by Suzanne Labry
Quilts of Southwest China
Woman in the La Ma Village anxious to demonstrate her quilt making skill. Here she is cutting out a paper pattern. She has
a bamboo stick topped with sticky rice ready to glue the cloth
to the stiffen paper. Photo courtesy of Pam Najdowski.For those of us in the West, the quilts and quiltmaking traditions of China remain relatively unknown.
That fact is changing quickly, however, with the first China International Quilt Festival having occurred in Beijing in 2015 and now with a remarkable traveling exhibition put together by a bi-national consortium of U.S. and Chinese museums and sponsored
by the Henry Luce Foundation.
The exhibit, Quilts of Southwest China, has been displayed at Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, Michigan; the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska; Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Bloomington, Indiana; and is currently showing at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico until January 21, 2018.
The quilts (and other items such as aprons, needle cases, and baby carriers) date mostly from the 20th century, with some contemporary pieces. They were made in several of China’s Southwestern provinces—a mountainous area populated by rural villages and farms of ethnic minorities such as the Yao, Dai, Hui, Maonan, Zhuang, Bouyei, and Miao (the Miao are also known as Hmong in the U.S.) that remained isolated until relatively recently.
Dowry quilt made by Luo Si Mei in the Zhaung village of Ladong. It is still framed in hand-woven indigo cotton, padded with thick cotton batting, and encased in white cotton creating a duvet. Photo courtesy of Pam Najdowski.
The works in the exhibit are made of cotton, wool, and silk, and display the makers’ excellent needle skills in piecing, appliqué, quilting, and embroidery. Iconography is
an important element of the quilts, with butterflies, frogs, fish, centipedes, fruit, flowers, and animals symbolically representing such things as fertility, abundance, good luck,
health, and wellbeing.
China is rapidly changing from a rural to an urban society; it is said that by the end of 2015, 56% of the population was living in urban areas, up from 26% in 1990. Such a dramatic transformation can profoundly alter cultural practices and folkways, particularly among ethnic minorities.
The traditions that gave rise to the majority of the quilts shown in the Quilts of Southwest China exhibit are casualties of the new reality in that country. When roads and factories began being built in China’s Southwestern provinces after the Communist revolution in 1949—making mass-produced goods more accessible and affordable—the quilting tradition there began to die out, in much the same way that quilting in the U.S. fell out of widespread practice after World War II.
Iconography is an important element of the quilts of Southwest China.Photo courtesy of Pam Najdowski.
Pam Najdowski, who owns the import company Textile Treasures in Santa Fe, was a consultant for the Quilts of Southwest China exhibition and helped to acquire many of the items on display.
In 2003, Pam was living in China and working as a counselor at an international school. She became interested in Chinese minority textiles such as festival outfits and baby carriers and began buying them from people she met. “The people were subsistence farmers with no wages. Their average annual earnings were probably less than $500, and when they realized they could sell a jacket, for example, for what would amount to six-months’ worth of income, they began offering things to sell,” she explains. “Not until 2010 did I ever see a vintage quilt being offered for sale, but I loved them at first sight. Later, I was thrilled to find out that the consortium of museums were seeking to develop an exhibit about these fabulous quilts of southwest China.”
Guangxi Province is one of the areas where many of the
quilts featured in the exhibition were found. Photo courtesy
of Pam Najdowski.The current Chinese government has begun placing emphasis on cultural heritage and there is new interest in preserving the traditions, including quilting, of the country’s minority ethnic groups. The 21st-century quilts in the Quilts of Southwest China exhibition were made by artists who are reviving ethnic craft traditions. Tourism is also contributing to a renewed interest in keeping cultural heritage alive.
The exhibition is the culmination of a three-year project of the United States–China Intangible Cultural Heritage Initiative of the American Folklore Society and the Chinese Folklore Society. Researchers from both countries learned to work together to study textiles as a means to understanding the cultural implications of the changing dynamics in China today. Another three-year grant has been secured to continue that effort.
The Quilts of Southwest China exhibition is accompanied by a catalog edited by Marsha MacDowell and Lijun Zhang.
The beautiful mountainous terrain of Southwest China. Photo courtesy of Pam Najdowski.