Adventures in Sourcing, Part 2 Posted on 6 Oct 02:34

In the first installment of this series I wrote about the challenges of discovering exactly where a traditional textile is made. In this post, I will present a case study of the sourcing process drawn from my experiences seeking out the embroidery for our Emerald guitar strap. This is going to ramble a bit, as the sourcing process in this case took a lot of detective work, and many dead ends were encountered along the way. However, if you are willing to follow me down these twists and turns, you’ll get a taste of what an adventure sourcing can be.

When I first fell in love with the embroidery used in our Emerald strap, I had no idea it was produced in Northern Vietnam by the Black Hmong people. Having seen them in the markets in Dali, in SW China, I had assumed they were most likely from China, possibly produced in Guizhou Province, home to a dizzying diversity of embroidery. I was told by traders in Dali that they were variously used to decorate the sleeves or collars of jackets, or as belts, and it was now more common to see them sewn onto hats to sell to tourists. While opinions varied, the Wenshan region of southern Yunnan Province was frequently mentioned in addition to the more common suggestion that the pieces were from Guizhou Province.

Panels of Black Hmong embroidery made into shoulder pads for our Emerald series of guitar straps.

After returning to Beijing with a dozen or so samples I began to have prototypes guitar straps made, and continued to research their origins. There was some risk involved in starting prototyping before I really understood much about this textile. I am committed to using living textile traditions, so that I can support local craftspeople, however, the consensus view of the traders I had talked to was that samples I had bought were no longer being produced. Later consultations with an embroidery expert in Beijing led to the same tentative conclusion: the pieces I had gathered were judged to be between 30 and 40 years old. In other words, based on these opinions, it seemed likely I was dealing with a dead tradition.

Nonetheless, I decided to base my first line of guitar straps on this design, because I had doubts about the opinions I had heard so far. First of all, some of the pieces were in fantastic condition, and I had trouble believing they had survived for 30 or more years in the damp climate of Guizhou province. The embroidery expert I spoke with specialized in the textile arts of NW China, which is bone dry and thus relatively more suited for preserving textiles, so I suspected she might not be able to accurate judge the age of textiles from the southwest. In any case, I was absolutely in love with the design, and felt it would really attract attention to my business if it was part of my first line of products. If it turned out I was wrong, well, I could just make a limited run using the pieces I already had as a way to get my business off the ground, and then keep searching for other living traditions to serve as the basis for future designs.

I received the next clue regarding the origins of these textiles while visiting my sister in Shanghai. She is an entrepreneur, seamstress, weaver, knitter and collector of traditional textiles. I was consulting with her on aspects of strap construction and running an online business (please visit her site Infinite Twist for hand-spun and hand-dyed yarn, and creative kits for knitting projects). She saw the embroidery I was using and immediately pulled a similar piece out of her collection which she had bought in Northern Vietnam. Interesting... the Wenshan region of Yunnan bordered on Northern Vietnam. Could it be that the people who did this style of embroidery straddled the border of China and Vietnam? Or were the pieces strictly from one side of the border, but had been traded across to the other side? Given that I had seen numerous examples of this style in Dali, some 400 km north of Vietnam, I felt it was more likely they would be found in China, with some pieces making their way south to Vietnam, rather than the other way around. This assumption proved to be wrong, and it led me to make some poor decisions about where to look for these textiles, as you shall soon see!

When I finally moved to Yunnan a few months later, the first thing I did was plan a research trip to Wenshan County. From there I could step across the border into Vietnam, which was necessary because the current entry on my China visa was about expire. While in Vietnam it wouldn’t hurt to take a look around and see what I could find.

Views from the bus, Kunming to the Vietnam border.

From Kunming, the capitol of Yunnan Province, I took a bus to Hekou, a town on the border with Vietnam, not quite in Wenshan County, but a convenient crossing point to take care of my visa run. It was a spectacular ride, the latter portion of which followed the Hong He, or Red River. While gazing out over the lush river valley I couldn’t help but think of the American folk song, “The Red River Valley” which I had sung so many times at concerts I in China. The Chinese are quite familiar with the song, and it is always a favorite. Is this because China has its own Red River Valley (and a beautiful one at that)? Months later I heard members of the influential Chinese folk-rock group Wild Children sing a Chinese version of the song at a bar in Dali. I wondered if they the ones who had popularized it? This is a mystery that can be explored in later blog posts, but for now, take a moment to enjoy this clip from their concert.

Godfathers of the Chinese folk-rock scene doing their rendition of Red River Valley.

Now, back to the sourcing adventure... I had very little to go on in my search. The Lonely Planet mentions Dulong, a bustling market town in Wenshan county where a variety of ethnic minorities traded goods. That seemed like a good place to start. I was also eager to visit county-level museums which often display local handicrafts. The county seat, Wenshan City, and the county’s second largest city, Maguan seemed like good places to look for those. But first, the border crossing...

I was able to get across the border late in the afternoon on the day I arrived in Hekou. I had already acquired a Vietnam visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Beijing, which is required for overland crossings (if you arrive by air, Americans can apply for a visa upon arrival). Stepping out of the customs office on the Vietnamese side I was suddenly struck by how unprepared I was for this part of my adventure. My fluency in Mandarin and nearly a decade of living in China had lulled me into believing that travel in Asia is a snap, even when off-the-beaten path. But of course that sense of security was entirely tied to the fact that I had mostly been rambling around in China. Within China’s borders I could easily sniff out a scam, and build trust and rapport with locals, smoothing the way on even the rockiest roads in the most backwater towns. Suddenly my Chinese was near useless, and I was swarmed with touts offering rides to and accommodation in Sapa, the nearest pit-stop on the Vietnam leg of the banana-pancake trail. My head spun as my familiar moorings detached, and I was revolted by the thought of how dependent I would be as a traveler in a completely unfamiliar land. Sure, Sapa was known for ethnic handicrafts, but it was also squarely on the backpacker map, and might turn out to be far too commercialized. Without the my language skills I would lose my primary tool for navigating past the tourist traps and finding the remnants of the original culture.

In contrast, back in China I had a few leads. They were tenuous, but at least they were something, and I was still operating under the assumption that the textiles I was seeking were more likely to be found on the Chinese side of the border. I told myself that if I hurried back across the border before it closed for the day I could wake up tomorrow in Hekou and begin my research bright and early, and with the benefit of my language skills and being away from the tourist hustle and bustle. And who knew? There might be more exciting textiles waiting to be discovered on the Chinese side, and more conveniently located. If my search turned up nothing, I could plan another trip to explore Vietnam, and take the time to make adequate preparations.

In other words, I chickened out. It seems strange to admit it, because I should be over those insecurities by now, after all the solo travelling I’ve done. But after years spent exclusively China, things had gotten easier, and without knowing it, I had lost some of my courage. This was an important and difficult lesson for me. It wasn’t but a few days later that I learned the textiles I was researching were indeed produced in Vietnam, outside of Sapa, not 40 km from where I stood that day as I lost my nerve and decided to hightail it back across the border!

And while my explorations in Wenshan proved to be enjoyable, I learned another hard lesson when I found that all along I had been one Google keyword away from discovering the source of my textiles. Had I only been a little more persistent in my internet research, I might have discovered that my textiles came from the Black Hmong people without ever leaving my home! I’ll explain how this all happened in the next blog post in this series, Adventures in Sourcing, Part 3. I promise I’ll also post photos of the gorgeous landscapes of Wenshan, and photos of some beautiful textiles from a museum in Maguan.


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Torch Festival Posted on 24 Aug 20:53

Tea Horse is in the middle of an action-packed month! From Aug 6-11 I was in a small Yi minority village in the mountains to celebrate Torch Festival (火把节) and attend a forum on the preservation of traditional culture. Then, from Aug 17-22 I supported Compass World Arts for their world music workshop in Xizhou, a well-preserved old town not too far from my home in Dali. In addition to be being incredibly fun, both activities were helpful in establishing the kinds of partnerships I need to keep Tea Horse moving forward. Now, here at the end of the month, I find myself exploring Northern Laos, searching for (and finding) hand-crafted textile traditions among the hill tribes of Luang Namtha province. So much to get caught up on! For this post I will be focusing on the time I spent in the Yi minority village, Xiaocun (小村)but expect reports on the music workshop and Laos to follow in later posts.

The village of Xiaocun drew my attention because it has chosen a unique path of development, thanks in part to the efforts of Wuli, a visionary young man I met recently at a street art festival. Wuli is a native of Xiaocun, but after having spent his 20’s in Beijing, he has finally returned to his isolated hometown with a unique message. He has convinced his fellow villagers that they need to chart a course of development that can improve livelihoods, while avoiding the pitfalls of overdevelopment, excessive tourism, and the breakdown of traditional culture as seen in tourist hotspots like Lijiang, and increasingly, Dali. At the same time, he wants his village to open up to the right kinds of outside culture: things that will broaden understanding and tolerance, while also helping people to maintain a sense of pride concerning their own cultural heritage. Thankfully there are many other villages in China and throughout Asia who are working on sensible paths of development, but I’ve never before seen a village choose this path so early. Xiaocun may have only 60 households, and not a single toilet, but it has vision and determination to spare!

A typical home in Xiaocun.

The homes of the village are spread out through the valley, rather than concentrated in a single location.

Wuli’s work in Xiaocun includes setting up a business to collect, package, and sell local food products (honey and wild mushrooms), and establishing an ecologically-sound fish breeding pool on the stream through the village. On the cultural front, Wuli hopes to re-establish music, textile, and religious traditions in the village by inviting experts from more populated Yi centers in southern Sichuan Province to spend time in the village. He has already convinced an Yi shaman, or Bimo (毕摩) to relocate to Xiaocun to help maintain their animist faith.


Mushroom hunting with Wuli, visionary, entrepreneur, and Xiaocun native.

Through the forum I was able to meet a young Yi painter and poet, Jike Bu, also from Sourthern Sichuan, who was quite knowledgable about Yi textiles. Jike is already working on turning traditional Yi embroidery into bags, totes, and iPad cases, and she was very happy to work with me on sourcing textiles for my straps. I hope you all agree the traditional embroidered strips seen in the pictures below would make fantastic guitar straps!


The Yi people use these appliqué strips to decorate clothing. For our straps we hope to use similar designs in hand-woven cotton fabrics rather than machine fabrics.

The forum participants enjoyed living and eating in local homes, took part in community dances, and witnessed the dramatic procession of torches on night of Torch Festival. The festival memorializes the semi-mythical vanquishing of a plague of insects by having everyone in the village brandish torches and form a wall of fire to drive the insects out. While its origins lie with the Yi people, torch festival is now celebrated by a variety of ethnic groups in Yunnan province.

Sorry for the horrible sound issues, but I hope the images still convey the excitement of the torch procession. After circling the fire a number of times, the torch bearers marched through the village.

 By the end of the weekend, forum participants and local villagers had discussed plans for a number of projects: promoting the villages products online and in overseas markets, setting up embroidery workshops, bringing outside musicians to play live music for traditional dances (currently danced to recorded music), and improving sanitation to make the town more attractive for cultural tourism and homestays.

Clearly, it was a productive weekend, but the most beautiful part was that all of these wonderful ideas arose spontaneously from our casual interactions at the forum. In fact, in the strictest sense there was no forum! Attendees and villagers freely mingled: no lectures, no panels, no topics enforced. Our discussions were driven by the mutual interests and passions shared by the forum attendees and the local people. This was all in keeping with Wuli’s belief that meaningful change comes about through the self-organizing capacities of willing and engaged participants. Because Wuli is such a dynamic individual I hope to conduct an interview with him in the future to share his vision for approaching the problems of cultural preservation and development. Say tuned for that, and for further updates as I develop guitar straps from the textiles of the Yi people.

Parting shot: my little helper in Xiaocun.

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Adventures in Sourcing, Part 1 Posted on 7 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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