Adventures in Sourcing, Part 1 Posted on 07 Aug 00:00

The Importance of Sourcing

One of the big challenges for a handicrafts start-up is sourcing materials. You can find some wonderful textiles in the markets of backpacker towns here in Yunnan Province, but a few textile fragments are hardly enough to build full product line. You’ll need to have a consistent supply if you are going to build a sustainable business from up-cycled products. Furthermore, you’ll want to buy your source textiles at below tourist market rates. For these reasons you’ll want to know the exact source of the textiles you are interested in.

A textile market in Dali, Yunnan Province.

Sourcing can also be a key issue in whether a business contributes to the erosion of traditional arts and culture, or their survival. Purchasing directly from the craftspeople who are still practicing their traditional arts can give them a sustainable livelihood. Purchasing from traders and shops you may inadvertently be buying imitations, lower quality pieces, or pieces made specifically for the tourist trade. More of your money goes to middlemen, and less to the craftspeople you actually want to support. All of these erode the incentives for craftspeople to preserve their traditional arts.

Accurate sourcing will also help you answer a very important question: Is anyone still producing the style of textile you are interested in? The markets and shops in Dali are loaded with heirloom textiles that are no longer being produced. While heirloom textiles can make wonderful collectors’ pieces, you will face serious shortages if you base an up-cycled product line around one of these. At some point the existing supply will be depleted and you will have to discontinue your line. Also, there is something I find distasteful about depleting the supply of heirloom pieces to manufacture a product. Best to let families pass them down generation to generation, or leave them to serious collectors and museums who will preserve and document them.

The Challenge

As important as it is to accurately source a textile, it is not necessarily easy to do. By the time a piece of embroidery reaches a shop here in Dali it may have passed through the hands of multiple traders, erasing all knowledge of its origins. Ask questions in the shops and markets, and you’ll get a thousand different answers. Even asking experts at museums and academic institutions often yields educated guesses rather than definite answers.

This is likely due to the fact of the sheer diversity of textiles found in SW China. Even within one ethnic group there is a vast range of styles. Take the embroidery of the Miao people as an example (known as Hmong outside of China) . Below you can see three different styles of Miao embroidery, all from Guizhou Province, but produced in regions roughly 60 miles apart.

   

Just a small sampling of the incredible diversity of Miao/Hmong embroidery available in Guizhou Province.

Things are further complicated by the veritable babel of languages spoken here in Yunnan Province. The Bai people of Dali have some trouble understanding the speech of the Bai people of Jianchuan, a mere 75 miles away, and these are large towns connected by modern highways. In the mountains, unintelligibility can be just a few villages away, all the more so if they are villages belonging to two distinct ethnic groups. My knowledge of Mandarin, the lingua franca of the urban areas of China, serves to communicate only the most basic information in the mountain villages of ethnic minorities.

Because sourcing can be such an adventure, we have decided to share some of our experiences in this series of blog posts. Our sourcing attempts have all entailed a bit of wandering and bumbling, and the intervention of serendipity is usually required before we succeed. Stay tuned for the follow up posts on sourcing the tie-dye textiles of the Bai people, and the embroidery of the Black Hmong people of Northern Vietnam.

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