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Threads Weaving Through Time

Through her singular art, Lin Fanglu unveils the enigma of centuries-old tie-dye techniques from a small village in Yunnan Province

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A whimsical cloud-like wall installation triumphed among the numerous brilliant artworks vying for the coveted Loewe Foundation Craft Prize in 2021. Over six metres long, three metres high, more than half a metre thick, and weighing 227 kg, the cotton installation, titled SHE, was a monumental piece, summoning tradition, artistry, and scale.

Lin’s textile art piece SHE, the recipient of the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize in 2021.

The virtuoso behind the work was Chinese artist Lin Fanglu, whose work was driven by her passion for reviving the fading traditions of China’s Bai minority. To craft the piece, Lin sewed and bound the cotton fabric using centuries-old techniques, resulting in complex textures with a lightness that implied eternal change and a warmth channelling mountain forests.

Lin was the first textile artist to receive the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, which encouraged her to keep pursuing this path. “They’ve discovered this ancient Eastern craft that’s still being made and used by the local people. It’s very precious for me to learn it and represent it in a way that appeals to the contemporary aesthetic,” Lin says.

Artist Lin Fanglu in her studio.

A life-changing immersion

In 2014, as a graduate student working on her thesis in art and design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, Lin embarked on a journey to Yunnan province in search of the ancient tie-dye techniques she had only seen in books. While exploring the villages, little did she know that stumbling upon a small tie-dye workshop would shape the course of her artistic career.

“The workshop appeared modest. Upon entering, I was greeted by an expanse of intricately embossed fabric, meticulously sewn together. It was unlike anything I had encountered online or in books,” she says.

Lin was amazed to see that the typically soft tie-dyed fabrics exuded a strength reminiscent of solid rocks and mountains. When she looked closer, the bound fabric resembled a landscape composed of numerous miniature hills; each piece of fabric possessed its unique characteristics, forming a landscape of its own.

The textile art piece She’s Tree No.2 showcases Lin’s intricate stitching.

At that moment, Lin made the life-altering decision to remain in the village and delve deeper into the ancient art of tie-dyeing—a craft that had been practiced for centuries. Despite feeling initial discomfort as a young woman from a distant city, she was wholeheartedly welcomed by the warm-hearted grandmothers in the village who took on the role of mentors.

Lin revelled in the tranquil beauty of the surrounding mountains and meandering rivers. The serenity and simplicity of the village made her feel like she was in paradise. Each day, Lin joined the elderly women, who, dressed in their exquisite ethnic attire, sat in the courtyard and engaged in cheerful conversations and songs while skillfully sewing and tying cotton fabrics into various shapes. In between, they savoured sweet fruits and vegetables brought from their homes.

Lin’s piece She’s Whimsical No.1, made of plant-dyed cotton cloth and cotton thread, 2023.

Preserving the craft

During her stay in the village, Lin discovered that the Bai people lacked a written language to pass down their tie-dying traditions and skills. Realizing the risk of this craft disappearing, Lin began to document, organize, and summarize these traditional tie-dyeing techniques.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 124

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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