Bai Tie Dye

Bai Tie Dye

No, it is not a rhyme - it is an incredible skill that the Bai Nationality people of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces use to create beautiful textiles from cotton cloth, a ball of string, some natural vegetable dye, and a lot of time and skill.

For 2,200 years the descendants of the original Ji culture scattered eastward along the Lanchangjiang River in Yunnan Province and have became known as the Bai Nationality. That puts them right on the Ancient Tea Horse Road so let's take an adventure and explore one of their unique and astounding arts - Bai Tie Dye.

We are going to take a look at how the Bai people have preserved the ancient art of creating these intricately detailed textiles. We will visit a small studio that is continuing to make these works of art using the same thousand-year-old process that their ancestors used. The Bai create these beautiful Batiks using four steps: Knotting, Dying, Drying and Revealing. Let's take a look at each step and put you in the middle of the creation of one of these Treasurers found along the Ancient Tea Horse Road.

First, a short history of the Bai Nationality. The identity of the Bai has been traced back 2,200 years to three centuries B.C. By the turn of the second century, (A.D.), various peoples including the Barien, Minjia, Sou, Baiman, and Dianfen had settled in and around Dali, in Yunnan Province. During the eighth and ninth centuries, these people united around Erhai Lake and are the ancestors of the Bai people today. The Bai have a unique language which belongs to the Tibet-Burma group.   It is divided into three dialects with the southern dialect, spoken in the Dali region, being the most prevalent. There are about 185,000 Bai people today. I am fortunate to be able to visit them in the areas where they live, along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, and to enjoy their culture, their food and their welcoming and friendly company.

Distinctive costume and dress: For 1,800 years the Bai have made their woven cloth and have adorned it with camellia flowers as a symbol of beauty. You can instantly identify a Bai woman by their colorful clothing that is always a combination of white, red, light blue and pink. The men are less adorned, wearing white trousers and a simplified, usually white, jacket. This picture of a Bai Woman (Ok - it is my beautiful granddaughter, Emi) shows her wearing a traditional Bai headdress. Bai women wear this daily and they can be seen on the streets and in the markets in Bai populated towns and villages.  

Let's start making a beautiful Bai Tie Dye Batik tablecloth similar to the one below.

First - Gather up your supplies. You will need to either hand weave or purchase a large piece of muslin or linen. For a tablecloth, figure on needing material about 72 inches x 48 inches. You will also need a ball of string, some indigo and vegetable dye and, lastly - a lot of time and patience. Now - following the example of this woman, spending about 20 to 30 years practicing to tie your pattern.   Once you have mastered this step, you will be able to tie up your tablecloth in about one week if you work diligently all day, every day. It is often common to hear the women singing as they work.

The friendly workers in the Bai Batik Tie Dye studio that I visit a couple of times each year are always happy to show young people how they do their work. They don't have many Lao Wei (foreigners) visit, and my grandchildren have been delighted to be able to learn from the these Bai artisans while making a small batik of their own to take home. See the new friends enjoying each other's company in the pictures below.

OK - Back to the main event.   If you have followed the instructions carefully, and paid attention to details, you should end up with something that resembles one of the pictures below. Really? That doesn't look too exciting.

After completing the time-consuming knot tying, the next step is to soak the fabric in clear hot water. The first soaking will saturate the material and prepare it to accept the dye. It is only soaked for about a minute and then it is removed from the water and wrung out. A centrifugal spinner is used to extract the water and to also save a little time and a lot of energy from having to wring out the fabric by hand. Don't forget to wear your protective rubber gloves. Humm - I wonder what they did to protect their hands 1,000 years ago?

The next step is the Dying: The all natural dye, made from vegetables and indigo, is heated in a large cauldron. The knotted fabric is immersed in the heated dye and stirred for a couple of minutes to assure that the color has penetrated all of the non-protected portions.   After dying, the knotted material will be rinsed by soaking it in a bucket of clear water. This critical step prevents the dye from continuing to penetrate more deeply into the protected areas and potentially ruining the project.

After rinsing, the blue material takes another spin in the dryer or is placed in the sun to dry. If the centrifugal dryer is used, then the project is immediately ready for the most exciting event. If you have a blue looking mess like in the picture below, then you are doing great.

Revealing the surprise inside:  Cutting away the knots, which were so carefully tied to create the pattern envisioned by the artist, gradually releases the folds of linen from their constraints and the patterns begin to emerge. The outcome is always a little uncertain and leads to heightened anticipation of what will be revealed. Watching the intricate, balanced, symmetrical patterns that appear is just an indescribable experience. It suggests, to me, an image of a butterfly emerging from its tightly bound cocoon during metamorphosis. When all of the knots have been cut, the four corners of the material then will be pulled simultaneously to expand the finished batik to its full dimensions and to .... Gasp! (not enough adjectives to describe this experience).

Take a look at some of these examples above. Now imagine being able to envision that pattern in your mind before it has been created - and then imagine figuring out how to tie the material into the shape that will produce the final intricate designs after dying. Wow!

Thanks to the talented Bai Nationality people for their friendliness to me and to members of my family and for letting us participate in understanding your beautiful culture and your art.

Would You Like to Have a Bai Tie Dyed Batik?

Yunnan Province, China is the most culturally diverse region in the world. There are twenty-six cultures represented, each with its distinct language, customs, food, costumes, music, and art. I often travel to visit Bai Nationality and other Ethnic Nationalities along the route that approximates the Ancient Tea Horse Road. These journeys, from the Pu'er tea fields of southern Yunnan to the 23,000-foot mountain peaks of northern Yunnan and Sichuan, traverse the borders with Laos and Myanmar, and on to eastern Tibet. I love to visit artisans who practice their cultural arts and I can work directly with you if you would like to acquire any of these arts. If you are interested in purchasing one of these Bai Nationality Batiks directly from the artists or would like to see some more pictures or maybe just chat - let me know.  
Fill out the comment section below, and I will get back to you personally.


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