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Rainbow Weavers
Blankets woven by women in remote mountains in Yunnan have traveled far
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2019-05-10  ·   Source: NO. 20 MAY 16, 2019
A Derung woman weaves blanket at home in Dulongjiang Township in Gongshan Dulong-Nu Autonomous County in December 2017 (COURTESY PHOTO)

In the language of the Derung ethnic group in China, Naze Naze Brao means "weaving slowly." This tradition and technique has been handed down for generations by the women of the ethnic group who weave blankets on looms known to be the earliest ones used by humans.

The blankets, featuring stripes of bright colors, are made from a typical fabric. Seventy years ago, the ethnic group used these blankets for everything—as clothes to cover their bodies during the day and as quilts at night to keep warm.

Jin Chunhua, a 34-year-old Derung woman living in Dulongjiang Township in southwest China's Yunnan Province, learnt the weaving skill from her mother when she was 15 years old. Weaving blankets was what Derung women did in the evening after returning from farm work all day. Back then, Jin didn't expect that this common fabric from her hometown would expose her to a much bigger world.

Breaking boundaries 

Sponsored by a project to promote Derung blankets, Jin and a fellow townsperson have visited Shanghai and spent a month there every year since 2016, working with fashion designers from a domestic clothing company to create new blanket patterns and receive training on different weaving skills.

They then returned to their hometown and employed local women to weave the new designs.

The Naze Naze project was launched by the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation, a cultural think tank, as part of a more comprehensive program to protect, inherit and promote the cultures of ethnic minorities and the diversity of Chinese traditional culture.

Wang Yanyan, a representative of a clothing company in Shanghai, participated in the project and made her first trip to Dulongjiang in 2015 with a team of workers.

The trip from Shanghai to the border township took three days and two nights, since the nearest airport was in Kunming, capital city of Yunnan, which is still a two-day drive away from the town.

After gathering some information about the Derung people, Wang pictured a group living under basic conditions in a remote mountainous area and assumed that this project could create some job opportunities for local women and improve their living standards.

But what she saw after finally arriving in the township shocked her. "We were surprised to see that many people had already moved into new and modern houses," Wang said. "The government has done a great job in alleviating poverty in the township. So we adjusted the goal to focus more on innovation in utilizing the fabrics, which we hope to help the local women in a different way."

The looms Derung women use, as Wang explained, are the earliest looms known by people, and the original material for the blankets was made from wild hemp.

The team that Wang led saw the potential to merge the blankets with modern fashion. After receiving an invitation, Jin and another Derung woman, Bi Yulian, set off to Shanghai for a one-month stay in the following year.

Before traveling to Shanghai, Jin's longest trip had been to the county seat of Gongshan Dulong-Nu Autonomous County, to which their township is subordinated. That was a three-hour trip by bus. During their time in the megacity, Jin and Bi spent almost every day with the designers, receiving training and adjusting pattern designs and colors to cater to modern tastes. The weaving material was changed to wool and the colors, which were too bright according to the designers, were made duller and lighter.

They finally nailed down 10 pattern designs and after the two women returned home, they set up a cooperative and organized more Derung women to join the project, with 17 women joining in the first year. The weavers completed 58 Derung blankets from the new materials provided by the company, with each piece 45 cm wide and 8 meters long.

The company then made them into cushion covers, different size blankets and cloaks. The products hit stores in Shanghai and online shops and sold out in five months.

A Derung woman shows the blanket she weaves at home in Dulongjiang Township in Gongshan Dulong-Nu Autonomous County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, in December 2017 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Going further 

During the second year of the project, the team of weavers expanded to 24 and the order from the company increased to 120 pieces. Each piece earned the weaver 400 yuan ($59). As the organizers of the first year in 2015, Jin and Bi made 2,000 yuan ($294) each month for consecutive four months. The average annual income for the Derung people was only 4,378 yuan ($644) at the time. "A woman can weave nine pieces at most, which can earn her 3,600 yuan ($530)," Jin said.

The weavers' creations were on display at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. The walls at the China Pavilion were decorated with Derung blankets.

However, after 2016, orders declined due to limited market demand. Last year, they received an order for only 42 pieces. "We want to explore more channels for the blankets but have no idea how," Jin said.

Xiao Songjun, a local official, said that they want to set up an association for Derung blankets.

Moreover, this weaving method is not unique to Derung women. The Nu ethnic group, most of whom also live in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, has the same technique with similar colors and patterns.

Li Jianying, a 31-year-old Nu woman from Wuli Village, once a secluded village, is now in a cooperative set up earlier this year.

More than 20 women weavers have registered with the cooperative. "We are working to find more incomes for selling hand-woven fabrics," Peng Dejun, who is in charge of the cooperative, said.

At a market at the Flower Festival of the Nu ethnic group on April 20, Peng set up a booth with local women weaving and selling their products on the spot.

Li participated in the event and earned more than 2,500 yuan ($368) at the event. "With the help of the cooperative and online business platforms, I can earn about 4,000 yuan ($588) a year by selling these cloths," Li said. "I hope as more people become familiar with our weaving products in the future, the market will expand."

(Reporting from Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province) 

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo 

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com 

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