It’s taken me almost 2 months to write this.
But when something is a passion project, it’s always there at the back of one’s mind. In mid May this year, I jumped at the opportunity to join my friend Sharon on her field trip to research the technique of tin embroidery (锡 绣)), unique to the Miao ethnic minority in Guizhou, China. Sharon has an informative article on the technique here: https://www.thetextileatlas.com/craft-stories/miao-tin-gimp-embroidery-china
It had been almost 8 years, maybe more (I lost track) since my last trip there, also on a textiles voyage. Back then, I was a young designer new to China, working for an incredibly exciting (and on hindsight, truly unique) art-fashion Chinese label. Back then, Exception was still a designer’s designer brand, famous amongst art and fashion insiders, unknown to most. Exception de Mixmind, a brand that was more art than fashion, more dream than reality. My love affair with craft goes a long way back…
Without running the risk of romanticising the whole experience given how our social media feeds these days are flooded with images of seemingly happy artisan-villagers in exotic locales making craft, what touched me, was the total absence of commercialisation in the art of tin embroidery here.
The lack of commercialisation is a double-edged sword.
On one hand, the level of execution is kept at a very high standard given how these ladies are making the embroideries for themselves, or their daughters, or their granddaughters, as part of heirloom traditional costumes worn only on special occasions, once or twice a year. It takes them anywhere between a few months to a year or two to complete one set of costume.
On the other hand, given their remoteness up in the mountains, these relatively self-sustained villagers (they farm and build their own houses) have no other means of earning any income from outside sources, without leaving their homes and families for the city.
As an outsider, I wished there was more we could do for them, to preserve this art without corrupting it.
Most women in the village above the age of 30 are skilled embroiderers, but this art is almost certainly destined to vanish. Given that embroidery is taught only to daughters who now have access to education and no longer have the time (or in some cases, interest) to learn this incredibly intricate and time-consuming art, it is hard to imagine how the technique can survive.