The Tea Horse Story Posted on 27 Jul 21:41


The Tea Horse dream is about bringing together all the things I love in one place: traditional world music, hand-crafted textiles, the preservation of traditional and local culture in rural China, socially responsible and sustainable business practices, and off-the-beaten path travel.


Photos: Edward A. W. Dyer

The dream was born on a backpacking trip in Southwest China in early 2009. I have long had a passion for collecting textiles as I travel. They pack and move easily, which makes them nice mementos for a globe-trotting itinerant like myself. So it was no exception that I was picking up interesting pieces of embroidery in the Miao villages we were passing through. I came across a few that looked like they would make nice guitar straps and bought them. The larger pieces I collected went up on my walls of my dormitory in Beijing, where I was studying Chinese. Sadly, the smaller guitar-strap pieces sat forgotten in a closet in for years, waiting for...


By early 2013 I was frequently playing at Chinese bars and music festivals with the Randy Abel Stable, Beijing’s premier acoustic country rock band (we even opened for Jorma Kaukonen when he played in Beijing!) I had just invested in a dream guitar: a 1976 Mossman Great Plains, built at the workshop of Stuart Mossman, father of America’s hand-built guitar revival. The moment I put my old nylon guitar strap on this fine Mossman guitar, I knew something was wrong. How could I pair this lovely handcrafted instrument with a cheap factory-made strap? Finally I had the impetus to use those lovely Miao textiles I had collected. I asked a local seamstress sew one onto an old guitar strap and... VOILA! The first Tea Horse guitar strap was born. 

My 1976 Mossman Great Plains and the first Tea Horse guitar strap. (photo: Joshua Dyer)

I didn’t know I had a business idea on my hands until fellow musicians began pressing me to make them straps as well. There had to be a way for me to meet this demand for unique guitar straps made from traditional textiles... But how to do it in a way that could be a viable business model, while also helping to preserve the textile traditions that I loved so much?


I set about researching traditional textiles from Southwest China, and made a number of trips to museums, foundations, markets, and mountain villages to meet the crafts-women who still make these wonderful textiles (some of these trips will be recounted in later blog posts.)


Left to right: Embroiderers and textile traders in Dali, Yunnan Province, and Zhaoxing, Guizhou Province. Weavers in Baisha, Guizhou Province. (photos: Joshua Dyer, Alyson Prude)

My goal has been to locate textile traditions that naturally lend themselves to use in guitar straps. I don’t want to find traditional artisans and push them to make the designs I want, thus diluting their tradition and contributing to its demise. And I don’t want to find heirloom textiles and cut them into guitar straps, destroying complete works of art in the process. What I want to do is find living textile traditions that create pieces that are already of a suitable size and appearance to make guitar straps, thus creating a demand for artisans to keep their traditions alive.


After some time I had pinpointed two textile traditions as being particularly suited to my goals: the indigo tie-dyes produced by the Bai people in the Dali region of Yunnan Province, and certain highly textured embroidered fragments I had found in a Dali market. I decided a move to the ancient city of Dali was in order keep my cost of living low while being closer to the source of these craft traditions. In any case, the overpopulated and smoggy environs of Beijing were getting me down, and establishing a new home in the mountains of Yunnan Province seemed the perfect antidote!

Shangyin Cun, the village where I now live, is located in the foothills at the very right edge of the photo, below the Cang Shan mountain range. (photo: Joshua Dyer)

And it didn’t hurt that Yunnan is home to many of the most influential bands and musicians of China’s folk-revival: Wild Children, Traveller, and Zhou Yunpeng, to name a few. I had met some of these guys while playing shows and festivals throughout China, and was eager to get to know them better, and possibly collaborate with them. Hopefully they'll be using my straps in future performances!


Nothing comes off as easily as you anticipate, particularly when starting a business. I’m still mid-way through my crash courses in leather work, traditional dying techniques, e-commerce, and identifying regional styles of embroidery. In this sense, this will be something of a development blog, giving everyone a window into the choices and compromises that have to be made with a e-commerce handicrafts start-up.

Textiles that may soon make an appearance on a guitar strap! (photo: Joshua Dyer)

 At the same time, I am inspired and engaged by my surroundings. I have met lovely like-minded people also working to support the continuation of traditional culture amongst the numerous minority groups of Southwest China. I have been able to catch some amazing live performances by the musicians that congregate here in Dali, and witness traditional music performed in festivals and rituals in the village where I live. And I am awed by the beauty of the natural surroundings in Dali on a near-daily basis. Through this blog I hope to share some of this excitement with you by blogging about life here in Dali, and thereby convey the spirit of the Tea Horse brand to my future customers.


So, why Tea Horse?

The Dali region is a traditional crossroads in the trade networks between Southeast Asia and China and Tibet. The tea from Southeast Asia passed through here on its way up to Tibet to be traded for the famed Tibetan horses. The horses were then brought back down and sold to Chinese traders. Hence, the name of this extensive network of trade routes is the Tea Horse Road. The name seemed to perfectly embody my desire to act as a crossroads where people can be exposed to arts and music from far away cultures, and it connects my business to the region where I am based.

Thank you for stopping by the Tea Horse Blog. Come back often to experience the artistic and musical treasures of Southwest China, and to keep tabs on the development of our unique, hand-made guitar straps!


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