Dali Village is located in Guizhou, a culturally rich but economically poor province in China’s mountainous west. With no industry and few tourists, Dali is experiencing a problem common to many ethnic villages in China’s hinterlands: to support their families, Dali’s residents must leave the village to find work, but by leaving, they slowly weaken the cultural bedrock that brings them home.

To create new economic opportunities in Dali that would allow residents to stay and work full time, Global Heritage Fund partnered with Studio Atlas to found a textile co-op for Dali’s women. We’ve interviewed Catherine McMahon, one of the three founders of Atlas Studio, to discuss the origins, successes and failures, and future of this outstanding project.

Sewing at home in Dali Village.

Photo: Sewing at home in Dali Village.

How long has Studio Atlas been involved in Dali?

The first time we visited Dali was on a research trip in October of 2015 to learn more about the textile work happening there. In 2016, we visited several times to get to know the women in the village and did a small pilot run of products, which we presented at Beijing Design Week 2016. In 2017, we began the work in earnest, keeping continuity in our production and slowly growing the number of products.

Why did Studio Atlas begin working with the community at Dali?

Around ten years ago in the US, we came across a book, Imprints on Cloth, written by two Japanese anthropologists, Sadae Torimaru and Tomoko Torimaru, who had been working in Guizhou for almost 20 years. The book documents the making of indigo glossy cloth, which is a highly unusual textile. It is 100-percent naturally made but glossy with colors that shift as you look at them from different angles, and its sort of leather-like in its patina and ability to change as it ages. We knew we wanted to work with this textile someday but never fully anticipated having the opportunity to do so. On our initial visits to Dali, we realized that we might have the potential, all these years later, to work with several the unique textiles produced in Guizhou.

We have two strong, parallel interests that guide our work in Dali.

The first is a desire to acquire a deeper understanding of design that comes from a strong respect for the natural environment. The Dong textile practices in Dali start with the land, with the plants, and become final textiles through natural, primarily handmade, processes. Working in Dali is an opportunity for us to learn zero-waste, pre-industrial values and ways of thinking that are close to nature.

The second interest is in community development and using design as a vehicle to catalyze social change. Working with the women to help identify their unique skills and knowledge base and to start something that they can all contribute to is powerful. It is a way to unlock and further encourage the cultural creativity already existing in the village and help transform it into something new.

What has been your relationship with Global Heritage Fund since you began your work in Dali?

Global Heritage Fund introduced us to Dali Village as a possible site to explore our interest in textiles. It has been a pleasure working with GHF in the village because of a foundational commitment to cultural preservation and a nuanced understanding of community development. In particular, GHF understands how to value the more elusive aspects of cultural tradition, such as protecting the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation and how to keep tradition alive, relevant, and thriving – yet authentic – in a contemporary context. Today, the threat we face is that the diversity of cultural practice, skill, and indigenous knowledge that still exists in the world will be completely erased by modern forces.

Kuanghan [Global Heritage Fund’s director of Chinese projects] has extensive knowledge of the history and development of Dali Village, and GHF has cultivated strong relationships with the people living there. This has enabled us to enter the community and begin to ask the textile artisans living there to look at their work from an entirely new angle. It has begun a whole process of innovation and learning both for us and the women in Dali.

Washing dyed fabric in Dali Village.

Photo: Washing dyed fabric in Dali Village.

What was your program like at the beginning of your involvement?

The project is still quite simple, but in the beginning, we had to start very, very slowly. The women had not really interacted with outsiders in a commercial sense, and they took a little while to move past their doubt about making new things, things they weren’t used to. Being immersed in tradition and repetition, they are used to being skilled, fast, and talented at production; making new products by recombining their existing skills required them to stretch outside their comfort zone. Nonetheless, as they saw that they could in fact do the work and collaborate as a group, their confidence rapidly grew. Today, they are more open to exploration and creativity, and when we go to meet with them, they always have something new to show us that they invented or made. They are invigorated by having an opportunity to make things and a new audience to address.

How has the program evolved over time?

We are still in the very early stages. This upcoming year is going to be focused on training the women in the skills they will need to run a co-op on their own.

One issue we are paying close attention to currently is how to maintain or restore the highest quality and integrity to the Dong textile traditions (i.e. are the dyes all natural? is the cloth all handmade? etc.), as the women are creating for their market and not just for their own personal use. There is a risk that quality will diminish when a profit motive is introduced, and a lot of education and training must focus on the long-term benefits of maintaining the highest standards in the work. A key question we are asking is: How do we create a context for the women to practice or revive the highest form of their textile arts?

We always must keep in mind that the goal of this project is cultural preservation.

These women previously only made these textiles for themselves and their own personal use. Therefore, they usually do the work at the highest quality. In other artisan projects, when the traditional practices are brought into the commercial realm, there is a risk that the quality becomes less to meet lower price demands and faster markets. One of our guiding principles is to give the women the support and product context to keep the expression of their skills at the highest level. We are also studying other textile co-ops to see how they incentivize the work in a way that ensures the best practices will be used and corners will not be cut to save money and time as production increases.

A key question we are asking is: How do we create a context for the women to practice or revive the highest form of their textile arts?

What have you learned since you began?

When working in the paradigm of slow design or slow production, you must create some space to push back against more aggressive market forces or unchecked assumptions of how things “should” be done. It’s important that this project emerges from the village and is specific to their needs and ideas. In this sense, we must be very confident about letting the project unfold somewhat organically. We have learned a lot about clarifying values, holding on to what is important, and being confident about design and production processes that evolve and develop slowly.

If you could have done things differently, what would you change?

We’ve only been at full production for 6 months now – so it’s hard to say at this point!

You mentioned transitioning leadership from Atlas to the locals at our meetings. How is this progressing?

That is the end game of the project; to turn these efforts over to the women in the village to direct and guide in a way that ultimately suits their own needs and lifestyle best. They are, after all, the primary stakeholders in their own cultural preservation. With this in mind, we also have to keep expectations in check. What may seem straightforward to us is an entirely new learning challenge to the women in the village – they are having to reimagine the whole value system around their current textile practices and learn new ways of working together. Currently, we are focused on training – this will continue throughout 2018. At the end of 2018, we will assess where we are at. One textile organization we consulted with said that establishing a sustainable co-op can take up to 20 years! We don’t anticipate such a long development period, but we do need to understand that we are on a slow but steady timeline forward.

How have you built relationships with the local community, particularly the local women?

The central core of this project is building relationships and trust. It has taken us awhile to develop these relationships. The most important thing we can do to build relationships is to offer continuity and steadiness of the project. The work is nourished and fed by being constant and keeping energy high – this way, our forward trajectory is maintained.

What has been your experience teaching local women to monetize their work and/or participate in a capitalist economy?

From the beginning, the women have displayed an entrepreunial spirit. Our goal is to help train the women to utilize their skills for their own benefit as the village transitions more and more into a tourism-based economy. Currently, Dali is an agricultural economy, but this is quickly changing. Helping the women recognize their own value now and become strong in expressing it will put them in a better position to benefit as change comes to Dali in the future.

THE DYE ROOM, BEIJING, CHINA – Two women from Dali Village pose with one of their creations, which were exhibited in The Dye Room for Beijing Design Week 2016. ©Studio ATLAS/Global Heritage Fund

Two women from Dali Village pose with one of their creations, which were exhibited in The Dye Room for Beijing Design Week 2016. ©Studio ATLAS/Global Heritage Fund

The Dye Room represented a major breakthrough in exposing the textile and dyeing traditions of the Dong people to China and the world at large. What results have you seen since this exhibit?

A lot of these textile traditions have been documented and exhibited extensively – especially here in China. What our exhibition did that was slightly different was to bring not only documentation about these traditions to show to a contemporary audience but to bring the actual textiles processes themselves to Beijing. Working with indigo pigment from Guizhou, we worked with a master dyer to create a real indigo dye bath here in Beijing – a process that took more than two weeks to do. This allowed us to host workshops for the public in indigo dying here, which was something quite unique in Beijing. We were also able to bring two of the textile artisans from Dali to Beijing to participate in the exhibition – this was an incredible experience to see them experiencing Beijing for the first time and to have them understand how much interest an urban audience has in their work.

Could you speak some more about the other exhibits and projects you have relating to Dali Village?

We are working on a community center in collaboration with various craftsmen in the village. In particular, we are working with Yang Shenghe, the 73-year-old master carpenter with knowledge of traditional Dong wooden architecture.

The building will be multi-purpose but will primarily serve as an initial locus for the start of the textile co-op. Right now, we are thinking of four main uses for the building:

  • textile center and retail sales point
  • small children’s library
  • visitor center with information about Dali village
  • storage for the village community needs

It is a small building but is being carefully designed to meet multiple needs and functions utilizing all traditional Dong elements from the wooden frames and joining systems to stone carving and typical Dong spatial arrangements. The building design is a careful study in slightly modernizing the composition of these elements to produce something that will meet contemporary needs. The resulting building will be a merger between old and new.

What future do you see for Dali Village? For its unique heritage?

Dali is an incredibly special and magical place. Many aspects of culture and livelihood are woven together there in a way that is inseparable. To support one aspect, such as the textiles, we help to support the continuity of the whole.