Tujia Brocade
Dai E
LongShan, Hunan
Fabric Making

Oh my, I have to own this scarf! It would look perfect with my Zegna suit. I had just picked up another of the pieces handmade with exqusite patience by Dai E on her brocade loom. Luxury and opulence exude from every fibre of her sumptuous weaving. This scarf would not look out of place in any high-end fashion house.

Tujia is one of the larger minorty ethnic group in China, located in Hunan, Hubei, Chongqing and Guizhou. Tujia brocade is commonly known as "Xilankapu". Xilan means "blanket cover" and kapu means "flower". Another way of translating is "Xilan" is a name, and "Kapu" is her woven cloth. Smart Tujia women are very ingenious and in ancient times (BC770 to BC221), Tujia brocade was already a tribute cloth for the king. The fabric is amazingly beautiful and luxurious, with unique techniques and rich content, named by many experts as the mother of all woven art.

The most common looms are "X" shaped but they may be just the simple waist loom as well, and they utilise cotton, silk and hemp as the raw material. Women with the old looms and a cow bone knife lift the warp and pass through the weft, weaving the pattern blindly from the reverse side, relying only on their experience and memory, and the whole process is done by hand. They make blanket covers, scarves and skirts, which will one day form a full dowry when they are married. Therefore the girls have to learn the techniques when they are very young and from 7-13 years they will make a belt to tie the waistband and thus learn the basic patterns for Tujia brocade. Before they marry, in that year they don't do farm work at all, but instead concentrate on their weaving. They are expected to weave at least two sets of bedding though some can make as many as eight, all for their own use.

Brocade is an important record of Tujia culture, with the patterns coming from daily life and divided into 6 categories: animals, plants, the night sky, daily utensils, auspicious patterns and geometric shapes, but the basic traditional patterns expand to about 120 variations.

Dai-e lived during the time when people said "diligent women weave, and every house has the sound of the loom". She began to learn this brocade when she was twelve and it has been her career for nearly fifty years. She was guided by the elders in her family but she also liked to ask around to find masters who could teach her as well. In her personal collection she has over 100 pieces. Today, she has earned world renown, and four or five hours of steep mountain roads do not stop visitors beating a path to her door, ranging from keen students to university professors or fellow Tujia weavers. Through her, over one hundred apprentices have learned to carry on the craft. On a normal day she will sit in front of her loom and ponder innovative new designs and patterns. She carries the spirit of Tujia brocade but includes wonderful new abstract expressions, and contrasting with tradition she has woven brocade in bright bold color selections. 3-D looking with a luxurious touch, sumptuous and polished. Her award-winning works may be found on display and in prestigious collections world-wide.

Looking at the brocade, I remember someone asking why the Tujia people living in stilt houses have a carved bed and use this "Xilankapu"? The answer is this: "Although most of their effort is spent bringing in a good harvest, smoking meat and making sure they have good stores, this hard work alone is not enough to bring sound sleep. Also needed in life is some romance, some beauty and this is to be found in their exquisite brocade. So even though they don't have a lot of time for luxuries, they will still make the effort to weave a few pieces of  Xilankapu."

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