Thread songs

Gill Green

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“Gills of the mushroom cap”. Photograph: Philippe Fatin

As a child, Philippe Fatin listened fascinated as his father, tuning the fine copper wire of a crystal radio, sent stories whispering through headphones. His spirit of adventure and search for diversity later exposed him to quite different kinds of threads, redolent with their own stories. Formal studies not being for him, in 1983 he embarked on the Trans-Siberian Railway and headed east to China, at a time when the Cultural Revolution had scarcely ended and foreign visitors were rare. Travel information was difficult to find, but he glimpsed tempting destinations on government television, one being Huangguoshu National Park in the heart of Guizhou province, south-west China. It was here that his “Thread Songs” collection began.

1987 found Fatin in Guiyang, where he befriended a mix of “artists and eccentric bohemians” from whom he learned of the Miao people secreted in enclaves in the nearby mountains. Here the “Miao tribes had spread their network of their multiple identities, with needlework as their banners”. Here he encountered other fine threads, which recorded in stitch the oral history of the Miao peoples. He lived in Guizhou until 2008, becoming deeply involved with the Miao. Given the Sinicised name of “Feilipu”, he took every opportunity to see and learn as much as he could of Miao cultural life.

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In the early fifteenth century, an administrative region named Qian was created in China’s south. Its difficult terrain sheltered a number of ethno-linguistic families such as the Miao, the Yao and the Yi — known by the central plains Chinese as Man, meaning “southern barbarians”. During the Manchu dynasty of the mid-seventeenth century, the Miao and other outliers resisted the raids aimed at their subjugation but in doing so lost a huge proportion of their populations. Those who survived took refuge among the jagged karst mountain peaks. This region touched the borders of Southeast Asia and “fringes of Western colonisation”, the reason that in the last century many textile enthusiasts came to know of the Miao (and other minority groups) and their distinctive textiles.

But these were only fragmentary contacts. In his book, Fatin reveals a number of new nineteenth-century French sources of information about the Miao, significantly expanding Miao cultural studies. French exploratory missions recorded and archived information of all kinds. Missionaries established in Guizhou (formerly Qian) in 1846 sent maps, censuses and geographical, ethnographical and anthropological reports back to France. In addition, a library in the Small Seminary in Bordeaux preserves images commissioned by Monseigneur Faurie during his stay in Guizhou between 1860 and 1871. Three of these are published here.

Francis Garnier attempted a voyage up the Mekong, searching for a “river road” to China, but impassable rapids in north-east Cambodia blocked this ambition. He did, however, travel further north to Guizhou, and he published his observations of the area in 1882. In 1895 employees of the Lyon Chamber of Commerce noted Miao dress in their reports, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, a French mission to the region published a series of photographs in the form of postcards, some of dress, entitled “La Mission du Kuoy-Tcheou”.

Having set this scene, Fatin launches into the most visible aspect of Miao culture: women’s dress. The main part of this book consists of a series of mini-essays, one for each of thirty-seven Miao groups from which Fatin has acquired examples. He has included essays on neighbouring ethnic minorities — Xijia, Dong, Yao, Buyi, Gejia and Yi. He maps these groups over four geographical regions. The most westerly, designated “Along the Mandarin Road”, is closest to the edge of the Tibetan plateau and the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. This was where trade routes from the north had for millennia snaked southwards by land and river, skirting Guizhou, gaining access to southern trading entrepots. The narrative then travels eastwards, “Around the mountains of the moon”, “Across the one hundred thousand mountains”, and finally reaches, “The plateau which runs the length of the horizon”.

Each essay features each group’s key dress elements — skirt and jacket — some also including aprons, gaiters, headpieces and belts. Fatin includes poetry and song, and expositions of origin myths, the Miao having no written records. The motifs rendered on their dress become, therefore, a visual manifestation of these same myths. Evocative images of landscape, architecture and agriculture accompany each essay. These suggest additional, subtle, sources of patterns which, though it is arguably a Western notion, may subconsciously inspire the stitcher.

The skirt is the outstanding characteristic feature of Miao dress. This dramatic knee-length indigo-dyed cotton skirt would cause gasps of admiration on any catwalk. Fatin imaginatively describes its form as “gills of the mushroom cap”. The skirts are constructed from a length of handwoven indigo-dyed cloth with as many as a hundred narrow pleats attached to a waistband. A dazzling array of patterns in all colours of the rainbow adorns the skirt, these distinguishing one group from another. The origin of this style remains an intriguing enigma.

The jackets of each group are no less remarkable. They share a T-shape, each group featuring its own distinctive coloured patterns down the front and on the shoulders and sleeve ends. Chain and satin stitch, appliqué and reverse appliqué, knotting, resist dyeing and “‘encroaching” stitch are among the twenty-two decorative stitches illustrated in the appendix. Some Miao build up the surface of their cloth to create what Fatin describes as “textile architecture”. Silk-covered card, for example, is cut into tiny pieces and stitched into geometric patterns using the tiniest of stitches to secure the element under the edge of overlapping templates. Other very interesting and valuable observations are detailed for those interested in technical processes. Indigo dyeing is an art in itself, and is here described and illustrated. Although the process is almost universal in hand-weaving traditions, the plant sources of the dye differ from one locality to another, and dyers are adept at exploiting their own species. Another distinctive decorative method is calendaring, which imparts a glossy surface to the dyed cloth. Egg white and pig’s blood are commonly applied, and pressure is exerted by rolling the cloth over a round surface. The calendared cloth of the Miao of Gulong has a strange gold-coloured surface, and Fatin describes the arcane chemical process by which this is obtained as “transmuting silk to gold”. Antimony, found only in Guizhou province, is another local resource employed to dazzling effect. In the form of a lead alloy, it is beaten flat and wrapped around threads of a silk or vegetable fibre core and woven into the cloth, imparting sheen and glitter.

Superb photography and design distinguish this publication. Skirt and jacket ensembles distinctive to each group occupy a full page so that the complete costume can be appreciated. This does impart a slightly unsettling disembodied effect, but happily this is tempered by photographs of women wearing their dress en route to festivals and markets. Their elaborate silver jewellery, exemplifying wealth, creates a virtual carapace of silver. Large detailed images of particular patterns or techniques supplement these plates, allowing full appreciation of the breathtaking skills of the women’s stitch work.

A publication such as this is invaluable in recording traditional dress in a rapidly changing region. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping’s freeing up of economic activities allowed Miao women to set in motion a number of entrepreneurial ventures. Because textiles in the Sunday marketplace of Kaili in particular became highly sought after, weavers began to create items of dress specifically for sale to eager tourists. Meanwhile, original pieces became the target of dealers or researchers and curators who purchased examples for institutional collections. Panels and segments of dismembered skirts, jacket decoration and baby carriers were also on offer. Not surprisingly, by the turn of the twenty-first century, very little original Miao dress remains. It is fortunate that this collection was acquired at a time when complete dress ensembles were still available.

A number of other books add to the knowledge of the traditional textiles of the Miao peoples of Guizhou. Wu Shizong’s A Picture Album of China’s Miao Costumes and Ornaments, published in 2000, collated 173 different Miao groups’ dress. Boudet and Buckley’s The Roots of Asian Weaving, published in 2015, focusses primarily on the weaving techniques and the woven blankets of the Miao peoples of Guizhou. Fatin’s book joins these in telling a cultural narrative not only in words but also expressed in stitch and cloth. It exemplifies the contribution that travellers may make to research. Feilipu did not set out to study traditional dress, but his eye, sensitive to a unique culture, has resulted in a major work, which has significantly added to textile knowledge.

Tribal Textiles from Southwest China, The Philippe Fatin Collection
Catherine Bourzat (photography Thierry Arensma & Philippe Fatin; translated by Narisa Chakrabongse)
River Books Bangkok: 2016

Gill Green is the author of Traditional Textiles of Cambodia: Cultural Threads and Material Heritage.
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