By Kartika Putra
The convoy of fabric hunters set out in the glorious Dali sunshine, our guesthouse owner (Chris from Dragonfly guesthouse – best hostel in Yunnan!) proving to be an invaluable asset as tour guide, interpreter, historian, and negotiator. We noticed marble shapers on the road leaving the old town and were advised that Dali was the main source of marble for China, so much so that marble was called Dali stone throughout China, even if the origin was Italian it would be called Italian Dali stone.
We sped around the sapphire blue Erhai Lake, through old coastal towns, the Cangshan Mountain looming over us to our left, three ancient pagodas erect against the backdrop. Legend says that the Dali province used to flood frequently until the Bai people were advised by mystics that the turtle energy of the lake was overpowering the something energy of the mountain. To improve the fengshui, the people of Dali were told to build three pagodas. These pagodas were built in 618AD and the legends say that the area never flooded again. When the Mongols swept through Dali, these three pagodas were all that remained of the old civilisation.
Our destination was a Bai fabric maker collective that represents Bai artisans who practise their trade from within their own homes. The Bai have a strong history in the region and are known for their artistic creativity including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and other craft techniques such as lacquer work. While a minority in China, there are still close to 2 million Bai individuals residing in China.
En route to the collective we stopped at ‘the tongue’, a jetty of land that sticks out in to the Erhai lake, which translates to ‘the ear’. A mishap occurred while biking through the coastal towns that threatened to jeopardise the whole trip. A sharp bend in narrow corridors, a large white speed hump camouflaged against the white concrete road, a faulty back brake, loose gravel, and a skidding bike. What could have been disaster ended in bruises, scratches, and grazes. The convoy continued.
The collective was housed in a small warehouse with a courtyard out the back. In the courtyard were two old female Bai artisans stitching cotton cloth sheets. We had found something. This was it! we found ourselves in a little village where the traditional technique of stitch dye thrived. Everyone was doing it in their homes, there were myriads of colours and patterns to choose from!
Two more women showed us the knot cloth style, a process of twisting and tying fabrics, and then they removed stitches in another fabric which opened up a whole new layer of patterning. Chris explained there were many ways of producing the traditional Bai fabric; from brushing patterns, to soaking and dyeing, steam boiling, and dip dyeing.
We wandered through the courtyard in a daze as our guide and now fabric expert, Chris, explained that the more intricate patterns can take days to complete. We stopped at one particular fabric which caught our eye; it was predominantly white, a much more complex effect achieved by removing stitches in the weave, we were told. But what we were looking at is ultimately what we decided to be our feature fabric for the collection.
We had finally found it. After weeks of travel, trekking, commuting and learning, we had finally reached Zhoucheng, a little village in Dali which is renown for their skill in stitch resist dyeing. A craft that has been passed down through generations and an industry that can handle a little international exposure. Our heads have been swirling with AMAZING ideas ever since seeing these fabrics! Can’t wait to start designing the collection!!!
We won’t reveal our actual fabric until at the end of our China travels! Stay tuned! It’s worth it!