Notes of Apprentices: Miao Embroidery (1)
Notes of Apprentices is practice and observation about "craftsmanship".
Pictures and words in the Miao Embroidery series is provided by Meini and translated by Lin Biaojie.
After quitting my company in 2012, I had always been thinking about the way in which I could live and work. That period of time for me was both a vacation and an exploration. Stopping work at hand, I returned to my hometown ---- Guiyang, where my parents also live. Given the longitude of the vacation, I figured out I should put into my to-do list the things that I had always been interested in yet hadn’t done.
I spent my childhood in a region in Guizhou where the Miao people, the Buyi people and Han people live together. It was not until 5 years old that I first noticed the distinct presence of the Buyi and Miao people around me. The first impression that they left on me, of course, was their characteristic dresses: sculptured hats, black layered clothes with thick and heavy fine silver earrings hanging from huge ear holes. They were all telling me that maybe they were different from us. I still remembered the time when I was so packed with curiosity about such huge ear holes and couldn't help taking a closer look. Their ear lobes were similar to a lump of dough that was first kneaded and then stretched into a long stick by a pastry chef. There were also some girls in my class who were Miao. They had piercings from a very early age. Though in most of the time they chose to wear artless silver earrings, yet I still envied them for being able to have their ears pierced at that young age and not under the threat of being punished by the school. The first impression of Miao Embroidery, to me, was far less strong comparing to that of their gigantic ear holes.
Details of embroidery
It seemed that I first noticed Miao Embroidery from the straps that Miao women used to carry their children. On my way to school I would bump into some Miao women who carried their children on their backs so that they could buy or sell things more conveniently. Those were straps covered with embroideries. Most of the embroideries showed complex consistent geometric patterns. It was hard for people to tell where the pattern started. For a child like me at that time, staring at the patterns for too long would easily render me dizzy. It was not until I grew up a little that I started to know that those straps were called “Bei Shan”, which means “a fan on the back”. Most of the “Bei Shan” have abundant contents and special meanings.
I moved to the city with my parents when I was 12, away from my hometown where Miao, Buyi and Han peoples live together. My adolescence since then was swamped with pop culture. Those mysterious people with different ethnic minorities who shared common huge holes in their ears, black clothes and dresses, complex symbols and patterns disappeared from my life experience, so did the curiosity that I had towards them when I was young.
Embroidery patches on the sleeve
The next time that I started to recognize them was when I had grown up. As I studied fashion design at university, I was naturally interested in all forms of fashions, including the dresses of all the peoples in the whole world. Given that embroidery is one of the most widely used adorning techniques in the world, the irresistible thought of trying to experience it started to prevail in my mind. I saw how the Miao people embroidered complex patterns on their clothes, yet I had never witnessed how everything was born. As a result, I planned to find a chance to witness, yet I determined to do that away from the places that were receiving redundant tourists.
The chance was endowed on me a month later after I quitted my company. My aunt is a retired Chinese teacher and in that year she was organizing some charity events concerning the field of education. One of the projects was to convene some of the city teachers to help teaching in the countryside. She knew that I was interested in Miao Embroidery and Miao dresses. So she told me that their next destination was a place where the majority of the residents was of the ethnicity of Miao, and asked whether I would like to join them. Without a second thought, I consented. On the day of departure we took a long drive to the town of Guiding, then another long drive to a village at the backdrop of the town. Given that it was a secluded village, roads were narrow and bumpy. As the car bumped its way through the countryside, we could see people doing agrarian works dressed in ethnic styles. Though they were all of the Miao ethnic minority, yet as the saying goes, “a hundred Miao people have a hundred styles of clothing”, there are a lot of branches of Miao people who share little in common in their dresses.
Embroidery patches on the sleeve
Because of the fact that the Miao in Guiding is a different branch to that in my hometown, their clothes are starkly different. Women working in the field were wearing knee-high pleated skirts and loose front opening tops. Embroidered patched on the clothes were more or less fading due to the long time of laboring work. Yet it was still conspicuous that the Miao of this branch preferred colors with higher degrees of contrast, which was as well different to the people from my hometown who had predilection towards darker colors.
The school where my aunt and her friends were teaching was the only school in this mountain area. It was a primary school, yet with the age of the students ranging from 4 in the preschool and 16 in the 6th grade. After graduation some kids would become migrant workers, others would attend junior high schools in town. Most of the students attending the school were Miao. The day in which we got there was the Children’s day and Miao girls were all putting up their costumes.
Girls in Miao clothing
Boys in this branch didn't have Miao clothing. The majority of the students in the school were also girls. I had no idea how many children would feel unique and beautiful wearing the clothes of their own ethnicity, yet when I complimented their clothes and photo shot every embroidery patch on their clothes, they were really glad and couldn't wait to show me their clothes. Some teachers said that was a sense of ethnicity pride, yet I thought that was only a side that people would normally show when they attracted attention from others.
The back of a piece of Miao clothes in the Guiding area
Their clothes were mostly based on black fabrics, with embroidered patches sewed on top. Some families had already started using manufactured fabrics instead of their own techniques to self-weave and self-dye. The threads used in the embroidery were also no longer silk, but those that were ubiquitous in the market, similar to those the city people used in cross-stitch. Fluorescent colors were even present in the patches and accessories. I could know from nowhere whether if those colors appeared on their clothes because of their popularity or not. Time had exerted too little change on this old people. The invariability of their fundamentals urged them to try out popular elements on their appearance, and that was exactly where inapposite adornments turned up. Embroidery patterns may be the element best preserved, for that most of the Miao girls practice embroidery using patterns representing their people and their families when they are young. The history of the patterns is so long that many Miao women and girls have already forgotten their real meanings. Yet that doesn't hamper them from embroidering the pattern out meticulously. Miao of this branch uses a variety of stitching techniques, including cross stitch, chain stitch, straight stitch, twisted chain stitch and flat stitch. These techniques will all appear on the same embroidery patch simultaneously, enabling people to feel the need of them to express the abundance of their emotions.
Twisted chain stitch
Chain stitch to line the contour and flat stitch to fill the interior space
I noticed that spiral patterns were omnipresent on many of the patches. These patterns were conveying classical adorning meanings, which aroused my curiosity. I had asked the children why spiral patters were so ubiquitous on their clothes, yet was disappointed by their identical answers starting with a “no”.
A spiral pattern
The lives of modern Miao people are very simple, rough, even to some extent. They live in artless places, eat simple things, and will not go to great lengths in taking good care of the children like the city people do. An entire mountain has to be crossed on the way that the children walk to the school, and they are all finishing those journeys without the guidance of grown-ups. That's the same even for preschool kids. The Minimalism in their lives is a contradiction to the complexity in their clothes. Yet when you look at the Miao clothes and embroideries, you may instantly see a people that is, since ancient times, forever pursuing details, symmetry, abundance, narration, belief, poetry and eternity.