Back by design

A project targeting the renewal of traditional techniques for dyeing and preparing cloth in the northern mountains has been largely successful.

By Thai A on December 19,2014 12:37 PM

Back by design

Colourful Chinese-made cloth at low prices, whether cotton or synthetic, can be easily found at markets throughout Vietnam’s northern mountainous region.

But it’s no longer so easy to find women and girls of the Mong ethnic minority in Sapa, who used to carry rolls of wool whenever they went to the market or the fields, with hands blackened by alum water.

Natural dyes like dioscorea and indigo were commonly used by the local ethnic minority people for hundreds of years, but not many know now about such things. The wooden knitting loom is now mostly confined to nostalgic memories. Even at the Van Phuc trade village in the suburb of Hanoi, shops only display their looms as exhibits.

In the past, each community had their own techniques for making floral cloth and each type of pattern served to identify each ethnic minority group. The Thai ethnic minority, for example, could tell which tribe a woman was from simply by looking at the floral pattern on her skirt.

The growth of mass fabric production gradually put an end to the techniques to make floral cloth in northern mountainous villages. It’s now difficult to find women and girls of ethnic minority peoples in such provinces as Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lao Cai and Yen Bai making threads and weaving fabrics like their parents and grandparents used to do.

Likewise for the Dao, Mong and Lo Lo ethnic minority groups. Each of these communities had their own floral patterns, indicating their totems or their favourite designs. Though the disappearance of those traditional patterns does not materially affect their lives, it’s a serious cultural loss to each community.

Over the past three years, coordinators at the LIVE project for ‘Improving the livelihoods of ethnic minority peoples through better access to clean water supply and hygiene and floral product markets’, with contributions from the Cao Bang Community Development Centre (DECEN) and financial support from Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, have tried to restore traditional crafts like cloth weaving, sewing and embroidering in communities in the mountainous districts of the northern province of Cao Bang.

Back by design

The work sounds simple but it has actually proved to be very difficult, partly because women in the highlands are fully occupied with work in the fields and partly because certain skills have deteriorated badly due to a lack of practice for decades. Indigo dye preparation is but one example, together with dotting beeswax on cloth for dyeing.

Making efforts to go to remote villages and persuade women of ethnic minority groups like Dao, Lo Lo and Nung to gather in groups and choose the best among them who work quickly and speak Vietnamese as group leaders and then encouraging them to make floral cloth in the traditional ways with simple tools represents just the first stage of the project.

Their looms, which have sat idle in storerooms for decades, have been put to use again. Plants used for dyeing are again being collected from the forests, and silk and jute are worked by hand again. Several tasks are involved in making a piece of floral cloth, which is simple and naturally more appealing after being used over a long period of time. Unlike cloth dyed with industrial chemicals, floral cloth dyed with plants looks more beautiful as time passes, retaining its colour and being friendly on the environment. But it requires a lot of work.

Traditional indigo dye preparation is very much like preparing Kim Chi pickles in the Korean way. Indigo dye is a liquid with certain types of leaves mixed together, regularly taken care of and kept clean to ensure top quality.

To make floral designs it is necessary to melt beeswax by heating it and dotting it on the cloth with bamboo sticks to make circular designs. The women of the Dao ethnic minority group in Na Chan village, Hoa Tham commune in Nguyen Binh District have long used a ceramic door handle to smooth the cloth surface. The whole village has only one such door handle, which is passed around the village as a precious tool for their craft.

Cutting and sewing are much easier than they were in the past because there are machines now, yet the designs and marketing are major challenges in selling products. There are always fluctuations in markets, and customer tastes and preferences also change often. This is why the project coordinators have often had to think of different designs for things like bags, toys and pillows, which village women can make and which customers wish to buy. The main customers are overseas visitors, because Vietnamese people are not particularly interested in floral clothing and bags.

It is impossible to imagine how hard it is for the coordinators unless you have seen them carefully show the women of the Lo Lo ethnic minority people in Khuoi Khon village, Kim Cuc commune in Bao Lac district how to make designs of different animals. Those such as fish, sheep and elephants are unfamiliar to them, and the improvised images of Disney-style animals are even stranger.

However, such designs had to be prepared as models for the village women to make their products. As they became more familiar, product lines became easier for them to make. The project has made traditional floral products of modern designs more popular among fashion designers and some furniture makers have also taken an interest in them and placed orders.

In the last two years the Cao Bang Floral Cloth Fair has been held in HCMC, attracting large numbers of visitors. Women from the Dao, Nung and Lo Lo ethnic minority peoples have also been at the fairs to show their skills and met with visitors and customers. Originating from the remote villages of Cao Bang province, these traditional crafts have become popular once again, making it possible for the local traditional culture to flourish in the modern world.

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