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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