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September 23, 2017

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Designers breathe new life into China's folk crafts

GAORONG VILLAGE, China--Dipping a brass-tipped tool into a vat of liquid wax, Pan Xiu-ying painstakingly traces an intricate design onto a white cloth.

At her workshop in a remote valley in one of China's poorest provinces, Pan uses traditional techniques passed down for generations to create an indigo-dye batik scarf embellished with patterns inspired by her ethnic Shui minority. But her handicrafts aren't for family members. They're destined for affluent buyers thousands of miles away.

Pan's employer, Hong Kong-based Elaine Ng, is among the growing number of designers focused on ecological and cultural sustainability who hope to preserve skills of rural artisans that are fast vanishing in this increasingly industrial society.

"A scarf that is made with 50 hours of love is different from one made by digital print in a factory," said Ng, whose strategy of using artisans fits right in with Beijing's push to shift away from low-end, cheap mass manufacturing toward higher skilled, more environmentally friendly industries.

Ng is helping to breathe new life into old crafts of minority tribes in isolated villages in south-central Guizhou province.

Many low-cost Chinese producers are fleeing to neighboring Asian countries like Vietnam, where they can pay lower wages, as the local labor pool shrinks and costs rise.

So garment makers that previously thrived churning out cheap clothes for overseas brands are revamping their sweatshops with smart, small batch production methods such as 3D printing and cloud computing.

Ng hopes her project, Un/fold, run by her design studio, The Fabrick Lab, can pioneer a business model that might appeal to young people fleeing villages for easier and better paying jobs in distant cities.

This fall, she launched a limited edition of scarves, squat wooden stools and hexagonal wooden wall tiles, the latter two decorated with batik patterns normally used only for fabrics. She's also working with a Shanghai company to create custom furniture that uses artisanal fabrics and woodwork.

Back in the workshop, after finishing her pattern, Pan dips the silk and cotton fabric three times into a vat of organic dye made from indigo plants grown higher up the hillside. Finally, the wax is melted away to reveal the scarf's design. It will eventually sell for US$235 online or in boutiques in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

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