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Discover | Monita Roughsedge

The Visual Storytellers of South West China: A Wearable History. Part 4/

Of Bees and Flower Fairies

There once was a young woman who lived in a small village on the outskirts of a majestic forest. She was a respected dressmaker and could stitch almost any garment imaginable but the cloth she had disappointed her, she wanted something more vibrant, maybe something with flowers.

One day, while taking a walk through the forest and admiring the natural beauty that surrounded her, she decided to take a nap under an old maple tree. While she slept, she dreamed of a tiny flower fair dancing around her. The fairy brought with her an army of bees and instructed them to land on the woman’s skirt.

Upon waking, the woman was horrified to discover her skirt was completely covered with dots of bee’s wax and honey. “How did this happen?” she wondered. She knew she had some blue dye at home so she rushed back to her house to colour her skirt and get rid of the mess the bees had made.

She dipped her skirt into the dye, turning it a beautiful indigo blue, but the wax and honey remained. In frustration, she washed her skirt in boiling water but while the colour endured the wax and honey melted away, leaving behind a spray of delicate white flowers to decorate her now magnificent skirt.

And so goes the story of how the Miao people, a hill tribe of the South Western provinces of China, began their craft of Indigo batik dying. Originating in the central plains along the Yellow river more than 5,000 years ago, the Miao people are one of the most ancient nationalities in China with batik considered an integral part of both their culture and history.

The Miao began to master this art form in the early years of the Han Dynasty, around 220BC, and have continued perfecting the same techniques ever since.

Because of the geographical landscape of South West China, the Miao have been isolated from outside influence and so have developed a style of batik that is completely unique to their culture. The handspun cotton, the bee’s wax, the drawing tools and the indigo dye, all elements of this ancient art are sourced from the natural environment around them and then masterfully transformed by hand into what we know of as batik.

Miao batik is particularly distinctive as they only use two colours, the deep blue dye from the indigo plant and the natural white colour of the cotton cloth. Similar to their embroidery and silver work, their batik holds their history and the designs they create tell their stories. It is said that the Miao batik is akin to Chinese calligraphy, both use only two colours and both are used to inscribe the stories of the people.

The process of creating a batik cloth is rather lengthy but definitely worth the effort. After the cotton is handspun and woven the resulting cloth is then thoroughly washed to remove any trace of oil residue so the wax and dye will adhere. The wax is then melted and applied onto the cloth by hand using a small knife-like tool called a ladao. The ladao is made from two small triangular pieces of metal that are tied to a bamboo handle with copper wire or waxed string. You dip the metal end into the melted wax and the space between acts as a small reservoir to hold the wax while drawing on the cloth. Most of the designs are created freehand, with no rulers, pencils or measuring devices but instead using the cloth itself, folding, pinching and tucking it here and there, creating creased lines to follow.

After the drawing is complete and the wax has dried, the cloth is dipped into a vat of indigo dye. Indigo is made by soaking the leaves of the Chinese Indigo plant (Persicaria tinctoria) in a barrel of water where they are left to ferment for one month. The fermented leaves are then filtered and mixed with lime to finally produce the deep blue dye that is indigo. It is said that this concentrate, diluted with water and the ash of rice straw, produces a colour that will not fade with wear or washing.

Once the cloth is removed from the indigo it’s then immediately washed in hot water to remove the wax and reveal the pattern beneath. Indigo is perfect for batik as it will dye cloth in cold water and will not wash out in hot.

Amongst the Miao people, batik is considered a woman’s craft with the ancient knowledge being passed down from mother to daughter. From picking the cotton to stitching the finished cloth, all of these highly skilled tasks are undertaken by the Miao women, fulfilling the needs of their village while continuing to carry forward their stories, their culture and their traditions.