Women, embroidery and superpowers.

Embroidery is central to Red Dzao (Dao or Mien) culture and Taphin village. 

In Taphin the Dzao women have some of the very best embroidery skills in the world.

To be good at embroidery makes you a good and strong woman. 

The embroidery of the Red Dzao is a series of patterns that have been passed down from generation to generation. It is counted stitch work, meaning the stitches are precisely made by counting the warp and weft. The smaller the warp and weft, the more tiny the embroidery is, this is considered the most beautiful embroidery as it is the most difficult to sew. 

The technique has never been written down. It is culturally held knowledge that depicts everyday life and values for the Red Dzao people and the community. The embroidery represents the rice paddies, the children, the parents and grandparents, trees and fertility. I believe it is the secret to the strength of this community and its sense of identity. 

Women embroider all the time when they are not caring for the children, working on the rice terraces or feeding the animals. 

They will often sit with other women when they embroider, they will chat and gossip, laugh and listen to each others problems. They elders will help the younger girls when they make a mistake or get their silk tangles. 

Each year woman will make new clothes for themselves and their families. They will make the embroidery all year, sewing whenever they have a chance. The clothes are put on to celebrate the Chinese New Year in February. These clothes are then proudly worn for the whole of the next year and the old clothes are sold to the tourists to make some cash income for the family.

Tamay buys all the torn and stained clothes for the embroidery. She wants to support women who do not have access to sell their clothes to the tourists as they cannot speak english, have dependents who need them at home or because they live too far away from the centre of the village. Tamay will go to buy directly from their homes with set very fair prices. 

 The tradition of making this tiny embroidery dates back over 500 years, thought the origins are difficult to trace. Different colours and patterns have evolved over time. Each Dzao village has slightly different styles and colours of embroidery and differing techniques and symbols. It is possible to tell which village a woman comes from by looking at her clothes. The embroidery embodies the identity of the people and the identity of the people is encapsulated in the embroidery. Tamay will say that she can read a piece of embroidery. She can see if a woman is a little stressed and hence the stitches are all a bit tight or if a woman is not very attentive if they have made mistakes without correcting them and if the silk is not well rolled. 

To the trained eye it is possible to read a woman through their embroidery. 

The finest piece a woman will make is their wedding clothes. Girls will be excused from working on the rice paddies in the year before the wedding. They work on a tiny warp and weft and use the finest silks. Girls prove their devotion, dedication and attentive hard work to their future family through the cloth and silk. They also prove to themselves what they are able to achieve and it is all part of the right of passage of moving from a girl to a married woman. 

Having learnt the embroidery myself and spent a year making one small piece there is something very close to meditation about the practice of making Dzao embroidery. 

It is very unifying and harmonious to share this level of skills and to sit together alongside other women, particularly in my case, women from the other side of the world and an almost ancient way of life.

My piece of embroidery is certainly my superpower and I will forever be grateful for what Tamay and the other Dazo women have given and shared with me. This project is the way I can say thank you and share a little bit of that superpower.

1 comment

  • Pip Steel

    Thank you for adding to my knowledge and understanding of these amazing textiles. What a treat finding your website and blogs. A brilliant collaboration between the East and the West – for the benefit of both for a change. Well done – inspirational stuff.

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