One Flower, One World
Xue Mei
Hunan
Heritage
Fabric Making

Her hat displays their colourful cross-stitch and her belt is the same.  Beneath she wears their black and white dress, also with dazzling woven hues on the front. Hua Yao’s costumes are painstakingly woven stitch by stitch, and even today in Huxing, this mountainous area, whenever there is a festival, market day or fete, all the ladies will wear this costume, just like Xue Mei. Hua Yao are a sub-group of the Yao people and are renowned for their extremely warm and colourful costumes,

Hua Yao ladies, when they sing their folk songs, have very clear and beautiful voices and their rice wine is fiery and potent but because of their hospitality you are likely to be invited to try a drink. Hua Yao women look poised and elegant, and the cross stitch each wears is like their name card. Every woman tries her hardest to create the most beautiful, delicate and intricate designs in her brocade weavings and embroidery. Failure to be able to cross stitch is deemed unacceptable.

Compared to other needlework, the Hau Yao's is very ancient and often mysterious in its design, with fine attention to detail. Looking at the front you will notice the extremely detailed patterns combined with fine cross-stitches but turning the fabric over you will be amazed to see that the reverse side also has beautiful, perfectly formed patterns as well.  How is this possible, you may ask? As Xue Mei showed us her work, her hands caressed the fabric as she remembered each stitch and the work and history and meaning behind it.

From a distance you see the overall pattern, but close up each piece resolves into a fine tracery of flowers, squares and other geometric elements. Xue Mei told us that to make just one skirt can take six months and the needle will pass through the fabric three hundred thousand times, a staggering number to contemplate. Photos alone can only give you a small sense of the beauty in her work. 

When asked to talk, Xue Mei is quite shy and reticent, instead preferring to communicate via the patterns in her fabric. She told us that her mother was very tough and expected that she could achieve anything. From the age of seven she learned at her mother’s side. Her mother was very disciplined and so was Xue Mei, when it came to mastering needlework. She commented that Hua Yao stitching is done without a frame or any drawn pattern to follow so at the beginning it is very headache-inducing to learn. Although her mother was strict, she wasn’t the best of teachers, so Xue Mei would stitch-by-stitch copy her work. By day she would follow her family to toil on the farm, so only in the evening could she pick up the needle to practice. Without any lighting she had to work by the fire, and she still remembers sitting by the bright red flames so closely that her eyes would burn from the smoke.

Her first real work was two years later. At that time her patterns were not flat and the material was blackened from frequent re-doing. Often as she slept she would have an idea in her dreams and would wake and go straight to the fabric, frightened that if she waited until dawn the inspiration would be lost. Believing that less is more, she tried to use the minimum of stitches to tell a lot. Her subjects should be fresh and bright so for example when she sewed a tiger she embroidered small animals and flowers all around and within it, leaving no space unfilled. Only a full tiger is a living tiger. Her stories are from the mountains and she smiles as she tell us because of her stubbornness, combined with natural talent, that by the age of fifteen she was already a master and rapidly became the queen of cross stitch.

As the stars turn, the seasons change. Fifty years have now passed and her clothes have travelled through the mountains many times. The outside world clashed with local culture and many village women have left for the big city. She worried about whether the Hua Yao cross-stitch could survive, so she began to train anyone who could do this work and voluntarily passed on everything she knew. At the same time she was innovating. Traditionally the women would take time to wrap the cloth many times around their hair to form a headpiece, so she took inspiration from bamboo farmer’s hats and used that to fashion the customary headgear. The former leg-warmers were also wrapped many times around, but Xue Mei brought in velcro fastening to speed up the process. She also shortened the very long belts to a more manageable buckled belt. She thought that by innovating and adapting, perhaps her beloved cross-stitched women’s clothing would one day make it to the mall. That is still her hope and wish.

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