These are some of China’s “left-behind” kids, whose parents live in coastal cities as migrant workers. They are too young to start school, so they spend the day hanging out in the village while their grandparents work the nearby fields.
In Dimen Village, it is a common sight to see Dong villagers wash their long hair in the river stream.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
This video clip below shows one of the Miao fabric masters spinning cotton thread at our workshop in Dimen Village.
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.