When thinking of Chinese craft, delicate silk embroidery immediately comes to mind. But Yiran Duan, founder of Yi Crafts, is determined to show the sheer diversity of handicrafts that exist across her home country, and indeed, in her hometown of Dali, southwest China. “We have weaving, indigo dyeing, pottery, wood carving, silver work,” she says of the mountainous region.
Duan—who is from the Bai ethnic minority group—grew up on an indigo farm that goes back five generations, with her family’s business producing handwoven, hand-dyed fabrics. As a young child, she would help out with cutting the threads after fabrics had been dyed, although she admits she didn’t place value on learning the craft at the time. “Young people want to leave the village; they want to go to the big cities,” Duan, who is wearing a beautiful denim jacket that was hand-dyed by her grandmother, explains from her airy north London studio. “They don’t really see this as a valuable skill; they see it as hard labor, a way of making a living.”
It was only when Duan went to study costume design at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama that she began to embrace the indigo dyeing techniques that she’d grown up with. “I learned a lot of Western techniques, like making a suit, a Victorian dress, a corset—but I lost that [sense of] connection, because I don’t have a history associated with [those garments],” she recalls. “So I started to explore the possibility of, for example, using an indigo shibori-dyed fabric to make a Victorian dress and my tutor really encouraged me to keep going with [experimenting with] traditional Chinese techniques and Western pattern cutting.”