Month: March 2015

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Ancient craftsmanship + modern spirit

Arriving into Paris fresh off the plane from China and desperately needing something to wear, I whipped up this hand-pleated black dress just in time for an art opening that evening at the Palais de Tokyo.  In this dress, I finally felt able to bridge the Eastern artisanal craft with a modern Parisian spirit. The  black cotton fabric for this airy pleated dress was hand-woven in the homes of the Dong families in Zhaoxing village. They used natural indigo and green persimmon to dye the fabric black, then sent it to the nearby Buyi people for hand-pleating using an ancient steaming method. The 3-ring metal necklace with engraved flowers was hand-pounded by an elder Miao silversmith in his little studio along the river. The materials were created by three different ethnic minority groups, so it is very multi-cultural from the local perspective. To give it a modern touch, Elaine Ng at The Fabrick Lab created beautiful laser-cut fringe from the local egg-white shiny fabric to hang down the front of the dress. The final dress was presented at the group show Le Cabinet de Curiosités de Thomas Erber in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Ancient tradition

The fabric-making tradition of the Miao ethnic minorities can be traced back at least 1000 years. Fabrics were lightweight and easily transportable during these frequent periods of war and migration. The symbolic iconography protected its wearer from harmful spirits while chronicling the story of their people. In this image, an elderly woman weaves fabric for her funeral. It is a tradition for family members of the deceased to wear white fabric on their heads during the funeral ceremony. By weaving the fabric herself, she explained that she was relieving the burden of her children from having to weave the fabric themselves. Of course, I was very touched by this and quietly watched her weave until sundown.

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Growing cotton

In Guizhou province, each ethnic minority family is given one “MU” (670 sq meters) of land to grow their own crops. On this land, these self-sustaining farmers plant just enough crops to last them for the year. Cotton is grown in the warmer valley regions of Guizhou province. The seeds are germinated and planted in April, then harvested by October. In addition to clothing, the local cotton is grown to make blankets and bed mattresses.

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Hand spinning

These days, it is rare to find hand-spun thread. It is a slow process that requires a lot of patience, but it produces beautiful results that cannot be replicated by machines. This is due to the uneven tension of the hand as the fiber is spun from fiber into thread on the wheel. Hand-spun thread will reflect the unique personality ofthe person who creates it. Was that person have a good or bad day? Are their hands tight or loose? Is the thread consistent or varied in thickness? Each spool of thread will look different, depending on the person’s character and emotions she or he was feeling on that particular day.     

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Hand weaving

Before the Industrial Revolution, all fabric in the Western world was woven on hand-looms and did not use any electricity. It was a precious material that could be re-used, re-incorporated into new clothes, or over-dyed to give it a fresh look. In Florence during the Renaissance, velvet fabric took months to produce and the gowns produced from them could fetch the price of a house! In France, the Jacquard loom was one of the great technological inventions of the 18th century and could be “programmed” with replaceable punch cards to create complex brocades and damask fabrics. The hand-loom is said to be the pre-cursor to the modern day computer, as is explained in great detail in Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age. Just two decades ago, people across rural China remember watching their mothers hand-weave fabric at home during their youth. This has disappeared rapidly as the country has modernized and moved the population into the big cities. Guizhou province is one of the few places in China where families still weave their own fabric at home. Hand-woven fabrics take …

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Natural dyes

Mr. Yang, an 80-yr old dye master of the Miao people, collects plants, flowers, and tree bark from the surrounding mountains to dye my fabrics. The dye bath is all-natural and can even be consumed as an herbal tea! There are no synthetic chemicals used — just a combination of various plants, minerals, rice wine vinegar and soybean juice. The dye techniques are Miao secrets, so it is only passed down between family members from one generation to the next. These two colors were dyed during the month of May, when the yellow flower and the red tree bark were readily available in the mountain forest. Mr. Yang collects the flower only when it has fallen to the ground or the bark only when it can be safely removed from the tree. In this way, the wild plants are not harmed.

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Hand embroidery

The Miao ethnic minority group is world-renowned for their elaborate hand-embroidered costumes — a female tradition dating back over 1000 years. Young girls will learn the embroidery techniques from their mothers, who themselves learned it from their mothers. Their costumes can take up to two years to complete, are worn for over 20 years, and are then handed down to their children as family heirlooms. The Miao also use embroidery as a tool to pass down their oral history, as they traditionally do not have a written language. Instead, they use auspicious patterns in their fabrics to orally convey the story of their people. Their history is, literally, written on their cloth. Their unique textiles and costumes are now collected by leading international institutions around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), The British Museum (London), and Musée du Quai Branly (Paris).

How It Began…

While searching for hand-embroidery of the Miao ethnic minority in southwest China five years ago, I discovered a magical place where people lived harmoniously with the natural world around them: elders drank water from fresh mountain springs, children played in clean rivers, and families let their pigs and horses roam as free as they pleased. Trees were revered as spirits, fish were raised in rice patties, and bird migrations informed farmers when to sow their seeds. These cluster of villages felt pure and untouched by modern times, like peering into a window two centuries ago; yet here it was before my eyes, and the year was 2010.   I came to this part of China in search of the Miao people and their stunning textiles. Their magnificent costumes were showcased in museum around the world, and I had flown down to the villages in the hopes of developing these fabrics with them for wider notoriety and broader dissemination, but more importantly, to preserve an ancient art. But like all things of rarity and beauty, reproducing these …

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Three generations making fabric

This image captures the different experiences of three generations in one village: The grandmother wears an everyday traditional-style costume that she made herself, complete with a head covering that identifies her as coming from Tang’an village. She rarely leaves her village and has spent her entire life living off the land as a farmer. She knows how to grow and make everything one needs for survival, and she would have had to all the clothes for herself and the family. The mother wears modern machine-made clothing that was bought in a nearby city. She never learned the fabric-weaving craft because she left the village at a young age to become a migrant worker in the coastal factories. Having earned and saved up enough money to build a family, she has returned to her village to raise her daughter. By helping the grandmother prepare the thread for the loom, the mother is learning the fabric-weaving tradition in the process. The granddaughter has grown up in a modern China driven by new technology. She enjoys playing games on her mother’s cell phone — a device that was bought from money her mother earned …

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Making silk yarn

Silk worms are raised in the remote villages of eastern Guizhou. It took me 3 years to find members of the older generation who still retained the knowledge to grow silk worms and weave the fabric. The worms are raised between April and June when fresh mulberry leaves can be fed to the worms. Because of the time-consuming process (they can only weave 10 cm of fabric at 40 cm wide), it is very rare to find these fabrics still being made today. Silk threads are soaked in soybean juice to stiffen it and make it easier to thread into the hand loom. Labels keep track of which village women spun which thread, as the quality can very by person. Generally, the more patient and pleasant a person is, the better quality their silk thread seems to be.