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 mythical fabrics proved not so easy. Never did I think it would turn into a 5-year journey.
China has been undergoing rapid modernization for the last 25 years, and traditional village life has been quickly eroding. While the impoverished local villagers view these newly-built highways and shiny airports as “progress,” this shift towards modernity has also led to the loss of centuries of culture heritage.
When I arrived in China’s poorest province of Guizhou, international museum collectors were buying up the embroideries in the ethnic minority villages because they believed the tradition would disappear in the next 5-10 years. Grandmothers possessing the know-how to create these intricately designed, hand-weaved and naturally dyed fabrics were disappearing and the younger generation was not interested in learning the labor-intensive craft.
Most people would probably brush this off as the natural evolution of modern times, but for me, this loss inspired a call to action. Rather than watch an ancient culture disappear from the sidelines, I wanted to find a way for it to continue. But how do I do this, when even the village elders themselves had given up hope on passing it down to their children?
While meeting with ethnic minority villagers, it soon became obvious that translating the traditional fabrics into modern fashion items was the quickest way to keep the craft from disappearing. When I did fashion sketches, the girls would gather around me in excitement to tell me which designs they liked best. They were surprised when I told them they used their grandmother’s fabrics. The contemporary styles allowed them to see the tradition in a new context that appeared fresh and new.
Like all fashion trends, to be taken seriously, it must first be adopted by style leaders in big international cities, particularly in the West. By having the world show their admiration and appreciation for traditional Chinese fabrics and embroideries, I knew that this would inspire the ethnic minority village youth to pick-up and continue the craft. Therefore, my aim was to create a collection that would appeal to Westerners and gain the support in the international community. Through this method, the local ethnic minority community would also see a value in continuing the tradition.
Rather than watch an ancient culture disappear from the sidelines, I wanted to find a way to continue the craft.
So in 2012, I left my downtown New York apartment and moved into an airy wooden cabin in the tiny village of Dimen (pop. 500 households) with no heating, little running water, and barely any electricity. My suitcase was filled with nature survival books like Living Without Electricity, The Lost Language of Plants, and Traditional Foods are your Best Medicine. The 3-day journey of international flights through Shanghai and the provincial capital of Guiyang ended with a 5-hour bumpy mountain ride into the middle of nowhere. Driving into the village felt like entering a mysterious time warp, like entering a foggy dreamscape utopia that is part hobbit village and part Shangri-la. To this day, I still cannot find it on Google Maps.
A key benefit of following the self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle of Dimen village was that I had control of the entire process of production, from the raw material itself to the final garment construction. So secluded and remote are these mountain villages that, if I needed something, I would have to learn how to make it or grow it myself. For me and the collaborating villagers (or more accurately, my teachers), it took an entire year to develop a collection that followed the traditional recipes and methods of ancient fashion production. While the concept of time and deadlines does not exist in nature, had I not pushed my colleagues to go faster, this process would have been stretched out for much longer
Surrendering to nature’s timing, however, enabled us to make the fabrics effortlessly. The village elders showed us how they grew cotton and indigo on their land, and picked fresh (in-season) wild plants from the mountains for fabric dyeing and finishing. By following their ancient practices, we created fabrics that were naturally organic, chemical-free, locally-made, non-polluting, and did not even require electricity. The only power source we needed was time, sun, and caring human hands.
A call to action for designers
What struck me about the ethnic minorities in Guizhou province was their sophisticated eye and ability to turn humble materials of the Earth into beautiful useful objects. There was such expertise in the way they worked the land, and even in the way that they dressed. It was a confident presence and professional demeanor that was rare to find in the cities.
The global textile industry is currently ranked the #2 polluter in the world.
I attributed their wisdom to the accumulation of indigenous knowledge – one that had proven itself effective for the last 1000 years. It seemed to follow nature more effortlessly than the shorter 200-plus years of Western science that I had grown up learning. Being cut off from the conveniences of the modern world, I would also have to learn the inherent laws of nature and rely on the local indigenous knowledge for my own survival. By observing the lifestyle of the villagers, I discovered many ways to live more harmoniously with nature and design in a more ecological way. There are many traditional design solutions that could easily be incorporated into the modern world.
The global textile industry is currently ranked the #2 polluter in the world because the dyeing, rinsing, and treatment of textiles use chemicals like formaldehyde (HCHO), chlorine, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. The World Bank estimates that almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles. Millions of gallons of toxic wastewater are discharged by mills into rivers and oceans each year, causing both environmental damage and human disease.
We urgently need to find alternative solutions. If textile mills only produce what we designers buy and consumers can only buy what we design, then it is clear that designers have the greatest power in reducing negative human impact on the environment. As 90 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage, it is clear that we must think more creatively about what we design. Beyond the actual product itself, we must also think about the system and context in which it will be used and discarded.
Design is a product of our own view of the world so we must live a life of respecting nature ourselves in order to be able to design products that do the same. Incorporating ecologically-respective methods into our design approach will then come naturally to us – and we will find it inspiring and invigorating to do so.
Ninety percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage.
We must educate ourselves not only in terms of using the best sustainable materials, but also the system in which it is produced (such as working conditions, carbon footprint, energy/water required) and what happens after the product leaves our hands (as with product life-span, re-usability, speed of biodegradability). This may mean sourcing materials that are locally produced, selecting a color that uses less toxic chemicals, or designing items ofhigher quality and lower volume. The result is intelligently-crafted objects that look more beautiful and alive than those made by polluting chemicals and energy-wasting machines.
Indigenous practices = a sustainable future!
We all want to live in a world with access to fresh air, clean water, and the beauty and diversity of nature. Keeping traditional craftsmanship knowledge alive will enable us to preserve an environmentally-sustainable way of life and the knowledge of how to live harmoniously within the laws of nature. We will be able to unlearn all the harmful ways of existing on this planet and discover a more empowering way to life. Instead of greedily gobbling up resources, we can turn our everyday pattern of consumption into an abundant one that contributes to the world.
Through this blog I will provide a window into the environmentally-sustainable agrarian lifestyle I have come to embrace, and show how the ethnic minority villagers of Guizhou province changed my approach to design in the modern world. If the poorest peasants of rural China can afford to make their clothing, food, and houses in ways that do not negatively impact the natural environment, then we in the affluent Western world can certainly learn how to do so, too! By studying and maintaining their proven methods of the ancient past, we will be able to find much-needed solutions for a sustainable future.