Making Ethnic Clothes

Spinning is the first step in making the fabric for clothes. Fabric has to be grown, extracted or, in the case of silk and wool, silkworms have to be reared and sheep have to be shorn.

Take linen, for example. Linen is used quite widely in the clothing of minority ethnic groups in the central south and southwest of China. The Nu people live in a natural environment that is rich in linen, and Nu women are also good at weaving linen. Men wear high-collared long linen gowns. The front is lifted up and tightened with a belt into the shape of a bag for carrying things; the lower garment is a pair of knee-length trousers with linen gaiters. After a woman turns 12 or 13, she begins to wear long linen skirts. Young girls like tying waistbands with colored decorative borders outside their skirts. The Nu women of the Gongshan area do not wear skirts but wrap two colored linen stripes outside their trousers.

China has used hemp fiber since ancient times, and hemp is called "Han hemp," and ramie (one kind of hemp) is called "Chinese grass." Ramie fiber is thin, long, film, smooth and shiny. It can be dyed easily and does not discolor easily. Cloth woven with ramie fiber is light, sweat-resistant, neat and breathes.

Blended cotton and hemp in a spun process is a clothes-making technique particular to the Jino people. Because they live in a cotton- and hemp-producing region, their hand-woven cloth is made from these materials. The colors are mainly that of the natural fibers, mixed with black and red stripes. All Jino families own simple spinning tools and can twist threads through spinning wheels held in their hands while walking or resting. When weaving cloth, a person sits on the ground, ties one end of the warp on the waist and the other end to two wooden poles. The weaver then moves both hands back and forth and tightens each shuttle with a "chopper" (like a wooden sword). This cloth is thick and durable, and is called "chopper cloth" by local people.

The Li people of Hainan Island are the most skilled at producing cotton goods. During the Warring States Period, the Li could already spin cotton into yarn and weave tribute with patterns - "textiles with shell patterns." In the Song Dynasty, the Li could use textile tools such as cotton gins, cotton-separating machines, foot-operated spinning wheels, and picking and dyeing stands, to weave colorful Li brocade. In the Yuan Dynasty, Huang Daopo (c. 1245-1330), a Han woman from Songjiang Prefecture, learned cotton-spinning techniques from the Li people and brought them to her home town. As a result, "Songjiang clothes were worn around China" and became famous.

Apart from the Tujia people's "Xilankapu" (a woven fabric with as many as 200-300 patterns), Zhuang brocade and Miao brocade have dinstinctive characteristics and are made using unique techniques.

Fabric dyeing is also an important process connected to the production of clothes. Primitive Chinese used mineral pigments and vegetable pigments to dye clothing materials. Later, more sophisticated generations progressed to dip-dyeing, mordant dyeing, and over dyeing.

Relief printing techniques kept developing in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, and reached a very high standard during the Han Dynasty. Among the clothing materials unearthed from the Han tomb of Mawangdui there are several pieces of colored gauze and gold and silver gauze with patterns, which are a combination of relief printing and colored painting techniques. After fabric had been printed, brushes were used to draw flowers, leaves and petals, especially fine detail such as stamens. Patterned gold and silver gauze was overprinted and processed using three relief printing plates.

In the southwest of China the Miao people and the Gelao people have a long tradition of dyeing fabric. They use a wax dyeing method: melted wax is used to draw patterns on white cloth and plain woven fabrics, then the cloth is soaked in an indigo vat. After the fabric has been removed from the indigo, it is heated to remove the wax. Because this cloth is mainly dyed blue and sometimes purple or red, people call it "blueprint cloth." Objects from the Han Dynasty unearthed from Eastern Han tombs in Minfeng, Xinjiang, prove that even the most common wax dyeing techniques were exquisite 2,000 years ago. The Gelao people also had their own dyeing method: they put strips of hand-woven cloth (about six or seven meters long) into an indigo vat several times (to achieve an even color). Then rice water, yam rhizomes and ox hide gelatin were applied, pressed in with a roller, and beaten into the fabric with a club. When they are dry, these additions to the fabric make it shiny, beautiful and durable.

Apart from wax dyeing, tie-dyeing is the most common method of dyeing. Also known as knot dyeing, the mechanical dyeing method of tie-dyeing can produce a magically beautiful print. After stitching according to a pattern designed in advance, threads are tightly tied into various small knots; after dyeing, the threads are removed to reveal patterns left on areas of fabric left undyed, thanks to the protection of the knots. The edges of the patterns are naturally iridescent due to uneven soaking in the dye. This technique of dyeing is named according to the different effects created - it is called deer placenta dyeing, agate dyeing, roe agate dyeing or dragon dyeing. According to A Sequel to the Records on the Search for the Supernatural, a ghost novel written during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, a young woman wearing a purple-dyed coat and a green skirt looked like a spotted deer from afar - she may have been wearing clothes made using deer placenta dyeing. This kind of clothing can be seen on figurines from the Tang Dynasty.

The clamp-resist dyeing technique uses a hollow board printing method, and was in common use during the Qin Dynasty. The scale of production using this method was already very large by the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Sui people also used the clamp-resist dyeing method (as well as the knot dyeing method). The clamp-resist dyeing technique involves carving images onto board to form a pattern plate. Then the plate is placed against white cloth, brushed with a special formulation of soya milk, and then immersed in a vat of indigo. Once removed, the soya milk layer is washed off and the fabric is dried. Blue or green patterns emerge from this process. The most popular patterns include "red phoenixes facing the sun," "two dragons playing in water," "fish and shrimps swimming" and "spring flowers in full bloom."

Techniques of applying metal, jade and stone ornamentation to clothing vary within different ethnic groups. For the Tibetan people, ornaments are an essential element of traditional clothing. Tibetans wear almost too many ornaments to count, including head, ear, chest, and waist ornaments, as well as rings. These ornaments are made of gold, silver, pearls, agate, jade, turquoise, silk, emeralds, coral, beeswax and amber. The "bazhu," a triangular or arched headpiece, is a good example of Tibetan ornamentation. In the past, aristocrats made bazhu with pearls or precious stones, and ordinary people made them with coral. When a girl puts on a bazhu for the first time, she signals her entry into adulthood and her eligibility for marriage.

Many of the beads, silver chains and silver plates worn on a Tibetan's chest are related to Buddhism - the beads are part of Buddhist prayer and most people wear a silver amulet box containing a Buddha or Bodhisattva statue. Tibetans wear strings of metal knives, flint foxes and numerous silver ornaments around their waists. Waist knives and waist hooks are ornaments unique to Tibetan men and women. Tibetan knives have a very long history. Some are more than one meter long, and some are 40-70 centimeters long. There are also small knives less than 40 centimeters long. Tibetan knives have many uses. Long knives can be used for self-defense, short knives can be used to slaughter cows and sheep or peel and cut meat and vegetables, and small knives are used as eating utensils. Tibetan knives are sharp and exquisitely decorated. The knife handle is wrapped with ox horn, animal bone or hard wood, and features a silver or bronze wire and a bronze or iron sheet, sometimes decorated with silver ornaments. The materials and craftsmanship of the sheath are also beautiful and skilled. Most sheaths are wrapped with bronze or silver and carved with propitious patterns such as dragons, phoenixes, tigers, lions and flowers. Some sheaths are wrapped in shark skin and inlaid with precious stones such as green turquoise, coral and agate. Knives used every day have handles inlaid with yak horn.

Tibetan women also wear waist knives and waist hooks. Waist hooks are usually forged with silver or bronze and are used to hang knives on. Some knives are oblong with two S-shaped ends, and some are rhombic in shape, with four S-shaped corners. Waist hooks feature patterns and images of Tibetan Buddhism such as bottles, Dharma wheels and deer, but they also display patterns on traditional Han themes such as phoenixes, lions and dragons. Out of all the patterns used, one pattern - called "the four brothers in harmony" - originated in a Tibetan folk story. In ancient times, because of the bad climate, elephants, lions, rabbits and birds could not find enough fruit to eat, so they worked together to find fruit - the harvest they reaped was both material and, more importantly, spiritual. "The four brothers in harmony" story is about harmony and is represented by images of animals picking fruit together.

The Monba people and the Lhoba people also live on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Though they have their own languages and clothes, they have much in common with Tibetans. Apart from wearing similar long gowns, Monba men also wear leather hats and belts, and women also wear their hair loose or in plaits, and use Buddhist beads and waist hooks. Their boots are also basically the same as Tibetan boots. However, Monba clothes and Lhoba clothes have their own distinct details. Monba men wear a small hat with a brown round top, an orange edge and a front gap, a pair of big earrings and a pair of red and black soft-soled boots of cow skin. Monba women wear a white tube-shaped apron outside a gown, along with a piece of cow-skin or sheep-skin.

Lhoba men wear bear-skin hats, which are mostly round with brims made of compressed bear-skin topped with fur. A piece of bear-skin hangs down at the back of the hat, across the neck, originally to protect the wearer from arrows or swords. From a distance, the back of Lhoba hats make the wearer look as though they have thick, loose black hair. Lhoba men and women all wear ornaments, which can sometimes weigh several kilograms. Men wear belts inlaid with round convex silver ornaments, shells and strings of pearls. Several strings of silver beads hang on both sides of the belt, earrings also feature hanging beads, and several necklaces hang in front of the chest. Men wear bracelets and carry long swords, arrows, tobacco pipes and tobacco cases. Women's ornaments are even more amazing. Women wear dozens of turquoise necklaces, and strings of seashells, bronze bells, silver coins, iron chains, bronze sheets, flints, and small knives secured around the waist. The quality and quantity of these ornaments directly reflect a family's wealth and status.