Referred to as the za, elderly women keep hundreds-of-years-worth of knowledge alive in songs and crafts in the village of Dimen. They work from dawn to dusk to support their families, make traditional products and sing at every occasion their get. Their iridescent indigo-dyed cloth changes colour from violet to dark blue to black. Their embroideries dance with flowers, plants, butterflies and birds in vibrant colours on the dark cloth. Handwoven belts and ties’ intricate pattern details translate the same motifs into geometric forms. The minute flutes of pleated skirts twirl around women’s hips like flower petals.
Imagine that none of your national history, culture and know-how is written down. There would be no books, photographs, paintings, audios, videos, or recordings of any kind. Only a few elders keep all of your heritage alive in songs they sing and in art they make. The songs are long and repetitive. The arts are laborious and do not seem to have a place in the modern world of instant gratification. Young people do not have the patience to learn either the songs or the arts. The elders, out of respect to the young ones, do not ask them to learn.
This is the case of the Kam people from Dimen village in Guizhou province in China. The majority Han Chinese call them the Dong. Surrounded by deep forests and steep mountains, the people of Dimen lived in almost complete seclusion for centuries, developing a unique culture and arts and crafts processes. They did not have a written form of their language and all of their knowledge and heritage used to be preserved exclusively in unwritten songs. Every generation learnt the songs from their elders, and passed them on to their children, adding new verses to the songs. The youth would also learn the arts and crafts to make clothing, storage, tools, and other necessities. The system worked well for countless generations. It even resisted the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the minorities under pressure to assimilate and give up their traditions.
When the village opened to outside influences in the late 1990s, new values, products and technologies came in. Young people started leaving the village to find easier living elsewhere and lost interest in the traditional heritage as it did not bring them any economic advantage. The elders never judged the young, and did not begrudge them the new opportunities they had. Instead, they respected them and let them decide what to learn and when.
Now those who know the traditional songs, and crafts described in them, are elderly, and are starting to forget. The recently published book, Kam Women Artisans of China: Dawn of the Butterflies, follows five of these remarkable women as they reveal their unique heritage through practical demonstrations.
Many of the women’s arts revolve around providing for the family. Handmade clothing is central given the amount of time that is needed to produce it. In the past, women grew their own cotton and spun it over many evenings into a fine thread. Now the artisans find it more economical to buy machine-made thread. They treat it in alkali overnight, rinse it and beat it with a washing paddle on large flat stones by the river. Then they starch it in warm rice water and rinse it again. They twist it and pull at it with a short dowel before letting the sun dry it. This makes the thread tougher and stronger than machine-made fabric.
The finished thread is measured, organised and put on a wooden loom. Neighbours and friends come help during this physically demanding process. They chat and sing while working. First, the artisans wind the thread on large cones. With the help of a guide board with eyelets, the women transfer the thread, called warp, to a unique warping board that looks like two sawhorses with spikes. The distance between the sawhorses can be adjusted depending on the length of cloth the artisan wants to produce on the loom. From there, they transfer it to a warp beam, which sits at the back of a wooden loom. The loom differs somewhat from its western equivalent but the weaving principles, and the resulting cloth, are similar. The artisans like their fabric dark. They dye the handwoven cloth in indigo and other dyes until it is almost black. Closer examination reveals it is actually very dark blue-violet with an iridescent quality that changes the colour’s appearance under various light conditions. The making of the dyes and the dyeing process is a closely guarded secret that is passed down from mother to daughter and is surrounded by various taboos.
The women grow their own indigo. They ferment its leaves to release the dye. Afterwards, they slake the liquid with lime and oxidize the contents by pouring it back and forth between two containers. They place the contents in a leaky bucket and let the water drain out. The indigo settles at the bottom of the bucket. The paste is kept covered in an airtight container and can be used for up to two years.
Complex chemical reaction needs to take place for the indigo dye to adhere to fibres. Indigo dyers around the world have developed unique processes and use distinct ingredients for the transformation to take place. The women in Dimen use indigo paste, ash water, agricultural lime, warm water and rice wine. They always add liquid from an exhausted dye bath if they need to start a new one. Without it, the fermentation does not happen in a timely manner. The contents of the vat are stirred clockwise with a special stick that each artisan has only for that purpose. The vat is then covered and kept airtight for two to three days. If the liquid turns yellow with a blue rim, the fermentation has taken place and dyeing can start.
The fabric dyeing is a prolonged process spread over many days and weeks as many of the steps require sunshine and women dye in between doing other chores. The fabric is slowly fed into the vat, left there for five minutes, taken out and folded bit by bit, and finally left out to air for five minutes. This process is completed five times for one dyeing cycle, after which the fabric is left in the sun to dry. After the fifth cycle, the cloth gets washed in the river and dried. Then it is starched twice in soy-bean liquid and dried. It is washed in the river and steamed. Two to five dyeing cycles follow with a wash in the river after each cycle.
When black streaks start showing on the cloth, the cloth is dyed seven times in red dyestuff made from dyeing yam, Rhododendron leaves and Chinese sumac. The now black cloth is further stiffened with ox skin liquid. It is steamed and goes through two further cycles in the indigo vat. Then it is beaten with a wooden mallet to give the cloth a sheen. The time depends on how much sheen the artisan likes the fabric to have. The very shiny cloth is usually reserved for ceremonial attire as it takes much longer to produce. The cloth then goes through two short indigo dyeing cycles and gets washed in the river. Finally, the cloth is ready to be sewn into clothes. Until then, it is rolled and carefully wrapped in handmade mulberry paper.
The dark fabric serves as a backdrop to colourful embroidery and other accessories like handwoven belts and ornate jewellery. The women embroider satin-stitch motifs of local fauna and flora on their aprons and under-aprons, hems of their coats, their sleeves, shoes, baby carriers and hats. The colours reflect the vibrant hues found in the nature all around them. The motifs are specific to the village and mark the wearer as a member of its community.
Unfortunately, it takes patience to learn to satin stitch well and most young women prefer to cross stitch instead. The elderly artisans have not embroidered for decades since they lack the dexterity and the eyesight to do so. Many of the artisans therefore resort to buying machine-made embroidery that lacks the local identity when they are making new costumes.
Women weave colourful ‘flower’ belts on backstrap looms. The backstrap loom used in Dimen uses fewer rods/beams and tools than similar looms elsewhere, making the loom more portable while producing the same level of detail as the other looms. If young women can, they will make their own for their sweethearts or babies, choosing the pattern and colours to weave with rather than buying a generic machine-made version. Dimen weavers favour chamomile flowers, saw teeth, and geometric shapes.
The traditional female attire is made of a light jacket with under-arm vents, a vest worn underneath it, a diamond-shaped under-apron with an embroidered bib, a pleated skirt, and calf wraps. In winter, the under-apron is switched for a plain square apron, and a cotton-padded coat is worn on top of the jacket. Young women wear stiff square aprons covered with embroideries during ceremonies, and decorate their hair with ornate hairpins and flowers. Elderly women wrap a long strip of indigo-dyed cloth with one embroidered edge around their heads instead.
The jacket is made to be practical as well as beautiful. It has two long side vents to allow maximum movement. Additional vents are located in the armpit area to provide ventilation. The wearer just needs to raise her arms to let some air in. When cold, she just keeps her arms close to her body. The flaps are reinforced with edging and decorated with colourful ribbons.
Kam celebrate stitches and add subtle beauty to their clothing by using vibrant colours that match their embroidery. They use a double running stitch alternating in two bright colours. They multiply the effect and strengthen their seams by adding an extra row of these stitches. It goes without saying that the colours used are different from the other row. The sewing becomes a statement and shows the extraordinary skill of the seamstress.
The pleated skirt is made of gauze-thin handwoven cloth which is first dyed in indigo, pounded with a mallet, and then hand-pleated one tiny fold at a time. The red dyestuff is used to keep the pleats together on a pleating board. The artisans re-soak the skirt in the red dye three times on each side. They sew the pleats together and further stiffen the fabric with a mixture of soy bean starch and ox skin liquid. They steam it, dye it in indigo again and wash it in the river several times. Once the colour is right, they sew a waistband on. The finished skirt is very stiff. One has to sit on a stool with the skirt sticking over it as it is impossible to bend the skirt and sit on it.
Kam clothing is very versatile, fitting most body shapes and sizes, even during pregnancy. The skirt wraps around wearer’s hips and sits very low under her belly. The jacket and vest are open in front. The under-apron is open at the back. The calf wraps are just square pieces of cloth with ties that wrap around women’s calves. With a minor adjustment, the costume can even fit an unusually tall person. They just make the sleeve decorations longer.
Indigo does not fade like other dyes do but it rubs off. The costume is rarely washed as it would lose its shape and dark colour as the red dye is not as colourfast as indigo. It is rather left out in the sun to lift the dirt. Over time, the red dye fades away and the indigo rubs off, individualising the fabric’s colour. Like worn jeans, the Kam costume gets better the older it is.
The artisans make costumes for their granddaughters as the girls focus on their studies at school and do not have time or skill to make their own. The old women trust that education will open the doors for the young generation and bring prosperity to them. In the meantime, the za will keep weaving their history until their last breath, sharing it with those who will listen.
BY MARIE ANNA LEE
Kam Women Artisans of China: Dawn of the Butterflies by Marie Anna Lee is available on www.cambridgescholars.com/kam-women-artisans-of-china