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Menglian Initial Survey Trip Report

From 30 April to 5 May, CHP representatives He Shuzhong and Napatra Charassuvichakanich, and local project consultant Turdsak, visited Menglian County to conduct an initial field survey for the Menglian Weaving Revival Project. This project is the second phase of the Mengma Revitalization Project.

The project team identified existing weaving conditions and learned about existing weaving techniques that have been passed down for generations.

Through improvements in pattern designs, color choices, and materials, Menglian artisans can develop their unique weaving, and we are confident that Dai-Menglian weaving has potential to compete on the international weaving market.

During the visit, He Shuzhong established and reconnected with local authorities from the county to provincial level. Authorities and local weavers were enthusiastic and showed strong support for the project. Many locals expressed that weaving is their favorite pastime and were excited at the possibility or earning money through their traditional weaving.

Craft Assessment

As part of the initial survey trip, research was conducted on current craft skills, weaving materials, cultural traditions, production capacity, current market, products and pricing. Below is a summary of these facets:

Craft skills

  • On average, most Dai women in each household in Menglian can weave.
  • The two most common weaving techniques are the cross-stitch technique (Fig.1) and the diamond-shaped style (Fig.2).

Fig.1 Cross-stitched technique

Fig.1 Cross-stitch technique

Fig. 2 The diamond-shaped technique
Fig. 2 The diamond-shaped technique

  • The cross-stitch technique is fairly recent and is popular among young weavers.
  • Only older weavers are comfortable with the diamond-shaped technique as it is more complicated and takes longer to weave.
  • From observation and interviews, there are around 5-6 remaining older weavers who can do this diamond-shaped technique. These weavers are in their 80-90s.
  • Although Menglian artisans don’t generally make money from weaving, most women enjoy weaving as a pastime.
  • Knowledge is passed on from generation to generation. No proper training is available in Menglian since weaving is not a reliable source of income. As a result, weaved products tend to be very simple e.g. over-the-shoulder cloth bags, traditional wraps, and bed sheets. Dai weavers turn the textile into finished products themselves.

Weaving materials

  • The current thread used is thick polyester. There are few color choices available in the local market (only one big shop in town) and most are bright (Fig.3). Weavers use these color choices rather than dyeing white threads themselves.
Fig. 3 Bright polyester threads are popular material choice in Menglian.
Fig. 3 Bright polyester threads are popular material choice in Menglian.
  • White cotton threads come in two categories – machine-pulled (preferred) and hand-pulled. Both are ¥10/thread ball.
  • Manufactured, color thread balls are ¥5/piece. Strands are fairly thick. Turdsak supports thinner strands for a more sophisticated look/feel.
  • A bag of 14 white thread balls costs ¥110.

Cultural traditions

  • The diamond-shaped technique is the traditional style, but only older weavers know how to weave it.
  • The cross-stitch technique is a fairly new technique, so doesn’t have a long cultural background. Current patterns include flowers, trees, Dai style buildings, etc.

Production capacity

  • Weavers don’t like learning new techniques unless new patterns and techniques will allow them to make more money. For instance, younger weavers (30-50s) aren’t very interested in learning the diamond-shaped weaving technique from older weavers since there’s no money-earning prospect to it. However, they expressed strong interest in joining CHP-VE’s training at the project introductory meeting.
  • At a leisurely pace, weavers can produce a bag a day. It takes 5-6 hours to weave the cloth and 2-3 hours to turn it into a bag.
  • Weavers generally spend most of their time working on agricultural activities which actually generate income.

Current market

  • Dai weavers only make money via individual made-to-order deals. Previously, most of the clients were the local government and other governmental units (danwei). They order these bags as gifts to visitors.
  • Most orders come in during holiday seasons.
  • Some tourists purchase bags as souvenirs but these don’t sell very well.
  • Locals don’t purchase the bags.
  • Menglian residents purchase general products and services at the city center.

Products for export, tourist, and local markets

  • At this point, the current design doesn’t sell well.
  • The current product design is targeted towards tourists. But since it doesn’t sell well, this forces local artisans to only weave when someone places an order.

Pricing

  • Large over-the-shoulder cloth bags are sold at ¥30 ($4.40), small ones at ¥25 ($3.66) and traditional wraps at around ¥35-40 ($5.10-5.90).
  • According to www.fairtradecalculator.com, the daily wage for Menglian artisans is ¥15/day ($2.20).

Local Project Consultant’s summary:

  • Although the diamond-shaped technique is beautiful, especially with the right color choices and materials, the technique doesn’t offer much scope for further designs to be developed.
  • The cross-stitch technique, however, can accommodate infinite weaving patterns. Turdsak thinks this technique has a lot of potential and can become a Dai-Menglian weaving signature.
  • Turdsak feels that although the diamond-shaped technique is aesthetically more pleasing, he wants to start training with the technique that most weavers are more comfortable with i.e. the cross-stitch technique.
  • What needs work: color choices (choose to dye white cotton threads instead of purchasing manufactured, colored threads available in Menglian), thinner threads, new patterns
  • Color dye will be purchased in Thailand. It will be a polyester color dye, but the dyeing technique will produce a natural look.
  • Cotton threads can be purchased in Menglian.
  • Potential products: scarves, cloth, and traditional wraps
  • Thai market: Turdsak is confident that the Thai handicrafts/weaving market could be one of the main distribution channels for Dai weaved products. Turdsak himself is a wholesaler and has a great understanding of the weaving market in Thailand.

Local Project Consultant’s experience

  • Expertise: Turdsak’s has weaving experience in Laos and northern Thailand where he helped local artisans improved weaving techniques and pattern designs. This makes him a great fit as the Local Project Consultant. He has a good understanding of weaving techniques in the region (can identify weaving influences from each minority (e.g. Lancang VS Dai minority). He has been outsourcing his work to Lao weavers consistently.
  • Language proficiency:
    • Turdsak’s can communicate in basic English and Mandarin. He can understand at least 80% of the conversations conducted in Dai language/northern Thai dialect.
    • Turdsak is very enthusiastic about the project and is willing to connect with weavers. Substantial amounts of cultural overlap between the Dai minority and northern Thai culture allow him to connect with local weavers fairly easily.

Government relations

  • CHP’s presence is well-established in Menglian County. The Director of Menglian County, Director of Menglian Museum of Minorities History, and Director of Menglian Administration of Cultural Heritage[1] are familiar with CHP. Our Mengma Archive contribution is very much appreciated by the local authorities. They are excited for the Menglian Weaving Revival Project to begin and are willing to collaborate with us to ensure the project runs smoothly.
  • Positive support from Pu’Er and Kunming Administration of Cultural Heritage. Local authorities recognize the importance of developing local handicrafts as a sustainable way to raise locals’ income and improve the quality of life, but they lack expertise and marketing experience in doing so. The Director of Kunming Administration of Cultural Heritage, Mr. Xiong, is very excited about the project. He hopes that if the first batch of weaved products are sold successfully, he can use this project as a model and apply it across the Yunnan province.
    • He Shuzhong stresses the importance of the first batch of weaved products, as it is key to the success of the project.

Strengths and weaknesses of the project

Strengths:

  • Weavers enjoy weaving. They would love to weave if that would generate income.
  • High-potential weaving techniques: With some improvements in patterns, color palettes, and materials, Menglian weaving textiles could become highly desirable in the international weaving market.
  • Strong support from local authorities.
  • Thailand as a market channel: Thailand has a very developed weaving market and Turdsak is very knowledgeable of the industry. He understands the type of product designs that will be warmly received in Thailand. He could also serve as a conduit between Menglian local weavers and the international market.
  • The Chinese handicraft market has a lot of growth potential in general.
  • Revival of their ancient Dai weaving techniques.

Weaknesses:

  • Need for a loom upgrade: The current looms used are 3”-5” wide which is wide enough to weave small over-the-shoulder cloth bags and scarves but too narrow to weave larger cloth and traditional wraps, in which they would need a 10” loom. The cost of purchasing a standing loom is at ¥200-300 and would be a necessary investment for the project.
  • Lack of business background: Export capacity, business plans, and marketing materials are non-existent.
  • Need to identify distribution channels and promotion strategies.
  • Lack of supporting organization: Menglian weavers work independently and organically. There is no cohesive force to ensure consistent product quality.
  • Handling the pressure to compete with other artisans in neighboring countries whose skills are more developed: Thai and Laotian weavers have been expert weavers for a lot longer than Menglian weavers. In order to establish its name on the market, Dai weavers will need to deliver consistent and sophisticated designs.

Next steps for project

  1. The Director of the Menglian Museum of Minorities History, Zheng Jin, will spearhead the formation of a formal Menglian weaving organization. The legal status of the group must be defined. We hope to start with 5-6 pilot weavers. A Dai weaver representative will be selected and serve as the liaison between Turdsak and the weavers.
  2. CHP& VE will determine the initial amount of startup money for the group to purchase materials and improve weaving tools. A bank account will also be created for the group. In addition, we need to give pilot weavers incentives to weave while not earning their usual money. Turdsak suggested that for the first batch of products, whatever weavers make automatically belongs to them.
  3. CHP will work with Turdsak to identify an assistant (Thai assistant VS Menglian local weaver).
  4. Turdsak’s assistant will help prepare materials (threads, color dye) and weaving tools (widen looms).
  5. Turdsak will work on creating weaving patterns and choosing color palettes.
  6. Turdsak’s will revisit Menglian to begin the training. Training will take place over a course of ten days at the Menglian Museum of Minorities Histories.


[1] Correct English titles to be confirmed.

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