Art to dye for


Designer Lin Fanglu in 2016 sitting on a chair she made at her studio in Beijing, with her installation work, She, hanging on the wall behind her.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Ancient craft is given a new lease of life by a critically-acclaimed designer who marries imagination with tradition, Xing Wen reports.

Inside a two-story studio in the prosperous, bustling Lidu business district in northeastern Beijing, artist Lin Fanglu sharpens her skill in the time-consuming process of tie-dyeing.

The techniques involved in this ancient art take time to master. To tie-dye, fabric must be manipulated by folding or twisting or pleating using needles and threads before the dye is applied.

The designer Lin, 31, learned the traditional way of tie-dyeing six years ago from a group of farmer-housewives living in a remote, tranquil village of the Dali Bai autonomous prefecture, Southwest China's Yunnan province, when she toured as a postgraduate student of the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Her reputation is synonymous with the craft. In February, she was shortlisted as one of the 30 finalists for the Craft Prize 2020 organized by the Loewe Foundation and her large installation work, entitled She, has been shipped to Paris, ready to be exhibited sometime next year at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. If not for the COVID-19 outbreak, her work, together with those of the other shortlisted finalists, was to be exhibited from May to July this year.

With a design in her mind, Lin would pinch, crimp, fold, roll and squeeze a piece of white cotton cloth, or white mixed cotton-flax cloth, to form certain shapes and fix them by stitching and binding.

Then knots would be strategically applied.


Lin is picking Radix Isatidisroots, a typical Chinese medicinal herb, a key dyeing agent, in Yunnan province.[Photo provided to China Daily]

After being washed with clean water, the knots would be put into a vat in which crushed Radix Isatidis roots, a Chinese medicinal herb, served as the dyeing agent.

Parts that are fully immersed and exposed to the dye would appear to be dark blue but those parts that had been tightly stitched would appear in a lighter hue.

Combined, they present a variety of exquisite, decorative patterns.

The tie-dyed fabric is less likely to fade than that which has been through a chemical process, according to Lin.

As a time-honored traditional technique of the Bai ethnic group, which can be traced back to more than 1,000 years ago, tie-dyeing was listed as a national-level intangible cultural heritage in May 2006.

When Lin first saw several Bai women conduct the tying and dyeing in a yard in Zhoucheng village of Dali Bai autonomous prefecture in 2014, she was immediately captivated by the complex textured shapes created by the women's artistic needlework.

The then postgraduate major in household product design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts simply marveled at the exquisite beauty of the handicraft.

"It's full of primitive power," recalls Lin.

"I was impressed that with only needles and threads, they could turn a piece of soft cloth into different shapes, which are also varied in texture and tension.

"As an art student, I saw the possibility of using the technique for self-expression."

She then decided to stay in the village for a few months and learn from the Bai women how to proceed with drawing patterns in a series of steps, including knotting, soaking, dyeing, heating, drying, string-removal and cloth-grinding.

"These rural women, mostly in their 50s, usually help with the farm work in the fields, do the household chores and take care of their children. In their 'leisure time', they make money to support the family by making tie-dyed fabrics," says Lin.


A chair she designed and made from tie-dyed cloth.[Photo provided to China Daily]

"I was touched by their tenacity."

Inspired by the spirit of those Bai women, Lin has used the stitching techniques of tie-dyeing to create the installation artwork, She.

With various, complicated, bold shapes of stitched thick cloth with intricate patterns fixed on wooden frames, it is 6 meters long and 3 meters wide. If viewed from a distance, it resembles a cloud.

She spent three months performing repetitive, scrupulous work, "knotting, stitching, folding and pleating" the white cotton cloth, and the artwork is her tribute to the Bai women and their persistent application of the labor-intensive 1,000-year-old technique.

Lin says that if the viewer gets closer to appreciate the piece, the various folds, detailed knots and complex textures "may tug your heartstrings".

The work provides a metaphor for the Bai women's struggle for change to the status quo, after she made friends with them and sensed their yearning.

"All in all, the big piece, hanging on the wall, also symbolizes their determination to grow and soar," says Lin.

Over the past six years, she has also used tie-dyeing to make stylish furniture, such as sofas and chairs, to bring the traditional technique into modern households.

"I try to add a modern, artistic touch to the age-old traditions of tie-dyeing, hoping that the installation artworks, pieces of the soft sculpture and furniture that I've designed could help the public get a new appreciation of the craftsmanship of the Bai ethnic group," says Lin.


She puts tied cloth into a vat full of the herb to dye.[Photo provided to China Daily]

She plans to learn batik techniques at some ethnic villages in Guizhou province and continue to take in the primitive power of folk craftsmanship.

She has signed with the Art Plus Shanghai Gallery, where many of her artworks are displayed.

Ana Gonzalez, the gallery's partner from Spain, says that the traditional technique Lin employs, coupled with the vision of a young, talented and hard-working artist, "gives birth to compelling, visually intriguing contemporary works of art".

"I've seen her desire to experiment with, learn and implement, in her future work, the knowledge about the world's ancient crafts," comments Gonzalez.

"She seems to tap even deeper into Chinese ancient crafts to make it an exciting and promising step for the development of her artistic career. It's also an important contribution to the world of art, craft and design."

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