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Protect Ancient Dyeing Techniques

Jan 13, 2020

Protect ancient dyeing techniques

At a recent eco-design fair in China, a woman from the capital, wearing a costume decorated using a unique traditional dyeing technique, drew a small crowd of visitors.

"These products are all made by people who are carrying forward an important cultural heritage," said Chang Lei, founder of Beijing Buran Shanfang Workshop.

Over the years, the youthful business owner has made many attempts to protect and innovate endangered craft practices, as well as promote employment among impoverished women of ethnic minorities.

"I will devote all my life to building a social brand for traditional dyeing techniques," she told China Women's News during a recent interview at her studio.

Going into Dyeing Business

"My first contact with batik and tie-dye was at the Folk Costume Museum of the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology. Impressed by their bold colors and rich patterns, I developed a strong interest in them," recalled Chang, who was then a student majoring in sculpture.

Since then, she spent all her holidays learning the skills in mountain villages in southwest China's Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

After her graduation, she went on a study tour in the Middle East, Europe and North America, where she integrated traditional Chinese dyeing crafts with local arts and displayed her innovative works at a variety of exhibitions.

After returning home, she set up her own studio. To expand production, she opened an off-site factory earlier this year in southwest China's Guizhou Province.

"Taking silk fabric as a ground, organic dye made from natural plants as pigments and batik and tie-dye as a brush, cloth materials and scarves made in this way are the best carriers for the Chinese dyeing techniques," she said.

Cloth and scarves are the main focus of Chang's studio. Moreover, she developed assorted products and services including throws, customized artworks, tailored costumes and tutoring.

Protecting Dying Traditions

The staff members engaged in painting and embroidery at Chang's factory are all officially recognized so-called "intangible culture heritage inheritors" aged from around 50 to 80. Among them, many are so-called "empty-nesters" – meaning elderly citizens who live on their own in rural areas.

"These aunts and grandmas have been weaving fabrics, making embroidery and dyeing cloth since their childhood. Their lives are a living museum of the dyeing techniques," she stated.

"Confined by conventional ideas and natural environments, most of them have never left their village all their life," she added.

Therefore, she located her factory in a mountain village in the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou, a region inhabited by many ethnic minorities.

In many mountain villages of Qiandongnan, most young women have moved to cities to find jobs while the elderly sell vegetables or do some manual work for a living.

"We hope that by providing employment and free training we can encourage more young people to help pass down the craft and help elders improve their living standards," she explained.

Making Innovations

"The best inheritance of tradition is to let it enter people's life," said Chang, whose designs aim to establish connections with nature and history through everyday items.

Now she is focusing all her energy on studying traditional skills and making new breakthroughs in patterns, fabrics and colors, including indigo.

"Actually, we can make rich colors from plants. By using the technique, we can produce many products loved by the public," she said, showing dozens of color samples.

As to pattern designs, she believes that only by "deconstructing and reconstructing" traditional patterns can they gain a market.

However, the biggest difficulty she has encountered is how to make the integration of traditional craft and modern arts acceptable to her employees, most of whom are illiterate.

"We tried to simplify the process for making our artistic creations and base them on traditional patterns," she said. In addition, she stayed in the village for more than two months, communicating with staff every day.

When asked about her long-term development plan, Chang said that she will carry out a refurbishment of her factory in accordance with the policy and support of local government.

"We will manage this factory well first and then let it drive the development of nearby villages," she concluded.