For the villagers, weaving fabric and sewing it into clothing is just another survival skill in the remote mountains. They first grow raw materials like cotton, ramie, flax, and hemp. Dyes are then created from indigo plant or wild flowers in the surrounding forest, with tree bark and special herbs plucked during specific periods of the year when they will not harm the plants.
For centuries, the Miao people have been celebrated as having the best fabric embroidery skills in China. As the Miao do not have a written language, they use auspicious patterns in their fabrics to orally convey the story of their people. Their history is, literally, written on their cloth.
Mothers teach their daughters the intricate dye and weaving techniques. These young women then grow up to make clothes for themselves and their children. The craft itself is very time-consuming, and a jacket can take up to two years to finish. It is a gift of love for the recipient and an heirloom to pass down to the next generation.
When something is made from the natural world with such purity and human care, it begins to enter the realm of the spiritual. Natural indigo, for example, can be used on the skin as a medicinal herb or wrapped around a house beam to protect the home. There is also a direct correlation between the quality of hand-spun silk and the personality of the weaver who made it, revealing just how good or bad their day was on the day that the fabric was woven.
For one entire year, I lived in the villages and observed the fabric-making process from the growing of raw materials all the way through to the final assembly and hand-sewing. By adhering strictly to their traditional methods, I learned that there is a way to make modern clothing today that is respectful and in line with the cycles of nature. This mystical and soulful process, however, is quickly disappearing due to the country’s current trend towards modernization.
There is so much beauty and magic in fabrics that are made by hand. The entries in this blog will show you the challenges of reviving these ancient techniques in an increasingly modern world.