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Weaving the Future: Contemporary Design for Traditional Firegrass in Yunnan

Local ladies modelling their finished silk and firegrass scarves. Photo by Janis Embleton

In June 2018, I was invited to Yunnan to run contemporary weaving workshops as a part of Crafting Futures programme organised by the British Council to support the future of craft around the globe. My trip followed a UK delegation to Shanghai, Suzhou, Kunming, South-East Guizhou Province, Guiyang and Beijing in China, meeting with craft artisans, intangible cultural heritage bearers and institutes.

This opportunity was introduced through Dr Joseph Lo, an independent researcher and Chief consultant for The Smithsonian Institute’s Centre for Folklife and Culture Heritages programmes in Asia. He was invited by the Yunnan Arts and Design Institute to conduct weaving training for several Chinese ethnic minorities including the Wa, Yi and Lisu communities in 2017, funded by Yunnan Cultural Bureau’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Masters Department.

During the training, Dr. Lo was introduced to firegrass, a unique plant fibre, used by the women in their traditional costumes. Dr. Lo recognised the importance of this fibre and suggested the women might benefit from learning new weaving techniques and patterns to allow them to develop a contemporary collection of fabrics which would increase their ability to generate a supplementary income.

Following Dr Lo’s encounters with firegrass, I was given some of the yarn to conduct some weave experiments into its viability for structures which differ from the women’s usual fabrics. My initial impression of the yarn was that it would most likely be very problematic to work with; the fibre is extremely weak and breaks very easily, this instantly told me that it would only be suitable to be used as a weft (the threads which travel from side to side in a fabric) which is under far less tension than the warp threads (those which are on the loom and travel lengthways in a fabric). The yarn, which comes from the under-surface of a leaf, is collected and hand-spun into a papery fibre with a unique peach-like surface; I was initially sceptical that it would survive the rigours of washing and pressing that woven fabric requires, but I was pleasantly surprised at how robust the fibre proved to be. My initial samples were very successful and introduced structures which featured open, lacy weaves and floats (the fibre sits on the surface of the cloth to create visual interest); these ideas could be developed and adapted to create a wide range of fabrics of varying weights which would provide a cohesive collection.