The Miao people of Guizhou, China practice a seemingly endless range of decorative textile techniques. From folded-cloth piecework, couched braid embroidery, jacquard weaving, and the making of silver plaques, these heritage craft techniques are essential to making intricate Maio ethnic costumes.
Sharon de Lyster, contributor and founder of Hong Kong based-brand Narrative Made, finds inspiration in the rich variety of Miao handmade trimmings and accessories. This is the second story in a three-part series about the traditional arts of the Miao people. Don’t miss her first article about Miao pleated skirts or her capsule collection of artisan-made womenswear, now available in The Kindcraft Shop and at the end of this article.
Folded-cloth piecework is an intricate appliqué technique: Starched, thin silk cloth is cut into small pieces and multi-folded into triangular shapes like origami. Layered and meticulously arranged, they are then stitched into place and the result is reminiscent of three-dimensional parquet.
In Wengxiang, China, folded-cloth piecework is placed along the lapels, shoulders, and sleeves of women’s jackets. In Shidong, piecework is worn on neckbands and as shoulder decoration—sometimes including striped patterns made from parallel sticks of rolled silk cloth.
For full festival dressing, Miao children’s outfits are topped with hats made with folded-cloth piecework. Mothers labor over their children’s clothing as form of protection, intricately stitching and decorating their hats with exceptionally folded cloth piecework. Designs of birds, dragons, fish and other talismans are thought to offer protection against mishaps and evil spirits. The black, pink, and red handcrafted child’s hat (below) was appliquéd with over 3,000 small pieces of fabric, all carefully layered and stitched.
Couched braid embroidery
Colored braids are couched in three different ways to achieve densely textured, colorful embroidery: Flat couching, wavy couching, and bumpy couching. This heavy stitching decoration is traditionally used for baby-carrying slings and on jacket sleeves. Couched braid embroidery is heavy and can only be applied to a sturdy cotton base cloth which will support the weight of densely-stitched silk braids.
Traditionally, the making of a Miao costume is completed in-house—literally. Using resources found within a household or a village, the women do all the fabric weaving, dyeing, sizing, embroidery, and sewing. Even the braids used in braid embroidery are crafted by hand with a simple and clever basket set up (see video below). These braids are made with 8, 9, 12 or 14 strands of silk in a play of color combinations and pattern arrangements.
Intricatly patterned jacquard textiles are the finest of Miao cloth trimmings.
Woven on a treadle loom with two shedding devices, a long bamboo pick is used to pick up selective warp to weave a specific pattern. The weaving is done face-down, requiring the weaver to master the patterns thoroughly. Once finished, the jacquard panels are stitched onto the base cloth of a jacket. These jacquard patches carry cultural significance within the community and a wearer can be identified by the motifs and colors on their jacket.
The most elaborate and highly priced decoration is made to adorn adolescent, unmarried girls.
Silver ornaments are used in Miao culture to publicly display a family’s wealth — and a daughter’s marriage eligibility and personal beauty. In Shidong, jewelry is passed from mother to daughter, while the silversmithing skills are passed from father to son. The husband and son of Kai Jin, the hand-pleating Miao lady featured in our last article (Miao Pleated Skirts), makes silver ornaments for embellishment to the ladies’ jackets. They also make accessories such as earrings, necklaces, and hairpins.
The Miao, along with other ethnic minorities in China, demonstrate an inherently sustainable lifestyle: Each household works together and contributes to the rural agricultural communities by working the fields or attending to livestock. When the farming season has passed, they make handicrafts in family workshops using the home-grown cotton, silk, and other ingredients available in their fields.
Even while the rest of the modern world spins faster and faster, the Miao continue to live in their traditional way—using their resources thoughtfully and treading lightly on our planet.
Support the continuation of these heritage crafts and sustainable lifestyles by purchasing the work of Miao artisans. Most of the pieces in the Narrative Made capsule collection were crafted by Miao people and indigenous artisans of Guizhou, China.