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Discover | Monita Roughsedge

The Visual Storytellers of South West China: A Wearable History. Part 2/

Stitching Stories

There can be no argument; the embroidery work painstakingly created by the Miao women of South West China is some of the most elaborate to be found anywhere in the world. Which makes a lot of sense considering it is not only highly decorative but can also be seen as the greatest communicator of their culture. Their patterns and motifs are handed down from generation to generation, reflecting their world views, their values, telling their history and recounting their myths and legends. Miao embroidery is complex and exquisite and an extraordinary medium for expressing and preserving Miao culture.

Traditionally, their highly guarded techniques and patterns are passed down from mother to daughter at the very young age of 6 or 7. This is an integral part of a young girl’s education as it not only teaches them craftsmanship but also the history and culture of their ancestors and celebrates their connectivity and reverence with the spirit world and their natural environment.

Vibrantly embroidered dragons, chickens, butterflies, ducks, lions and dogs as well as people, flowers and trees can be seen in abundance within one embroidered garment.

Sometimes the lines of distinction are blurred with animals supporting human heads, or multiple animals combined together in the one image – all of which tell a story that the Miao understand.

A length of swirling scrolls depicts a river that charts the progress of the long, slow migration of the Miao from their earliest ancestors who lived near the Yellow river, to the rivers of Guizhou where many Miao live today. Fish motifs express a wish for good fortune, spiders represent their guardian ancestors, flowers celebrate abundance and vitality. In Miao folktales, people can become dragons, as can fish, bulls and snakes so the Miao often depict dragons with body parts of one or more of these species.

Many hours of a tradional Miao girl’s life can be taken up with embroidery. Not only do they spend years creating their own wedding dress but in some areas the tradition of what’s called ‘secret embroidery’ has been handed down to the next generation. When a girl reaches the age of 15 she begins the task of creating intricate pieces of fine embroidery for her future children – small caps, shoes, jackets and baby carriers are all embroidered behind closed doors, or in secret, until her wedding day, where up to 100 items of her creation are revealed for all to see, showcasing her skills and her knowledge of Miao traditional culture.

Working with silk, cotton and horsehair thread, each individual piece of embroidery is unique and adorns almost the entirety of a Miao traditional costume – sleeves, collars, cuffs and tunics are all to be admired. However, being a modest people, the Miao believe that genuine admiration should be expressed behind one’s back and thus their most elaborate designs and best embroidery are placed on the back of the garment.

But it’s not only their designs that are complex, they’ve also developed a vast array of stitching styles to work with. Along with the more common satin-stitch, cross-stitch and braid-stitch, they have also created their own styles of embroidery stitching. Poxian or split-thread, for example, is where the thread is split to around 1/8 of it’s normal thickness then drawn through soft wax, folded between a leaf, to lubricate it. The resulting stitch work is smooth, glossy, tight and is said to resist soiling. Understandably, Poxian stitch work is incredibly time consuming – it’s said that one garment can take 4 to 5 years to complete.

Different stitches have different purposes, depending on the formality and function of the clothing item. Poxian stitch work, for example, is often reserved for special occasion garments such as their famous Hundred Bird Coat. A spectacular garment made up of 7-10 strips or bands of extravagantly embroidered dragons, frogs, butterflies, insects and other mystical symbols as well as, of course, hundreds of birds.

Originally worn on occasions to worship ancestors, the Miao Hundred Bird Coat is rich with colour, skilful techniques, exotic patterns and complex stories.

As a single garment, it is an embodiment of Miao traditional culture and as a story, it’s regarded as a true Miao epic.

The 3rd article in our 4 part discovery into Miao crafts and culture looks into their spectacular silver work – It’s truly astounding!