I was looking for weavers in the villages of central Guizhou – artisans who still knew the old ways and methods to weave cloth, without machines, without electricity – and they were proving very hard to find. The local Miao women had largely abandoned the making of handwoven cloth because modern factories and machines could produce quality cotton at a fraction of the price, and so weaving had become nothing more than a lost tradition for most Miao women, an indulgent waste of time that could be better spent growing crops or tending to business.
Miao women don’t often take short cuts – they spend two years embroidering the colourful panels they place on their wedding garments, and another year embroidering and appliquéing a baby carrier for their first child. They still dye all their own cloth – with indigo they have grown themselves – and sew all their own clothes from the dyed cloth.
But weaving is different. Weaving consumes so many hours it’s difficult to fit anything else in. Setting up a loom takes five women one whole day, and once the loom is set the weaving proceeds at a snail’s pace – about a yard a day. The time for weaving has to be found between rice planting and harvest, and unlike embroidery, which you can carry with you anywhere to work on when you have a spare moment, weaving ties you to a loom, completely immovable.
So weaving is a dying art in Guizhou.
We needed handwoven cloth for a large artwork, for which every component was to be handmade by the local Miao people. We had already found expert dyers who used traditional indigo and plant dyes to render the cloth a deep, rich aubergine, and silver smiths who made ornaments to sew to the cloth, but our stumbling block was the cloth itself, and the weavers to make it – it seemed wrong to start the process with factory-made fabric.
We had chased many leads only to find dead ends – elderly women who occasionally wove brocade strips for special orders, villagers that used to weave, but no longer did. Our guide thought he had heard of some weavers in Qingman village, southwest of Kaili in central Guizhou Province, and so we set off to find out, prepared for more disappointment.
Qingman village is typical of a Miao village, of which there are hundreds in central Guizhou, microcosms of a traditional way of life preserved well into the modern day. The geographic remoteness of many of the villages, combined with the strong ethnic identity of the Miao people means that modern life has been a long time coming, and its encroachments are ponderously slow – an electricity wire here and there, an occasional television set.
The houses are made of wood, raised on stilts to climb the steep hillside and tightly packed together to maximise workable farmland. Between the houses hung with newly-harvested corn run narrow stone lanes leading up and down. A woman passed us, hoe in hand and baby on her back held tight by a patterned and embroidered baby carrier. Another woman passed, with a bamboo pole over her shoulder balancing two enormous panniers full of pig manure being carried from the sty to the fields. Miao men and women both work the fields, but women have the added task of running the home and rearing children.
The village square, usually reserved for festivals, markets and celebrations, was being put to good use as a flat place for drying harvested rice, raked carefully. Elsewhere bright red chilies and bunches of millet, tied together with grass, were spread out to dry in the early autumn sun.
It was clear that village life fell into a natural cadence determined by the ebb and flow of the seasons and the crops, with intense activity during planting and harvest interwoven with quiet periods reserved for other activities – weddings, festivals, preserving of foods, sewing, repairing and even occasional afternoons spent sitting in the sun drinking mi jiu, a sweet rice liquor.
As I watched an elderly couple outside their house – he smoking tobacco, she repairing a woven grass mat used for drying rice – it seemed village life had remained as it was for a very long time. Certainly, most of the villagers carried mobile phones now, and they didn’t all wear indigo cloth, but they still farmed, and their year was governed more by the passing seasons than what they read in the newspapers or heard on their radios.
The unseasonably warm autumn weather – known in Chinese as an autumn tiger (qiu laohu 秋老虎) – was proving perfect for dyeing indigo, with every house hung with a length of the deep purple-black cloth, and nearly every woman’s fingers stained dark blue from the dye.
After enquiries at a number of houses we came across the first positive sign that weaving was still being carried out in Qingmen – five women preparing a loom for weaving silk. At last!
Now I could understand why it took an entire day – the threads were carefully measured, cut, combed and separated, and wound onto a giant spindle attached by a harness to one woman’s waist. Bamboo slats were placed under the threads at intervals to prevent tangling and intermingling of the threads.
When we asked about weavers the women directed us to the house of Pan Yanlian, the young woman whose loom they were preparing.
We found Pan Yanlian at home, in the cool area under her house set up with a loom. She was weaving, not for tourists or for fun, but for a Beijing fashion designer who was using the village’s traditional checked silks in a small range of clothing. Of all things. How very wonderful.
She had learnt weaving from her mother and mother-in-law and had found it both relaxing and enjoyable, a welcome break from outdoor work.
We sat and talked with her for hours, hearing about village life and her two children (China’s ethnic minorities are permitted two children, as are rural families), and learned that there were at least eight functioning looms in the village, and more than eight women who knew how to use them. Even more wonderful!
It was a delight to know that thanks to the value placed on handmade things by visitors from Japan and some Chinese designers, she was able to make a living from weaving and in her village, it was no longer a dying art.
So tell me – do you have a fascination with textiles? I believe there are more of you than I ever suspected after posting about this on Facebook recently!
How far have you travelled to find unusual textiles, and what treasures have you brought home with you?
Qingman Village 青曼 – Details
Qingman village is a beautiful example of an intact traditional Miao village and visitors are welcome. The village is about two hours’ drive from Kaili in central Guizhou and is best reached by private car. Kaili is two and a half hours’ drive from the provincial capital Guiyang.
Few local villagers speak Chinese and none speak English, so travelling with a Miao-speaking guide is very helpful – try Gateway to Guizhou
There are no restaurants or guesthouses in the village, but there are two small stores where water and snacks can be bought.
The local Miao families sell their silk and old textiles on market days.
A trip to Qingman can be combined with a visit to the beautiful paper-making village of Shiqiao (Stone Bridge) nearby.