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Weaver brings traditional ethnic dyeing crafts to outside world

(Global Times)    10:09, March 23, 2019

On November 28, 2018, in Yarong community, Baijin Town of Huishui County, Guizhou Province, Zhao Weiying, the inheritor of the maple scented dyeing technique, was painting the maple scented works.(Photo by People’s Daily Online)

In a dyeing center located in Sanbao Dong stockade of Rongjiang county, Southwest China's Guizhou Province, Lai Lei records various data on a pad including temperature, humidity, air speed, and soaking time.

The weaver seems more like a technician conducting a chemical experiment than someone dyeing cloth.

Lai was preparing to dye a batch of “24 solar terms cloths. For the last few thousand years, Chinese people have used the ‘24 solar terms’ to guide their farming methods.

Lai, 46, organizes local women of various ethnic groups in Guizhou to weave traditional Dong cloths with indigo dye. Their products have been exhibited in a number of international fashion shows.

“I can create 24 different shades of blue corresponding to the 24 solar terms,” she told the China Weekly in the dyeing center. “The blue appears in various ways in different solar terms under different temperatures and climates.”

“On the first day of the Spring Festival this year, which was the fifth day of the Beginning of Spring, a green nuance can be seen in the indigo cloth, indicating that spring is just around the corner,” she said.

Lai is the fifth and youngest child of a farmer's family in Sanbao Dong stockade. Lai went to study at Yunnan Arts University then returned to her hometown and became a teacher for the next 15 years.

While teaching in a Miao stockade in Rongjiang county, Lai found that her students were particularly good at painting. This was because the stockade still retains traditional wax painting and herb dyeing skills, which astonished her. She decided to learn painting and dyeing from her students’ mothers.

After teaching in the Miao stockade, Lai was transferred to the intangible cultural heritage office of Rongjiang county. Because of her family tradition of weaving Dong cloth, the drawing and dyeing skills learned from the Miao stockade, and her job, Lai decided to be a Dong cloth weaver.

Daily living

In 2003, Dong cloth weaving skills, wax dyeing and embroidery were included in a list of national-level intangible cultural heritages.

When more and more people started coming to Dong stockades in search of the handmade natural cloth that embodied a return to nature and a simple life, Lai realized that it was time to make an effort to hand down the weaving and dyeing skills, otherwise they would be lost.

In 2005, Lai and her mother started to learn and improve the traditional weaving and dyeing skills in order to bring the products closer to people’s daily lives.

“If the cloth we make can only be exhibited in museums, they would not deserve the title of intangible cultural heritage,” said Lai. “I want it back to people’s daily lives,” she said. “If they only pursue art, handicraftsmen will starve.”

“Mu Suo Ren Jia” is the name of Lai’s textile workshop. In September, 2012, she established the workshop with a loan of 80,000 yuan ($12,000) from a local rural credit office.

Forty local women joined the workshop, using traditional skills to produce cloth, garments, purses, bedding and mats from the cotton planted in the area. The products have been sold outside the mountain in big cities including Beijing and Shanghai, and other countries such as the US and France.

In 2013, after being granted 150,000 yuan in subsidies from the local rural credit office for small and micro businesses, Lai decided to let the weavers work at home, occasionally visiting them to collect the products. The move attracted more than 300 women from various local ethnic groups including the Miao, Yao and Dong, since this system allowed them to take care of the elderly and children while working at home. “This job helps them grow in confidence and self-esteem, since they become financially independent,” said Lai.

Passing down tradition

“I’m actually from the first batch of young people to return home to start a business. I came back to repay my family, who had scraped together money to give me a better education, so I wanted to do something to benefit the stockade,” said Lai. “I had planned to build a road for the village with my savings, and then it occurred to me that organizing them to weave was a better choice.” She then thought that with more and more young people working in the city, the precious heritage passed down from their ancestors was in danger of being lost.

“We were so proud when our cloth first appeared in the Paris Fashion Week in 2013, and people started to noticed that the cloth was from Rongjiang in Guizhou, which is also indigo dyed,” said Lai. However, Lai has turned down opportunities to work with top global luxury brands on many occasions, because they wanted her to change the traditional weaving methods, and Lai believed this would not be helpful in preserving Dong cloth weaving skills.

“I care more about not losing the precious skills from my ancestors,” said Lai.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Du Mingming, Bianji)

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