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Workshops breathe life into traditional crafts

Artisans keep techniques alive despite the distance.

By ZHENG WANYIN in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-04-15 06:26
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Duan Yiran poses with tourists from the UK and local artisans in Dali city, Southwest China's Yunnan province, during a trip she organized in March to showcase the Bai ethnic group's handicrafts. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Sitting on a lounge chair in her studio in northwest London, Duan Yiran, the founder of Yi Crafts, a handcrafts workshop that focuses on promoting the traditional indigo dyeing technique practiced by the Chinese Bai ethnic group, admits she used to "hate" the craft.

"I grew up with it, but it wasn't something you felt cool about when you were a teenager. So, I never really liked it," she recalls.

Duan, a member of the Bai ethnic group, was born and raised in Zhoucheng village, in Dali city, Southwest China's Yunan province.

At one time, in Zhoucheng, nearly every household boasted members who had mastered the tie-dyeing technique. Duan's family also ran an indigo farm that dated back five generations, alongside a business that produced handwoven, hand-dyed fabrics.

To tie-dye pieces of cloth, the craftsperson uses needles and threads to create different folds in the fabrics before putting them in dye vats several times. Typically, the dye vats contain sky-blue-colored dye extracted from plants.

Unfolding the fabrics reveals beautiful patterns, such as geometric shapes and flowers. The areas stitched and bound by threads remain white because they were not immersed in the dye, while other areas turn blue.

In 2006, the tie-dyeing technique of the Bai ethnic group was listed as a form of national intangible cultural heritage in China.

The 29-year-old Duan, who spent her childhood helping out by cutting the threads after cloth had been dyed, never thought about inheriting the craft until she moved to London in 2015 and enrolled at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, to study costume design.

"I learned a lot of Western techniques at the school, like making a suit, a Victorian dress, a corset, but I lost that connection because I don't have a history associated with (those garments)," she says. "And when making the Victorian-style costumes, I found myself unconsciously applying the Chinese embroidery stitching and knotting techniques that I learned from my grandmother."

Two participants at one of Duan's tie-dyeing workshops pose with completed work in London in March 2023. [Photo provided to China Daily]

It was at that moment Duan realized that a person may not be entirely separated from the land they were raised on and the cultural imprints that come with it.

"There are things that are always with me, I just tried to hide them. But no matter how hard I've tried to escape from the culture or try to be what's considered cool or edgy, I am still a girl from Dali," she says.

After graduating in 2019, Duan decided to set up her own handcrafts studio. In the five years since she launched her business, she has organized more than 500 online and in-person workshops, with in excess of 10,000 participants.

With more UK-based young Chinese people, dedicated to showcasing their motherland's culture, joining Yi Crafts, the studio has evolved into a space where various types of Chinese handicrafts, including embroidery, lantern making, paper-cutting, bamboo weaving, and more, have been shared.

Yi Crafts also collaborated with some of the mainstream cultural organizations in the UK, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to host Chinese handicraft workshops.

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