Tet in Vietnam, Part 3

For the last part of my time in Vietnam, I headed up to the mountains to visit Sa Pa. My traveling companion and I took an overnight train from Hanoi, and we sprung for the fancy two-person VIP cabin (If you do take the overnight train, get the two-person cabin. On the way back, we got stuck with a four-person cabin with three other passengers - a husband and wife who were having a marital squabble and their poorly-managed two year old who shrieked very loudly every twenty minutes the entire night).

Sa Pa is a beautifully misty place that's often above the clouds. It was described to us as being a bit like a ski village, and it's an apt comparison.

Sa Pa and the region around it are home to a number of different minority groups, including the Black Hmong and Red Dao.

Tet is a great time to be in the area. We were told it's traditional for mothers to work all year to make new clothes for their families, and young people especially come into town to show off their new clothes. Textile specialties in the area include indigo dyeing, intricate cross-stitch, applique, and complex over-shot weaving.

From what we could tell, most of the cash income in the area comes from tourism. Trekking and textiles seem to be the two main draws. Strikingly beautiful young women in full tribal regalia are everywhere in town selling textiles out of baskets they wear on their backs. They are some of the most amazing sales people I have ever seen.

They have a set of stock questions, and if you answer one, you're going to buy something. It starts "where are you from?" and ends with "how old are you? You look so young! Will you buy something from my tribe?" With that pitch, who can resist?

Most of what is sold on the street is decent quality, and the prices aren't that bad - a bit inflated, but not crazy by Western standards. From what I saw, about 80% of the textiles are hand-stitched and virtually everything has been made into pillow covers, bags, etc. It was quite challenging to find textiles in their original state.

We arranged a special trekking tour to visit some villages. We were hoping to visit some of the makers of the textiles, find some treasures, and buy directly from craftspeople.  We started out mid-morning, and walked for about 3 miles through the hills. The whole area is full of farm creatures - we saw chickens, ducks, pigs, and water buffalo along the way. It was a beautiful hike and not too warm.

We were "accompanied" by a number of roving textile vendors for the majority of the hike. "Accompanied" in this case means we told them we weren't buying, answered the entire list of vendor questions, and they continued to walk with us and ask the same list of questions again.

At the very end of the hike, we came into a lane full of ladies doing embroidery. About two minutes after we got there, a lookout shouted, and everybody dropped what she was working on - the tour bus had arrived! It was a feeding frenzy. I was glad to be out of the way snapping pictures when it happened.

We headed back to town, and I went shopping. I had found a shop the day before that had a whole table full of un-reconstructed textiles.

I bought a bunch of cross-stitched collars, an apron, embroidered trouser cuffs, and a piece of indigo over-shot weaving to turn into a throw blanket.

This is just a teaser - I'll share more photos when these pieces are being turned into projects.

I really enjoyed being up in the mountains, and I'm hoping to do more trekking in the area. Next up on the travel list is to visit the China side of the region, via  Yunnan province.

Tet in Vietnam

I went to Vietnam for Lunar New Year and had a fantastic time. I took over 400 photos! After editing all of them, there are a few gems I'd like to share. These photos are all from Hanoi during the first days of the trip.


I'm heading out for some adventuring! I'll be back in a few short days, but I'm not planning to post while I'm gone. I can promise pretty pictures and (I hope) some great stories when I return.

Wishing you a happy Year of the Rabbit!

Tonight we sail for Singapore

I was in Singapore last January, and had "Singapore" by Tom Waits stuck in my head the entire time. It kept popping up like a happy thought and put a bouncy, surrealistic veneer over the whole adventure. Now that I think about it, that bouncy, surrealistic veneer might also have had something to do with being on painkillers because I broke my right arm in Vietnam the week before... but back to the point. Singapore is an amazing place for creative inspiration. I wanted to share some pictures with you in the hopes that the bright colors and tropical patterns will brighten up January's winter mood.

First up, Some images from Little India. I really liked this part of town. There were lots of small fruit stands with dragonfruit, mangosteens, and other tropical delights. Many of the buildings featured brilliant paint combinations and fun architectural elements.

There was awesome shopping at the Mustafa Center, which is open 24 hours a day. Even if you don't feel like buying anything, it's worth going just for the spectacle and the sheer scale of their departments.

Singapore isn't a big place, and the tape department (for example) was so well-stocked that it looked like they had three rolls of tape for every man, woman, and child on the island.

Likewise, the princess dress department took up an entire room. The petticoats were so fluffy and the dresses were so tightly packed that it was physically difficult to walk through the aisles. It felt a bit like being gently packed in a giant box of sequined bonbons.

To contrast the pastel sweetness of the fluffy dresses, the next destination was a sari shop. The colors were intoxicating - tangerine orange, neon pink, and deepest purple - shot through with gold threads and embellished to the nines. The best part was the scraps. The shop had huge bins full of bolt-ends and other scraps, all neatly folded and packaged in clear plastic envelopes.

The last photo I wanted to share is of batiks. Batiks are native Indonesia rather than Singapore, but there are some gorgeous specimens of the machine-printed (as opposed to wax-resist) varieties.

Do you have favorite travel destinations for creative inspiration?

Indigo Quilt - Done!

I am very happy to report success with machine quilting this project! It's rainy and dark today, so this isn't the best picture ever, but I think you still get the overall look of the quilt.

My quilt is only a twin, but it was still quilt a challenge to maneuver it around during quilting. I used my Juki 1541 (aka Bertha), which isn't actually a quilting machine. It's got unison feed (the needle and the foot all move at the same time), and it worked out pretty darn well. I did "stitch in the ditch" instead of a visible quilting pattern.

I had just the right amount of indigo fabric to do a pieced design on the back of the quilt. I have about half a yard of scrappy bits left for future projects. I picked a bright orange kona cotton for the binding. It was a bit of a risk given the subtle shading of the indigo fabrics, but it sets off the embroidered sections and I couldn't be happier with the results.

Textiles and Gardens of Yunnan

As mentioned in yesterday's post, there are lots of really cool textiles in Yunnan province. Cool textiles are a good indicator of other cool things in the vicinity, so here's quick review of my September trip to Li Jiang and Dali. Li Jiang is quaint and very picturesque if you can manage to avoid the hoards and hoards of tourists. The cobblestones are literally worn smooth and shiny by the passing of their myriad feet. It's full of stone buildings, quiet pocket gardens, and has vendors of just about everything tucked in every possible nook and cranny.

The pomegranate vendors in particular were out in force, with bicycle carts, or carrying huge baskets, and weighing out the fruit on the spot.

Due to the shear number of tourists, shopping for textiles was initially really disappointing. There are about five kinds of shops in Li Jiang with exactly the same items - the tea shop, the yak meat shop, the kitch shop (wind chimes, etc), the hippy tie-dye shop (with djembes!), and the jewelry shop. I was on the hunt for textiles that weren't of the mass-produced tie-dye variety, and so we asked at our guesthouse.

Our innkeeper has a sister who knew somebody who was willing to show us great textiles. This kind of intro will either be really good or really bad, and ended up being the latter. The shop we were taken to had gorgeous textiles, but at about 10x what one would pay for the same item in Shanghai or Beijing. After extracting ourselves as politely as possible from the shop, I had just about given up.

While searching for a beer in which drown my disappointment, I came upon two traditionally dressed ladies (I think they were Bai minority, but I'm not sure. Their heads were mostly plucked, with a long queue left on top. The queues were twisted into a small bun and then secured with several silver hair sticks. They each had a huge denim backpack. I asked what was inside, they looked around furtively and indicated we should head into a nearby alley, and then the textiles started coming out. Each bag was chock full of embroidery, delicate handwoven silks, embroidered shoes, woven and embellished jackets, batiks, aprons, and on and on.

The source of the textiles are the traditional costume of the peoples who live in the area. This picture is a chestnut vendor in Dali. The traditional attire includes a jacket with embroidery on the collar, cuffs, and hem, plus a highly decorated apron, and usually a skirt with a decorated hem. The most decorated item in a woman's wardrobe will be the carrier she uses to carry her baby on her back.

Across the lake in Shuanglong, the traditional dress is quite a bit more subdued. The ladies here mostly wear indigo, with accents of purple fabric. We happened to be in town on a day when a large outdoor ceremony was happening under a big banyan tree. I had my camera out, but wasn't taking pictures because I thought it might be rude. One of the ladies in blue came over and (much to my surprise) said in Mandarin that it would be ok to take some pictures, and so I did. Shuanglong is a sleepy little town with great architecture, and a really neat wooden pagoda building just off the dusty main road, and overlooking the lake. The eaves are covered with carvings of hundreds of animals and spirits, including this guy.

Right now in my craft world, I'm working on refurbishing a bed spread made from a textile from a trip four years ago to Turkey. More on that project tomorrow.

Bamboo Forest

Here are some inspiration picks from the great bamboo forest.The famous bamboo itself...

...lovely fungi...

...the many stairs to get up and down the mountain...

...and the amazing view. Gorgeous!

UFO Final Score, and a bit of adventure

The fish pants are technically done. This completes the five projects in five weeks UFO adventure. This process ended with more of a whimper than a bang – I’m not very happy with the pants outcome. They’re in the laundry basket in the hope that the trip through the washer and dryer will sprinkle them with happy fairy dust and unicorn sparkles and magically make them more flattering in the butt. In lieu of a picture of the fish pants, here are several pictures from a recent visit to Qinghai where I led a hand-spinning workshop.

Qinghai is in North Western China. It’s rural, gorgeous, and a very tough place to live. The local people are primarily herders, although they do other jobs as available in the summer – digging caterpillar fungus, construction, road work, etc.

There are yaks and sheep all other the place, often including the middle of the road.

I think the most amazing thing about Qinghai is this hairstyle - teensy braids which are plaited together at the bottom. It almost looks like a shawl.

The second most amazing thing about Qinghai is that this…

…Turns into this in about a year.

People live very close to the land and to their animals. Yak dung is burned for heating. It actually smells nice when it burns - Sort of like smoked black tea – which makes me wonder what the tea is smoked with.

Carding a fiber prep (with a very well-behaved observer).

Graduates with their yarn.

I’m very much looking forward to the next installment of this workshop!