The V.I. Council on the Arts unveiled the territory’s official madras fabric to the public at a ceremony held Saturday at the Frederick Dorsch Cultural Center in Frederiksted.
The fabric was established by Act No. 8424, which was passed by the V.I. Legislature in late 2020 and signed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in early 2021.
Madras fabric has a long history, starting in Madras, India, as a plain undyed cotton muslin. It was exported to Africa and the Middle East to use as headwraps by the 1500s. Over time, the handwoven fabric became more elaborate, using dyes. The bright and bold colors were thought to be reflective of the hot climate and the foliage of the place where the fabric was made. The weave was simple and loose, a soft breathable lightweight fabric suitable for the humid tropical climate.
The modern madras fabric is also woven, not printed, in colorful plaid, checked or striped patterns.
Madras fabric was introduced in the Caribbean as a trade item that can be linked throughout the slave trade to the French islands and, eventually, up the island chain to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was primarily used for headdresses and aprons.
According to Commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources Jean-Pierre Oriol, the movement to develop an official madras pattern for the U.S. Virgin Islands began with informal conversations between culture bearers starting in 1998.
Bradley Christian, head of the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, the oldest quadrille group in the territory, was the driving force behind the project. They applied for and were awarded a grant from the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts to develop an official madras pattern for the territory and St. Croix artist Debbie Sun was commissioned to create the design.
“One thing I insisted on was that it can’t be anything that we have seen already,” Christian said during the ceremony. “It has to be Virgin Islands madras. It had to be something different and unique to the people of the Virgin Islands.”
The official design is a woven plaid including seven colors. Green represents the islands’ natural resources and production, turquoise represents the natural beauty of the waters of the territory, royal blue represents the deep sea and transport and discovery, red represents strength and love, pink represents the conch shell and the call to freedom, yellow represents the territory’s official flower — the yellow cedar — and white represents the traditional dress made from flour sacks.
“The official pattern for the territory will serve as a branding tool for unification of the territory, a cultural heritage tourism product and the uplifting symbol of pride for hundreds of thousands of Virgin Islanders here and abroad,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet. “While there are those who argued that madras is a colonial product in a community of predominantly African descent, history can trace madras back to the 14th century in Africa. Madras was a commodity in the transatlantic trade and its use became popular in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. The madras fabric has become intertwined in our history and culture and it has become, organically, a proud representation of the Virgin Islands.”
Tasida Kelch, executive director of the V.I. Council on the Arts, announced that the fabric will be carried by The Fabric Store, L&C Milliner and Fabric in Motion on St. Thomas and Divi Divi Fabrics, Ebbe’s and Clara’s on St. Croix.