Fabulous Festival Costume – Ruth Smith
The Miao & Dong ethnic minorities of South West China
Ruth Smith has travelled extensively in Guizhou province in south west China which is home to many ethnic minorities including the Miao and the Dong. She told us that it is a very mountainous area with lots of rain and the people wear over 100 different costumes. To show us examples, Ruth brought a great variety of photographs and embroidery samples beautifully displayed for our members to enjoy.
During Ruth’s presentation we were shown village scenes and pictures of women working in fields wearing their local costumes many of them with children and babies strapped to their backs in embroidered baby carriers. Market days are special because it is an opportunity for the women to wear traditional costume and show off their embroidery skills. At festival time silver head dresses were worn in the more affluent villages and Ruth showed us photographs of the Long Horned Miao Festival and explained that the ladies would wrap their hair and wool around a wooden structure to create an enormous and spectacular hairstyle.
Indigo is harvested each September in the area and made into a paste which is later re-constituted. I was particularly interested to hear that the Miao like a distinctive shine to their fabrics and this is done beating egg white, seeds and even water buffalo blood into the indigo dyed material. We saw photographs of young girls wearing this shiny fabric. Once the fabric is prepared a wax resist is added. Paper patterns which can be bought from the market, are laid on the fabric and then embroidery is stitched over the paper. A lot of the designs are quite narrow so can easily be added as borders to jackets and skirts.
Braid is used a lot in the embroidery and Ruth explained how two ladies would twist horse hair with silk using a weight to create a thread. The Miao used braid pleated up to create traditional patterns especially dragons.
Ruth edited a book on Gina Corrigan’s Chinese collection and the traditional textile processes. Part of the collection is in the British Museum and Ruth has become particularly interested in what she calls, “Folded Secrets”. Ruth showed us several of these folding books which were created by the Miao for storing threads, embroidery and precious family mementoes. She has subsequently gone on to write four books giving instructions for creating these.
Ruth concluded her talk by bringing us up to date and explaining that technology has taken over a lot of the processes now. Computerised machines create some of the embroideries, silver head dresses are hired for festive occasions and ready made costumes are available to buy in the shops but I do hope that the embroidery skills and techniques are passed down from one generation to the next and that family heirlooms are not lost for ever.
Thank you Ruth for an inspiring and informative talk and we hope that you will get the opportunity to return to China one day.
Pinterest link to Ruth’s book – Miao Embroidery from South West China: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/288371182360510698/
Book review: Folded Secrets: https://byopiapress.wordpress.com/2020/11/15/ruth-smiths-folded-secrets/
Photos: The majority of the photos were taken by Ros with Ruth’s permission however a couple were taken from the presentation and were taken by Gina Corrigan and P. Cross