The “Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency” Dress (for the Traditionally Built)

Before I get to the sewing, I’ve got to give you some back story to this post.  I’ve been nursing a fire in my belly for the past week, a fire started by the insensitive and idiotic comments by Todd Akin about sexual assult, followed by several discussions with some co-workers (from, how shall I put it?… less enlightened parts of the world) about the role of women and “how easy we have it”, and ending with a discussion with a woman I admire about gaslighting of women’s emotions.

I thought we were past all this garbage about how women can’t be trusted, can’t understand things, can’t be rational, can’t succeed.  I thought we were above notions of women not being valid; being simply vessels through which precious life may pass, but not precious life ourselves.  I thought we were respected for our endless contributions at home and work (as in my case,  the valuable scientific research I do, all the while creating and caring for a family, volunteering in my community and helping educate the next generation of curious people).

Apparently not.  Apparently there are still people near and far who believe that our contributions are somehow less meaningful.

To those people I say, just watch me.  Watch all of us who give a damn.  Shut up, move aside, and watch us change the world.

Taken by my 3-year-old daughter while we ate breakfast this morning. She’s hiding in the next photo below after The Facts….

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The Facts:

Pattern: Simplicity 9253

Year:  1971

Fabric: Double sided shwe shwe

Notions: broadcloth lining

Total Price?: ~100Rand (~$12)

First Worn: To work and home.  Kickin’ ass, takin’ names, and changin’ the world.

Wear Again?: yes

Before I started working in Botswana, someone casually mentioned to me that I should read The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series.  I’d never even heard of it, but I was in for a treat.  The series is written by Alexander McCall-Smith, a former professor at the University of Botswana, where I just so happened to be headed.

Me on the University of Botswana campus during my first trip in 2009. (No, I hadn’t been gorging myself on beef and pap – I was 8 months pregnant.) And check out that lady in the shwe shwe gown on the left!

I burned through the first two books in the week before I left, then bought numbers 3 & 4 in Heathrow Airport for the long flights, and read the rest of them as they’ve been published.  For those of you not familiar with the series, it follows Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi as they run the first ladies’ detective agency in Botswana.  Precious decides to buck convention and leave her violent husband, sell her fortune (180 head of cattle), and move to the big city of Gaborone to start her own detective agency.  Slowly paced, but full of adventures big and small, the books express a kind of quiet feminism about the lives of women against a backdrop of a changing African society.

HBO produced a series based on the books, which was filmed in the capital, Gaborone, and starred American actress / singer Jill Scott (a choice I thought was wonderful, but my Batswana colleagues did not always agree with).  The costuming was great, and they were good at using traditional fabrics such as shwe shwe.  I know, you are probably all tired of hearing me go on and on about shwe shwe cotton, but if you ever get a chance to see a shop piled to the ceiling with these graphic fabrics, I guarantee you’ll go home with a suitcase full!

I always hoard my shwe shwe for far too long, under the fear that if I mess up, I won’t ever be able to buy more.  Well, I’ve been proven wrong, since I’ve been back to Southern Africa and fabric-shopping-up-a-storm 4 times already, so I’m starting to relax and cut into the narrow lengths without cringing…..too much.  This fabric is printed on both sides, so it lends itself well to showing off the details of a pattern like this; a kind of print blocking rather than colour blocking.

I tried this pattern for the Yellow Challenge a few weeks back, but that ended up being an unwearable muslin because of minor fit issues and hellishly itchy fabric.  This cotton is sooooo much better; I feel like I could wear it to sleep.  The fit still isn’t spot on, but perhaps I’m being too picky:  The muslin was too tight, so I added a bit to the width this time around, but now that I see the photos, it appears to be slightly too wide on me now.  Eh, close enough.

No coquetish poses for me this week.  Like the traditionally built Precious Ramotswe, I’m facing the world head-on and doing whatever the hell I feel like, narrow minds be damned.

And I’m planning on looking fabulous in shwe shwe while I’m at it!

Outtakes:

Cat photobombing makes taking pictures nigh on impossible!

Author

Vicki

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.

28 Comments

  1. I have to agree on the whole first paragraph, and after I have agreed I would like to high five you and take you out for dinner! Really, couldn’t agree more.

    I also love the dress, the shwe shwe looks amazing. Can you explain the difference between shwe shwe and wax prints? My local fabric shop has a lovely selection of “African waxed prints” and I am guessing they are not the same as shwe shwe. Thanks for any light you can share on the matter.

  2. Thanks Stef – it’s a date!

    Shwe shwe is a medium weight cotton, narrow (usually <100cm wide), heavily starched and stiff, and the print is made by bleaching with weak acid on etched copper rollers. It softens a bit over time with repeated washing. Shwe shwe is now only made in South Africa and I've only seen it for sale there and in Botswana, but I think there are some American quilting shops that import pieces (fat quarters? I'm not a quilter, so I don't know the terminology). The wax cottons I've seen and worked with are light weight (almost voile), waxed, shiny and stiff until washed, when they become soft and drapy. They aren't etched like shwe shwe. I'm sure there are others here that have more background in fabrics and design who could add more (and please do!)

  3. Sing it Sister!! I’ve been so mad at the Aiken thing I’ve almost lost sleep over it…and then add in his “friend” Steve King (not be confused with the author) from Iowa who thinks dog fighting is an appropriate family sport…I’m just about out of bluster I’m so angry. If EVERYONE with a uterus would just VOTE!!
    So back to your dress, which is lovely and I LOVE the fabrics. I once did a show using “traditional African fabrics” from an american fabric store (so quite possibly what white people think comes from Africa) and I loved the prints, the colors, I just loved them. One day I’ll pull out some pics and post them on my blog and you can tell me how “authentic” they are. I’m really loving the main print you used on your dress! Maybe if you go shopping again we could send you a wish list? Oh, and the kitty is wonderful too : )

    • I’m usually a pretty patient, easy-going person, but I was practically in angry tears over the comments coming over the border in the last few weeks. We are having an election here in Quebec on Tuesday, but our choice is between the party that wants to raise our subsidized daycare cost to $8/day (horrors!) and increase university tuition to ~$4000/year, or the party that wants to form an independent Quebec nation.

      Actually, a lot of “African” fabrics were originally printed in the Netherlands, Germany or the UK and exported to Africa (that’s why they were starched or waxed), so even though they are now also made in Africa, there is still the market for them in Europe and N.A. Some of the waxed cottons I’ve seen in Montreal are similar to the ones I see in Cape Town.

  4. I love that bodice, it looks to me like you’ve got it spot on. The shape is gorgeous.

    Please don’t ever apologise for talking about shwe shwe or standing up against ignorance….I’m currently trying to channel the bee in my bonnet about most America not being allowed to hear about the incredible achievements of their team in the Paralymics, currently beating Team GB (boooo ;)) in the medal tables…..btw want to see a powerful woman who doesn’t take no for an answer, look to Jessica Long, a paralympic swimmer adopted from a Russian orphanage as a baby, brought up by American parents in Baltimore with 6 kids who they taught to always be their best, who from 12 years old has swum for Team USA in Paralympics, who so far in her career (only 20 now) currently holds 13 world records and has 9 career gold medals (2 won in the past 2 days…..and she is swimming in 7 more events to come, so fingers crossed). So basically she has the potential at 20 to be an even greater winner than Michael Phelps, and yet does most of America know about her? Nope. Because American tv is only showing 5.5 hrs of highlight shows about the Paralympics hidden away on cable tv. Why on earth would America want to know about a disabled woman? Well I think the tv executives are wrong…..I think America would like to cheer their team on, if they were only made aware of them. I’m also sad that Botswana have withdrawn their only athlete Tshotlego Morama from the Games because of financial difficulties….at least Team USA have the funds to enter 223 athletes, I suspect conditions for people with disabilities in Botswana would make me incredibly sad.

    Sorry, rant over. There is wonderful diversity in this world. We are all different and should be treated equally. You keep fighting Vicki, you keep being you! :) PS love the cat photobombing.

    • Hey Tempest – I always have trouble with fit because I’m kind of flattened laterally: flat on the front and back, but wide. My Zimbabwian friend Nyari always laughs and says I’m the exact opposite of African women!! (“Why do white women have such flat bottoms!”, she cries accusingly, like it’s something we choose to do. I tell her to stop being so racist ;)

      I share your frustration re: the paralympics. I had a friend compete in the Canadian version back in the ’90s, and there was absolutely no press interest.
      There are more than the usual difficulties for people with disabilities when you’re living in a developing country, but Botswana is fairly well off because of the stable government and the diamond resources. The worst, by far, that I’ve ever seen was Cambodia. So many land mines left over from “The American War” have left people without limbs, eyes, hands, lives, and the government doesn’t have the power to help. I gave out money to anyone selling anything on the street, acting like a lottery winner when I was there!

  5. Loved the post, loved the dress. Great job.

    • Thanks Valerie, although now that I’m no longer so fired up and I re-read my post, I see lots of typos. Oops. Gotta remember to spell check!

  6. Typos be danged. I didn’t see any of them as I was too busy fist pumping over your words. I love what you are saying and I love the shwe shwe. I’m sending you a link to a local shop that imports French and African fabric and crafts. You can see the fabric they are selling — is it shwe shwe???

    https://www.french-nc.com

    • Woohoo! You found a North American supplier! You don’t know how many people on my blog, on The Sew Weekly, IRL, have asked me where they can buy some, and the only supplier I knew that would ship to N.A. had a really limited selection (and was quite pricey). French Connections have good prices too, since the shwe shwe in Africa is almost always priced at 47-48R per metre (~$7/metre). Thank you thank you thank you!

  7. Silly me. I see that they do indeed have a selection of shwe shwe and I think I might visit them this weekend. :)

    Maybe others reading your wonderful post and seeing how cool you and Precious are will throw a little business their way. They are great folks!

  8. Testify! A very inspired post Vicki… it never ceases to amaze me how backward some segments of society remain, despite the advances of other segments. A govt official can be censured for using the word ” vagina”in public but touting the pseudo-science of “legitimate rape” and conception prevention is perfectly okay? Unfathomable. On a more topical note, I love your dress, and think the fit is pretty good. The fabric is beautiful. I will have to get me some shwe shwe. Mostly ‘cuz I like to say it. Shwe shwe shwe shwe shwe shwe!

    • Exactly: vagina vagina vagina vagina rape. Which word is offensive? And which one should be?

      I’ve heard that the name “shwe shwe” came from the rustling sound it makes when you walk, so it is an onomatopoetic word!

  9. I love what you’ve said and made!! I have been SO ANGRY over the insensitive, ignorant and completely asinine comments that so-called educated people have been making. It has been incredibly disheartening.

    Your words and dress are a welcome change from feeling mad and helpless!

    • I agree. It’s one thing to want to prevent abortion (don’t we all wish it were never again needed in the world), but to try to prevent it by using dangerous lies that will endanger women is unconscionable. Or evil. Take your pick.

      For the next challenge, I’ve decided to use my anger for good. I hope I get it posted in time, but I’ve got a full day at the beach with my family planned, so I’ll probably be late again. Ah well, how many more beach days are there this year?!

  10. That Todd Atkin is a total backward ignorant twat, don’t get me started…

    I just love your double-sided shwe shwe fabric and that neckline! this dress not so itchy.

    I found the No1 Ladies Detective Agency in the op-shop not too long ago, hopefully I’ll get around to reading it someday.

    • I remember that Mena used a similar pattern for the Vegas challenge and had trouble getting the neckline to lay properly, so I don’t feel so bad that I struggled with it too!
      I would highly recommend the No.1 series for an easy afternoon read while lying in a hammock (since you’re coming into your springtime now). I’ll admit that the last time I was in Botswana, I drove all around the base of Kgale Hill to try to find the movie set, but I guess it had been taken down!

  11. Great post and great dress! Shwe shwe is gorgeous! Narrow-minded, ignorant, and yes–evil–a$$-wipes who have no place in an educated nation’s government better watch out for all of us who see them for what they are.

    • Right on! To paraphrse an internet meme I just saw on Pintrest, “If it weren’t for Santorum and his buddies, I may never have gotten in touch with my inner raging feminist.”
      Shwe shwe is gorgeous, and the variety of prints is constantly changing. I wish there were more importers to N.A., because it would really sell here.

  12. Girl Power!

    I love your dress, I have not read the books, but I was a fan of the HBO show. I was recently given some shwe shwe and I cringe at the thought of cutting it, it is lovely fabric.

    • I was really disappointed when the series didn’t continue. I know it was critically acclaimed, but perhaps the series wasn’t widely enough known in the US to gain much of a following.
      Where did you get the shwe shwe? Did you have a friend visit S.A. or Botswana?

  13. book – Thought this series of books was a really fun read.

    mission – The apathy is what really scares me. Looking over at my country from over here in Germany gives that impression. Why aren’t people more angry at what’s happening?! Why aren’t there protests? Why/How can people be so docile about it all?

    dress – love it, have been scouting out the shwe shwe since you first posted about it.

    • Ah ha, I have a few more lengths of indigo and brown shwe shwe that I will probably use for TSW challenges before the end of the year…perhaps you will too, now that Colleen found that distributor for us.

      Apathy & ignorance: I remember staying up late to watch the results of the American election in 2008 and just kept saying to myself, “Please don’t let anything bad happen. Please don’t let anything bad happen”, because I was half expecting some nutjob violence. Then everyone in my lab watched the inauguration live on our computers and totally messed up our experiments that day and had to repeat them. And that’s not even our own country!

  14. Yes to everything that all have posted! I AGREE. How can people be so backward!
    And for the dress, I love that fabric and immediately went to the French Connection to see what African fabric they might have. Not a bad price either! I love the yolk and the peek a boo detail. It’s so cool that it has a print on each side and what a perfect way to show it off with that pattern. Love your post and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

    • Genuine shwe shwe (Three cats, Three leopards, etc. from De Gama textiles) is printed with the design on one side and the trade name and logo on the other. This double-sided that I used is kind of a knock-off brand shwe shwe that is printed on wider fabric. The type sold by French Connection is the De Gama brand, so if you do order, remember that the fabric is very narrow (around 100cm) so order accordingly.
      I managed to post this week’s challenge in time, complete with awkward photo session getting stared at by the new students on campus!

  15. I love your dress! The fabric is beautiful and I think the fit is pretty good from here. Would you ever consider belting it? It would show off your waist more. Don’t get me wrong-it looks good without one.

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