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Menglian Weaving Revival Project (ML2): Mid Year Report

Report by: Napatra Charassuvichakanich

纺线

In this project report, Menglian Weaving Revival Project Coordinator Napatra Charassuvichakanich shares the progress, opportunities, and challenges of the project. Much has taken place since the official weaving training commenced in September 2010; we saw the first batch of the product in October, followed by a market research trip in Beijing shortly after.

ML2’s first product samples received positive feedback from our target retailers in Beijing and Bangkok. However, ML2 faced challenges of improving productivity rate and product quality in order to stay competitive in the market. These key considerations would determine the direction of our Menglian Weaving Revival Project onward.

(I) Background
June – July

CHP collaborated with ML2 Local Project Coordinator Zheng Jing in establishing a formal association, Menglian Ethnic Folk Art Inheritance Association (孟连民族民间工艺传承协会). The association runs independently as a legally registered NGO in Menglian.

The decision to set up the Association and the process involved reflects a crucial step towards achieving the core project objectives. Throughout each stage of ML2 project implementation, multiple contacts (training, manufacturing, marketing, and budgeting) need to be made between CHP-VE and the local people. A proper organizational structure was needed in Menglian that CHP-VE could work directly with to handle such complex correspondences. This legal organizational structure would also allow the weaving group to own a proper bank account, which can be very hard to obtain otherwise.

CHP and the local artisans reviewed the different organizational structures that are legally recognized by the Chinese government, and selected the model that would best support the interests of the local artisans. The organization has since been set up, with the local weavers as the members, chaired by the Director of the Menglian Museum of Minorities History. Through this Association structure, project participants will receive as much direct revenue from the project as possible, with a small amount reinvested into the organization. The Association ensures the weavers are directly involved the decision making process, and are included in all areas of the project operations. By supporting the local artisans to run their own financially and structurally independent entity, CHP is helping to build local organizational capacity and encourage minority self-determination. The creation of the Menglian Association will also ensure the Menglian weaving project is sustainable, as the Association will continue to exist after the funding has ceased.

The stamp of The Menglian Ethnic Folk Art Inheritance Association

The stamp of The Menglian Ethnic Folk Art Inheritance Association

August

Twelve sets of looms and combs were upgraded in preparation for the training. The previous looms and combs used were narrow ones (approximately 15cm wide) and could only produce narrow-shaped outputs (e.g. thin, long sacks). The upgraded 31cm –wide version could produce a wider range of product outputs including scarves, cloth, traditional wrap, and upholstery materials.

September

ML2 Project Weaving Expert Turdsak Insang traveled to Menglian for his second work trip. He spent the first few days giving artisans a color-dyeing training. In the past, weavers used finished polyester threads as their thread materials. Although polyester thread was a convenient choice, only bright and bold color options were available. Color dyeing made it possible for weavers to expand the range of their color palettes. Turdsak used this opportunity to introduce more subdued, natural-looking hues to Menglian artisans.

Hanging the dyed threads to dry.

Hanging the dyed threads to dry.

After the dyeing and threading stages concluded, the weaving training began. Eight artisans in four pairs worked on four looms to complete their first assignment. Although unfamiliar to the patterns and color palettes that Turdsak presented, participants were enthusiastic in exploring this weaving project.

Project Weaving Expert Turdsak Insang teaches participants the new weaving pattern.

Project Weaving Expert Turdsak Insang teaches participants the new weaving pattern.

October

I. Work Trip Update

Turdsak returned to Menglian four weeks after the weaving training commenced. He found that weavers’ technical ability was highly satisfactory, although the productivity rate remained low. Prior to the October work trip, Turdsak anticipated weavers to produce around five meters of cloth in one month; weavers managed to produce only two meters.

Project Advisors Jim Stent and He Shuzhong, Project Consultant Mary Cockram, and Project Weaving Expert Turdsak Insang felt that slow productivity could result from these following factors:

-       Artisans’ unfamiliarity in weaving the new design patterns; the new patterns were very detailed and labor-intensive.

-       Wider cloth required longer time to weave; Artisans were used to weaving a 15cm-wide cloth, the new cloth’s width was at 80cm.

-       Artisans had not decided to make a full-time commitment to the project; this was natural consider that the project could not guarantee that their products would be bought during the early stage of the training.

Increasing productivity became the key challenge for the project as it determines the product’s labor cost. This influenced product price and subsequently the competitiveness of the Menglian’s products in the market.

Additionally, Jim, He, Mary, and Turdsak also recognized the importance of upgrading the product quality, which could be done by improving the weaving quality and materials used. The current threads used were slightly too matte and stiff, making the first product batch felt more like an upholstery product than a garment. Searching for locally accessible, high quality threads and color dyes was the next mission. Project’s Local Coordinator Zheng Jing, under Turdsak’s recommendations, would carry out this assignment.

II. Beijing Merchandise Research

On October 21, Jim, Turdsak, and Napatra conducted market research into ethnic handicraft merchandise available in Beijing. The team visited four stores that sell high-quality handicrafts: Shanghai Trio, Brand Nü, the boutique store at The Aman, and The Orchard. From our store research, Jim, Turdsak, and Napatra found that there is a growing demand for high-quality, made-in-China handicrafts from the expanding upper-class and middle-class Chinese consumer brackets. If the Menglian Weaving Revival Project can provide products of which designs, materials, and quality standard fits the target group’s taste, Menglian weaving handicrafts can be very appealing to them.

Conclusion

As the Menglian Weaving Revival Project reaches its mid-point, it is beginning to see genuine steps towards realizing the project goals of a promising future of handicrafts being produced locally by the women of Dai minority to support their livelihood. The project is aiming to see a growing demand for its product lines, targeting both Chinese and international consumer markets with handicrafts that meet the design taste and quality standard of each market.

The project is presented with the following challenges:

1)    Finding an appropriate pricing for Menglian Weaving products that will give a good income to local weavers while make the products marketable in both Chinese and international markets.

2)    Improving the productivity rate in order to make the products more price-competitive.

3)    Improving product quality by material upgrade and quality control.

4)    Sustaining participants’ level of interests. Ensure the local weavers are engaged as far as possible in decisions that concern the project.

5)    Exploring other product lines through a trial-and-error process.

Pre-training handicrafts

Pre-training handicrafts

Handicrafts after four weeks of training

Handicrafts after four weeks of training

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