winner in my next post where Paula will share Part 2 of her African series. Stay current with Paula’s further quilting adventures via her blog.

Special Delivery from Gabon: Paula is sharing selected swatches from her stash!

Later all! I’m off to work like a madwoman so I can finish a couple of new projects for Quilting in the Garden–fingers crossed!

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