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Posts Tagged ‘heddles’

Dai weaving

Hand woven Dai cotton mattress cover with a traditional design of peacocks and elephants

The journey to southern Yunnan to find the source of the tea for the Tea Horse Road is, like many things in China, hilarious, infuriating and wonderful.  It’s also a bit disgusting.

It’s pretty hilarious getting into bed and reclining on our berths at 9.30 in the morning as we board the sleeper bus. Then the various shenanigans of the bus driver and his mates are hilarious as they dodge the bus company inspectors and take on board first a load of huge spring onions (loose), followed later by dozens of motorbike tyres (loaded into the beds in the back when they run out of boot space) and finally several rattan baskets of live chickens.

It’s infuriating when we bump over tiny dirt roads and get stuck in village markets on our 15 hour journey and when we go at least 20 kms out of our way to deliver tyre man and his wife off at the wrong end of the toll way.

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The sleeper bus

It’s wonderful when we pass through amazing mountain scenery, scenes of rural life and terraced rice fields.

And it’s disgusting when we stop at some of the most horrendous public toilets China has yet come up with (and believe me that’s going some) The toilets at both meal stops are right next to the pig stys, and there’s plenty of pork on the menu!

But then again it’s wonderful that for around 20 quid we can experience all that and really its not long before we are in Xishuangbanna region- China’s tropical south and the start of the Tea Road.

Jinghong is the capital of the region and it’s one of the most pleasant cities I have been to in China. The size, the number, the variety and just the utter splendidness of the trees which line the streets is enough to convince you that this must be a lovely place to live. Conversations with residents suggest that indeed it was, until the last few years. A familiar story of far too much development, massive apartment blocks expanding the town, and inappropriate tourist infrastructure.

Tree lined streets in Jinghong

Tree lined streets in Jinghong

Nevertheless enough of the old feel remains in the lush parks and gardens, the shady streets and the wide Mekhong river banks.

The “hong” part of Jinghong means peacock and peacocks and elephants appear all over the town (symbolically, that is) We have come to visit a small village on the edge of town where the traditional house eaves sport the Dai symbol of the elephant’s tusk and the peacock’s head feathers.

Peacock feathers and elephant tusks

Peacock feathers and elephant tusks

The last of the Dai weavers?

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Mrs Shui demonstrates how lac is pounded to make a red dye

The reason for our visit here is to meet a Dai weaver. The Dais are very close cousins of the Thai Lue people who now live in northern Thailand and the supplementary weft weaving they use for making their sarongs and household textiles is very similar. Except of course, nowadays almost everyone just goes to market and buys a machine made skirt or sarong. Everywhere in China, traditional crafts like hand weaving are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, more as an object of curiosity than anything. However, coming under the general budget of “Tourism” there is Heritage Money available! Even as we speak, a “Dai Traditional Weavers Tourism Destination” is being built in the village where all the weavers will go to work. I can’t help wondering who will come and buy their stuff. Maybe only people like me?

Mrs Shui is about 50 and was taught to weave by her Grandmother. Now she is teaching other girls and women and there are presently 60 looms in the village. The loom she uses is quite simple with a two pedal action making the basic “sheds” and for plain weaving this is enough to make the alternate warp thread go up and down.

Weaving a pattern needs someone with the skills to set up the loom

Weaving a pattern needs someone with the skills to set up the loom.

But when she wants to produce patterned cloth, it gets a bit more complicated. A system of bamboo sticks and threads above the loom (we call them “heddles”) which lift certain warp threads is used. To “set” this pattern by carefully counting out the warps and then threading it onto the series of small bamboo sticks is time consuming and a particular skill. Actually only ten of the weavers can do this.

And what about designing a new pattern and working out how this translates to the heddles? Well only Mrs Shui herself can do that. She says she is the last Dai woman in Xishuangbanna who knows how to do it. As I say, these skills are hanging on by a thread – and in this case, literally.Dai weaver heddles small

 

 

 

 

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Chengdu is another huge city (over 4 million) but we have decided to take it on and stay a few days – helped by the fact that Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel is by far the best place we’ve stayed for quite a while. My God, it’s positively cosmic providing decent music in the bar, a huge library of dvds to play in your room and the sorts of foodstuffs we Westerners crave. The staff seem to enjoy being helpful and best of all they provide a map of the city and the bus system. It is of course full of young people, but that can’t be helped.

After a couple of days we’ve explored the local area, its park and wet market and enjoyed the “laid back”* feel of folk playing cards and mah jong under the trees. We’ve hopped on the buses like old hands and visited the city’s temples, markets and even “downtown”.

(* Lonely Planet’s favourite word)

Statue of Mao and fountainsA huge statue of Mao Tse Tung stands there in the middle of The Avenue of The People, his arm raised benevolently over the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds, the Citibank, and the shops selling Cartier and Armani. Chinese approximations of abysmal American rock “classics” play along to his fountains. Oh Mao, what has happened to your dream?

Actually Chengdu isn’t bad and it would be even better if the sun could just fight its way through the smog. Some parts of the city have been restored to resemble what China is supposed to have been like once with tea houses, cobbled lanes and handicraft shops.

These parts are regulated by the Chengdu Municipal Spiritual Civilisation Office and its rules are posted at the entrances. Amongst others:

  • “Don’t jump the queue”.
  • “Don’t chase or beat animal”
  • “Do not be out for small advantages”
  • “Don’t force foreign tourists to take photos”
  • “Do not utter dirty words”
  • “Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug”.

Exactly!

Well, we’ve done our tourist bit, we’ve even been to the Chinese opera. What an experience! Somewhere between the sublime and the hellish loud. It included a hand shadow show, lots of very loud singing, a poignant puppet show, some very loud Chinese trumpet playing, a terrific scolding wife/contrite husband slapstick act and some very spooky instantaneous costume and mask changing. The VIP seats have tea bowls filled by waiters brandishing watering cans with extremely long spouts and the audience just love it all, shouting “Ho!” at the good bits.

And as if that’s not enough, we find that we’ve stumbled on to a second Silk Route – the southern route which connected south-western China with Burma, India and Persia. We’d thought we’d left the Silk Route when we headed south but we’re back on another one.

I’ve also discovered that Chengdu was once known as Brocade City, the river where the silk brocade was soaked was known as the Brocade River and silk brocade fabrics from Chengdu were highly prized and traded all along the Silk Route.

Following this up on the internet (yes, we have free Wi-Fi at groovy Sim’s!) leads us to search out the “Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum”. We were prepared for disappointment, perhaps it would just be another excuse for a souvenir handicraft store. Instead we got one of the best textile museums we’ve been to – a fantastic exhibition, a great demonstration, very good English labels and all free!

The exhibition shows examples of amazing brocaded silks -reproductions of original pieces excavated from ancient sites on the Silk Route. These have been recreated on the museum’s painstakingly manufactured copies of the original looms. There are also breath-takingly fine embroideries and wonderful pieces of silk costume.

Downstairs there are four brocade looms. On one of them there is a young woman weaving a design of Sichuan opera masks. A chap sits half way back on a high platform – two people are needed to work the loom with its incredibly complex system of heddles, 16 pedals, sheds, shuttles and reeds. The chap up top is one of only two “masters” who know how to set up the loom so that it can produce the complex patterns required. It takes about ten years to learn it all.

There are 8,192 warp yarns which can be selected and manipulated to allow for endless possibilities and it’s these combinations which form the design. On average they can weave 5 or 6 cms. a day and this “Emperor’s” fabric sells for around £680 per metre!

Well, that’s the price they’ve put on it in the museum shop but I can’t say we saw anyone actually buying it.

I don’t suppose the project could possibly support itself through sales – the museum is a private initiative, with government funding. But to be able to watch skills and tools which have been used across the centuries and through the dynasties since 225 BC, was a privilege and an inspiration. Full respect to the team that put the whole thing together.

However, it has to be said that their skills are pretty redundant these days as this slow process was totally superseded once the steam driven jacquard loom was invented. This was followed by electric powered looms, and nowadays huge, power looms with integrated computers make our fabrics.

Sichuan brocade may be on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage, but we just don’t have to do things that way anymore!

As if to prove the point, the same day we visit the art and antique market where there’s a stall selling brocade. It’s bright and shiny and rather lovely (or a bit naff, depending on your taste) A machine made silk jacket will set you back about 15 quid and a nice machine embroidered cushion cover £3. Obviously, on close inspection, the brocade woven in the traditional way is much more complex, precise and beautiful, and the hand embroidery is certainly way superior.

The thing is that in the days when Chengdu silk brocade was traded on the Silk Route, there were no power looms, no computer programmes and simply no other way of producing brocade. There were 2,000 workshops and 10,000 looms in Chengdu and everyone in the city had a silk brocade suit of clothes. So there were obviously customers, and if you wanted to dazzle with the brilliance of your outfit you just had to pay the price!

These days you don’t have to be rich to dress in brocaded or embroidered silk – we can all have it without the huge expense needed to make it.

So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the wonder and delight people must have felt when they saw textiles like that, especially if they had come all the way along the Silk Route!

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