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New Madras for the Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands may soon have an official madras, designed by St. Croix’s own Debbie Sun! If you are not familiar with madras, it’s a calico-like fabric that was originally used by the peasant class in India. Named for the small fishing village of Madraspatnam (Madras) where it originated, madras became a very popular fabric throughout the Caribbean when it was traded by the Dutch and British settlers in the 1600s. Many Caribbean islands have officially adopted their own unique madras pattern to use in their cultural costumes and official decor (similar to the Scottish tartans used for making kilts), and the USVI is now on the way to having our own unique madras.

Several years ago, The St. Croix Heritage Dancers were awarded a cultural grant to create an official madras for the U.S. Virgin Islands, and they asked local textile designer Debbie Sun to design a madras that represents the USVI that could would be presented for official approval. St. Croix Heritage Dancers Vice President Alvin Milligan said: “The vision is to have the V.I. madras showcased on all cultural attired dancers and performers at the cultural events and pageants. And to introduce it into contemporary fashion and interior decor.” 

Textile designer Debbie Sun with the VI Madras she designed

The St. Croix Heritage Dancers perform French and German Quadrille across the island to the delight of tourist and residents alike. The philosophy of the organization is to preserve the cultural dances of the Virgin Islands so that future generations will have an awareness of our culture, which is a mixture of our origin and the cultures left with us by the seven flags which flew over St. Croix. Quadrille was introduced to the Virgin Islands in the mid-1800s and was gradually adopted by the locals. By the beginning of the 20th century, locals had developed a creole version of Quadrille which included some African-inspired dance movements, steps, and rhythms. The costumes worn by the dancers are generally made from bleached flour sacks and embellished with madras in a range of bright and beautiful colors. 

As Debbie started telling me about the madras project a few years ago, I found myself getting more and more excited and fascinated. Before starting possible designs, Debbie got some inspiration by researching madras fabrics and how they are made, as well as delving into the history of the Virgin Islands. Debbie told me about meeting Bradley E. Christian, President of The St. Croix Heritage Dancers, and tapping into his wealth of knowledge about the cultural significance of Quadrille and the role of madras. In fact, he wrote the book on the subject if you’re interested, it’s called ‘Quadrille: The Official Dance of the U.S. Virgin Islands‘.

St. Croix Culture
Quadrille dancers wearing a variety of madras designs

Debbie also made a point to meet with Senator Myron Jackson (Chair of the Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation for the USVI) who Debbie says is “a walking encyclopedia on the history and culture of the USVI”. Even as a native Crucian, Debbie said she learned things from Senator Jackson that she never knew about the history of the USVI. To take things one step further, Debbie also took the opportunity on her annual trip to Spain to stop in the United Kingdom and see firsthand how madras-type fabrics are woven by visiting the JH Birtwistle plant in Haslingden.

Armed with tons of ideas, new historical knowledge, and local inspirations, Debbie came up with three different potential designs for the USVI madras. The design chosen is based on the colors of the Virgin Islands themselves, and this is the madras that was submitted for legislative approval. Per Debbie: “The madras design features specific colors reflecting the Virgin Islands: TURQUOISE for the Caribbean Sea that embodies our natural beauty;  BLUE for the deep seas that allowed for ease of transport and made the deep harbors of St. Thomas an attractive port; PINK for the color of the conch shell, a poignant symbol of our Call to Freedom; YELLOW for the Ginger Thomas, the national flower of the Virgin Islands;  GREEN for the vast fields of natural resources; WHITE in acknowledgment of the original cultural attire of the Virgin Islanders who wore the fabric of the white flour sacks; and a rich RED that represents love and strength and appears in all the flags the have flown across the Virgin Islands.”

Description of the colors included in the VI Madras

Debbie Sun has been working closely with Bradley Christian, Senator Myron Jackson, and Mary Dema for years now to prepare the madras design and presentation so it could be scheduled for the legislation to approve it as the official madras of the territory. On Monday, December 9, 2019, the Legislature Committee of Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging reviewed and passed Bill No. 33-0226 approving it as the official madras of the USVI. The bill was then forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration. According to Debbie Sun: “We still have more steps to go before it becomes the official madras which mainly entails showing public support. According to the Senator Myron Jackson who put forth the bill, we will have town hall meetings on the two islands to get public input.”

I can’t imagine a better way to represent the USVI in a madras then with colors that represent the parts of the island we all recognize and enjoy on a daily basis. If you have the opportunity, please show your support for this colorful symbol –  which could become an integral part of the U.S. Virgin Islands culture and history.

Jennie Ogden, Editor


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