Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fabric shopping - China

So I've been meaning to write a post about a crafty experience from our trip this fall. So here it is!:

One of the cooler places we went to in China was a small minority village in northern Guan'xi province. We ended up in this area after we had been kicked out of the previous village we were in. Literally. A policeman came to our hotel door in the morning telling us, with the help of a book that actually had some english in it, that we weren't allowed to be there and had to be on the next bus out of town. Clearly, that's another story for another day!

The Dong people here are building up some tourism capacity, but once in the nearby villages you could get away from the stage performances of traditional dances and insistent artisans trying to sell their goods. About a 30 minute walk from the village where the bus had dropped us off the day before, we were strolling through a quiet Dong village, when we noticed what looked like fabric hanging from the upper porch of one of the homes. Upon taking a closer look, we realized that it was fabric dyed with indigo. I was pretty keen to get a good look at it, so up the slope we went, and there we found a woman beating another piece of fabric with a large wooden mallet. As far as I can tell, this seems to set or help set the indigo dye. Her hands were completely stained purple - a stain I don't think can ever be washed off. After standing awkwardly for a few seconds, I thought maybe this would be a cool opportunity to buy fabric on our trip; on the other hand, I really felt like I was intruding on something. After a few more seconds debating whether or not to stay, we decided we may as well and began trying to communicate with the woman that we wanted to look at the fabric.

Our Chinese was and continues to be terrible, consisting mainly of numbers used to barter prices for food, and key words like 'No'. We entered the 3 story home built of wood, and a few more women appeared. It seemed that although someone clearly lived in this house, this place was used by several women to make fabric. We had noticed small parcels of land being used to cultivate cotton, but it wasn't until we were invited to move to the second floor of the home that we realized this cotton was grown, harvested, cleaned, spun and woven into fabric right here in the village.

This is a shot of one of the cotton plants we had seen:

The pile of cotton on the second floor of the house:

and here was my favorite discovery - the loom:

Needless to say, after seeing all this: the number of women involved and how complete the process from plant to finished piece of fabric, I knew I wanted to buy some here. And so began the bartering. Actually to be honest, the bartering went like this: Mark and I would say a number (or write it with our fingernails into the wood of the wall when neither party could understand the numbers being said by the other), the head woman would say no, then we'd try another number, and she'd say no yet again. It was our first encounter with someone who wouldn't budge. In the end, we paid what she asked for, because it was beautifully done and we knew (or the best you can ever know in these circumstances) that the money was going directly into the hands of the women who made the products.

As it turned out, the women also produced some pieces of finished clothing, and I ended up with a traditional women's wrap shirt. Unfortunately this is the only picture i have wearing it. It was so cold that day I was wearing all the layers I brought...so you'll just have to take my word for it that the fabric is beautiful!

On our way back to the first village where we were sleeping that night, I wore this shirt for a while, much to the joy of some of the woman working in the fields. There were some smiles, a few claps and a couple of thumbs up. That's my kinda language.



  1. Oh, I just loved this post. What an incredible experience! I am really glad you were able to purchase a shirt as well. I can't wait to see pictures of it!

  2. Haha--I just started writing "what an incredible experience" and then saw that I was echoing Sascha's statement. But it's true! I love hearing stories like this. :-)