Hot! The Un-Mermaid African Panel Skirt

Apparently Mermaid is big this year.  It seems like a rather obscure inspiration, but I found some really great images of mermaid-y iridescent garments and accessories here, here and here.

Lagerfeld for Chanel’s Under the Sea Collection

And I had the perfect fabric:  this long narrow length of fabric that I bought at a sari shop.  It appeared to be made of metallic weft threads held together with loosely woven linen warp.

It was a slippery b***er, and even cutting it was a challenge. It was like handling a wriggling fish.  I had to pin the selvages together to prevent slippage, then I had to cut very carefully to prevent the fabric from sliding out from under my scissors (I don’t have a pair of those fancy serrated ones).  It started unravelling before I even finished cutting it, and it wouldn’t hold it’s shape, so I immediately cut some pink cotton voile to underline and help stabilize.  I still held out hope that it would make the most amazing mermaid mini dress, shimmering with silver scales and flowing like a sea creature.  Then I started sewing on my machine and this happened:


I used a super-sharp new needle, but it was still snagging the tinsel threads and pulling them through.  I switched to a ball-point, but the result was the same.  This fabric was clearly not meant to be sewn on a domestic machine!!!  I may rescue the pieces and make scarves with some kind of hand rolled hems, but there is no way I have the time (or inclination) to underline and sew this dress completely by hand.  Sigh.

Plan B:  Ethnic / Tribal trend.

(I have a bit of a beef with this terminology…..I’d rather say international or global fashion.  I guess (hope) that we’ve reached a point in society where we view our neighbours’ fashions less as exotic or tribal and more as international fashion statements in their own right.  Have you ever seen the work of Bongiwe Walaza?  Rant ended.)

Well, no one has a bigger obsession with South African shwe shwe fabrics here than I, so it was a quick dip into my stash for this beauty.  This shwe shwe is purchased by the panel, which you then cut apart, realign the print and sew along the dotted lines.  The Mamas in southern Africa tend to bring the seams in under the hip for a more mermaid shape (see, I managed to work mermaid in there somewhere), but for now, I’m sticking with the A-line; despite all the time I spend in southern Africa, I’m still not entirely comfortable highlighting the largest part of my body!!

When you purchase these panels, they take your waist measurement and then calculate how many panels you need.  I was told I would need 7, but luckily thought to buy an extra one just in case, because it turned out that 8 panels was exactly enough.  I would have been seriously crushed to discover that I didn’t have enough and I would probably never have the chance to purchase more, since they change prints quite often.

It will be a well worn and loved wardrobe staple, I’m sure.  I’m also sure that is will last 1,000,000 times longer than anything I would have made from that shifty mermaid fabric.

The Facts:

Fabric: 8 cotton shwe shwe panels x 9R = 72R (~$10)
Pattern: none
Year: 2012
Notions: zipper, hook & eye, bias tape = $3
Time to complete: ~3hrs
First worn:  June 27th to work and Board of Director meetings 1, 2 and 3.  It’s a busy day.
Wear again? Yes, once I pinch an inch from the waistband.
Total price: ~$13




Vicki used to sew when she was young and free, but then raising young'uns and bringing home (some of) the bacon took up all her time. Now her closet is full of skinny clothes, maternity clothes and post-partum clothes, none of which fit properly. Maybe that's why she started sewing again in 2010.


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  1. Wow that’s really interesting about the fabric being bought in panels to be cut apart and re-sewn…seriously fascinating, I’m quite glad you had a plan B so you could share that with us…and if you think of it as ocean blue and the star shapes as wear the mermaids have just dived in…. (am I stretching this a bit yet?)

    I feel your pain about the sari fabric, I’ve managed to sew some with a ball-point needle sometimes but have sewn more by hand, very, very slowly to prevent snagging and pulling across the material. I’m sure you’ll find a happy use for it one day.

    • That metallic fabric is too cool to bin, so I’ll definitely give it another go. (after I sew something from a nice easy cotton!)

      When I first saw the shwe shwe panels a few years ago, I thought “Hmmm…those are rather strange prints. I don’t know if I would want to make something that was all misaligned and had dotted lines printed on it like that….” before the light finally went off and I realized what they were meant for. When I was there again last month, I ended up browsing and talking with a man, a woman and her mother who were there to buy panels for a wedding dress. I think it is traditional for the husband’s family to supply the shwe shwe wedding dress to the bride, but I may be mistaken; we didn’t really have a language in common, so I could have misunderstood!

  2. Hey Vicki, first time I’ve seen fabric like this, it’s just beautiful and gorgeous blue. Thank you for explaining. I wonder if there are any places in NYC where I could buy fabric like this?

    • I’ve never seen it outside South Africa and Botswana. The only source I’ve been able to find online is Marula imports: but it looks as if they sell for the quilting market, and it’s quite pricey.
      I always go fabric crazy when I’m in Africa and I can’t decide between the 100s of shwe shwe prints, especially since they change so often. They are starting to produce more wacky fashion colours, and there was a blue, purple and orange print that I wish I had bought too…..

  3. Love the paneled skirt and the interesting story of its origin. What will you do with that mermaid fabric? Hopefully it will appear here in the future as something interesting. It’s such an interesting fabric. But back to your beautiful skirt, it’s beautiful and nicely paired with belt and denim jacket.

    • Thanks Barbara. I was afraid it was looking a little cow-girl, but the waist was a little too loose on me without a belt, and I needed something to pull it in for the day.

  4. Great skirt! The ethnic/tribal designation bothers me a lot too. I just saw Book of Mormon and was made so uncomfortable by the portrayal of a Ugandan village that “ethnic” and “tribal” seem like nothing. Pushing cliches to their limits is part of the genius of the play, though. Keep showing us these cool fabrics.

  5. This is such a cool way to print fabric. I’ve seen those panel projects for like, bags and stuffed animals and stuff, but never a skirt project. It’s rather genius. Fab job making your second project work!

  6. Wonderful skirt! I have always love ehtinic inspired clothes (no matter whether they’re on trend or not) and I always look at those cool outfits I see on African immigrants here. I think they must be made of thise kind of panel fabric – and they have the mermaid shape! Thanks for telling us more about this fabric. If I ever go to Africa and see this type of fabric, I’ll know what to do with it.

  7. Love this Vicki, I always do love what comes off your machine and the fabrics you choose. I know exactly what you’re saying about the sari fabric it unravels before your eyes, it’s like a race to see who finishes first. I’m off to spend some time with Bongiwe Walaza.