Tra­di­tional at­tire helps Miao women earn a liv­ing

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PEOPLE | LIFE - By LIU XIANGRUI in Huayuan, Hu­nan li­ux­i­an­grui@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Ma Meiy­ing learned the skills needed to make tra­di­tional Miao eth­nic at­tire, which is dec­o­rated with elab­o­rate and color­ful em­broi­dery, from her mother when she was a child.

As her skills im­proved over the years, she started mak­ing dresses at home dur­ing her spare time and was able to make money by sell­ing them at the lo­cal weekly bazaar.

“In re­cent years, I have been able to earn 40,000 yuan ($5,900) per year, and work on it all year round be­cause the de­mand has risen,” she says.

Now, mak­ing the tra­di­tional dress and em­broi­dery of the Miao peo­ple is a means of in­creas­ing the fam­ily in­come for Ma and other women in Shuitong vil­lage, a Miao en­clave in the moun­tains of Huayuan county in Hu­nan province.

The vil­lage has a pop­u­la­tion of 1,700 and an av­er­age in­come of merely 3,000 yuan per year.

Due to the lack of trans­port links and lim­ited nat­u­ral re­sources, it is hard to de­velop in­dus­tries in the area where Ma’s vil­lage is lo­cated, and the men usu­ally mi­grate to work in the cities to make a liv­ing. The women stay in the vil­lage to do the farm work and look after the fam­ily.

In 2014, Ma was elected as the vil­lage Party chief, and she started think­ing about ways to im­prove the lo­cal vil­lagers’ lives. Ma then de­cided to put her skills into full play.

She started a co­op­er­a­tive to pro­duce the Miao eth­nic dress and em­broi­dery in 2015, and it has grown from an ini­tial eight mem­bers to more than 20.

“There are new mem­bers join­ing in all the time,” she says. “It al­lows the women to earn some ex­tra money be­yond farm­ing dur­ing the slack sea­son.”

To in­crease their ef­fi­ciency, she bought a large mod­ern em­broi­dery ma­chine in 2014 and spent half a year learn­ing how to use it.

“It was hard for me in the be­gin­ning, and most of the time, I had to learn through prac­tice,” she ex­plains, adding that she had to ask the ma­chine’s man­u­fac­turer to help re­solve a prob­lem by phone or with video guid­ance if the ma­chine broke down.

After the co­op­er­a­tive was started, she bought an­other ma­chine to ex­pand the scale.

Ac­cord­ing to Ma, one of the chal­lenges for her was find­ing enough skilled work­ers, espe­cially those who can op­er­ate the ma­chine and the com­puter.

“The vil­lagers have to do farm work, take care of house­work and chil­dren. They have very lim­ited time to work at the co­op­er­a­tive, which re­quires time and train­ing,” Ma says.

She adds that the work­ers have lim­ited knowl­edge about com­put­ers. When the com­puter or em­broi­dery ma­chine breaks down, they dare not to touch them and have to wait for her to re­solve the prob­lem.

“So when I am not here, the work­shop usu­ally has to close, too,” Ma says.

Ma is the only one who knows how to make em­broi­dery plates on the com­puter in the co­op­er­a­tive. She de­signs the pat­terns her­self ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tional im­ages in Miao cul­ture.

Now, Ma pro­vides free train­ing to the co­op­er­a­tive mem­bers and any­one who is will­ing to learn the skills.

Shi Guiy­ing, 43, is one of the mem­bers who joined the co­op­er­a­tive this year. After re­ceiv­ing train­ing, she earns about 600 yuan in a good month. A few full-time work­ers get paid 1,700 yuan a month.

“It’s good to have such an op­por­tu­nity to earn more money with­out hav­ing to leave the vil­lage,” Shi says.

Ac­cord­ing to Shi, many of the women are aged above 40, and they do the work only dur­ing their free time.

Ma says she will con­tinue to ex­pand the co­op­er­a­tive and is will­ing to take in any woman who wants to join them.

As their co­op­er­a­tive grad­u­ally be­comes fa­mous, many lo­cal vil­lagers and ven­dors have come di­rectly to their vil­lage to buy their prod­ucts.

Last year, the co­op­er­a­tive was able to sell nearly 500 ma­chine-made dresses — for 500 yuan each.

In the first half of this year, they sold 12 hand-made dresses — each tak­ing a worker about three months to com­plete and cost­ing more than 3,000 yuan — to a lo­cal per­for­mance group. An­other 200 ma­chine-made dresses were sold, too.

“The busi­ness will get even bet­ter in win­ter, be­cause it’s the slack farm­ing sea­son and many events will take place dur­ing that time,” Ma says.

“If ev­ery­thing goes well and we have enough or­ders, we can open a fac­tory and pro­vide the vil­lagers with sta­ble jobs, so they can earn steady in­comes with­out hav­ing to work away from home.”

While the co­op­er­a­tive still fo­cuses on the tra­di­tional prod­ucts be­cause the de­mand is high, it has also been look­ing to di­ver­sify through com­bin­ing eth­nic el­e­ments with fash­ion de­signs to cater to a big­ger mar­ket.

The co­op­er­a­tive is also pro­duc­ing daily-use items, such as table­cloth and pil­low cov­ers with dec­o­ra­tive Miao pat­terns and even wed­ding gowns.

Some samples have been or­dered by a cus­tomer from Bei­jing, who is in­ter­ested in pro­mot­ing such prod­ucts in big cities.

“If they are sat­is­fied with our prod­ucts, we will get more or­ders in the fu­ture,” Ma says.

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