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Traditional tie-dyeing outside of Dali

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Increasingly lost amid massive development projects and urbanization are China's traditional roots. In a city like Kunming it is easier to find a 24-hour KFC than it is to find a store where clothes are handmade on-site. Traditional handcrafts are still made in Yunnan — often in small villages away from the province's bustling cities.

GoKunming recently visited a town where people still use traditional methods to make some of Yunnan's more recognizable handicrafts. Zhouchengcun (周城村) lies 25 kilometers north of Dali Old Town and contains more than 20 courtyard workshops.

The Puzhen Tie-Dye Workshop employs 30 workers and is reputed to be Zhouchengcun's largest. When we visited we were shown the process of traditional tie-dyeing from beginning to end. The process of dyeing tapestries and clothing is done using only natural dyes and fabrics and almost entirely by hand.

The workshop is owned by the Duan family and uses two types of fabric, cotton bought from Xinjiang and hemp grown and spun by factory employees. For dyes to stay permanently and remain bright in fabric, bolts of cloth must first be 'fixed' through a chemical process using mordants. At the Duan workshop the mordant of choice is lime, called shihui (石灰) in Chinese.

The lime bath used for fixing color
The lime bath used for fixing color

Cloth is soaked in a pool of water and lime before workers in heavy rubber gloves, aprons and boots wash off the excess mordant with fresh water. If the cloth is destined to become a simple garment it is ready for dyeing once it is air dried.

However, if it is slated to become a tapestry or heavily patterned piece of clothing it is first put through a mechanical drier. This step is the only automated part of the process. Once the fabric is dry a series of complex knots must be tied by hand to ensure the desired design is achieved.

Our tour guide, Ms Duan, told us the knot-tying process for making a large tapestry can take up to three days. Time invested in the detailed work depends on experience and the complexity of the pattern being made. She also said she much prefers giving tours and dealing with customers to her time tying hundreds of painstaking knots every day.

Once the bundles of tiny knots are tied the cloth is ready for dyeing. To avoid the use of artificial pigments, the Duan workshop uses only plants and flowers to achieve a fabric's desired color.

The deep blue common in ethnic Bai clothing and many of Dali's tapestries comes from isatis tinctoria, called woad in English and banlangen (板蓝根) in Chinese.

Brighter and more vivid colors are derived from indigo and an array of bougainvillea plants grown in the foothills of the Cangshan mountain range. Earthier hues such as yellows and browns are made from the roots and bark of those same two plants.

A blue dye bath made with woad
A blue dye bath made with woad

The tied-up bundles of cloth are bathed in dye water in giant wood-fire heated woks for around 30 minutes and then removed to dry in the sun. Once the fabric is dry the next step is to rip out all of the knots from the tapestry or clothing and smooth it. The newly dyed and ornamented cloth is now ready for sale.

Many of the tie-dyed clothes and tapestries can be purchased on Dali Old Town's Yangren Jie pedestrian street.

Getting there:

Zhouchengcun and the Puzhen Tie-Dye Workshop can be reached from Dali via buses that leave from the old town's west gate and cost seven yuan. Cars or taxis can also be hired for a round trip price of 80 yuan.

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Finding good material AND knowing where it comes from AND who makes a livg out of it.

Thank ou very much indeed.

wow looks great! can i buy this in Kunming? does anybody know? I wish I could buy it directly off these people :")

Mainly - I have always wondered how they get the dye out of their skin - because the last time I was there (1998) we were invited to try the dye-vats. I looked at the women with their bare arms in indigo & fuchsia up to their elbows, and said No thanks... however later one of these girls took us up to their living-quarters (above the animals & feed) and showed us many fine multicolor cloths she had for sale... her arms were then normal looking.

One of their 'signature' deep blue hangings representing a Yunnan maiden made of white 'dots' on the blue background hung in our Guilin townhouse for 12-years and always solicited "oos, ahhs and Ding Haos" from guests. Finally my wife gave it to an admiring friend when she sold the house....

Quote: "can i buy this in Kunming?"

花鸟市场 — Bird and Flower Market. Off 东风中路 Dongfeng Middle Street, north side, near 五一路 Five One Street. Many other places as well.

You can actually do it yourself in dali, zhoucheng.

I've visited a small factory in Dali, zhoucheng,

so cool.

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