What are we saying when we talk about Handicrafts?

Notebooks stitched from waste paper are ready to be used once dry flowers are pressed and glued on their covers. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)

By Zhang Jie (A mainland student studying information technology in Australia; participant of “With Love from Our Hands”, a programme of Green SOS Youth Development Centre, Chengdu, Sichuan)

Editor’s note:

Zhang Jie, who has a passion for handicraft and traditional culture, is a participant of “With Love from Our Hands”, a Green SOS programme (1), in which she learns tie dyeing. In this article she describes her personal experience in making handicrafts and her reflection as she envisions a new world beyond consumerism.

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Zhang Jie tie-dyeing a piece of fabric. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
A handkerchief dyed by Zhang Jie herself. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
Turning old clothes into new garments by tie-dyeing. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
In the waste paper recycling workshop of the “With Love from Our Hands” programme, waste paper is stitched together and turned into a notebook, decorated with pressed flowers. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
Notebooks stitched from waste paper are ready to be used once dry flowers are pressed and glued on their covers. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
In the weaving workshop of the “With Love from Our Hands” programme, cardboard from discarded courier boxes become pretty coasters when yarn unraveled from old sweaters is weaved into them. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)

If someone had talked to me about handicrafts a few years ago, my immediate reaction would probably be that it was something only artistic youth were interested in and that I could not afford it. A few mainland websites, such as Douban and Liangcang, have a large audience of artistic youth, but exquisite handicrafts, handmade clothes, shoes and bags sold on these websites are all very expensive. I also rarely enquired about the price of products in marketplaces where craftspeople displayed their products.

Now, a few years later, as the general living standard has risen, most people can afford handicrafts, which have become consumer goods. In Chengdu, for example, there are numerous cultural creative areas, such as U37, Mingtang, Hongxing Road, etc. There are also all sorts of small workshops where the public can get hands-on experience in carpentry, leather work and pottery. It was in this general environment that I began to learn tie-dyeing.

I was interested in tie-dyeing because I loved ethnic clothing, but tie-dyeing sounded difficult and alien to me, and I thought only a few could master the craft. However, after I learnt more about tie-dyeing, I found that it is a cloth dying method used not only by professionals who can master it, but it is also something that we can do in our everyday life and is a great way to create new clothes ourselves. The raw material for tie-dyeing comes from plants which can be found easily (except for indigo dye which can be purchased online). One can easily do tie-dyeing at home and it takes only a short time to finish dyeing. It is very convenient and easy to dye your own clothes.

Apart from tie-dyeing, we can get new ideas for creating new clothes from other handicrafts as well. In the meantime, waste paper can be used for making handmade books, old and abandoned sweaters can be turned into bracelets and other accessories.

When we begin to recycle waste and turn it into handmade artefacts, handicraft is no longer only about the skill of making something. There will be a change in how we think about consumption: Since we can do it ourselves, why must we keep buying?

Before I was 17, I was one of those people who could not stop buying. In the school dormitory, girls who wanted to be good looking were always reading fashion magazines and dreaming about buying the beautiful clothes the models wore, while envying fashion bloggers (2) who were able to wear something different every day. So, in those days, while I cried out that I was going to chop off my hands to stop myself from spending (3), I continued to give in to my urge to buy more. However, after the buying craze was over and when I calmed down, I realised that only a few of the clothes that I had bought were actually worn. Many clothes had long been thrown to one side even before they got a chance to be worn. I began to ask myself: do I have to keep buying?

After I learnt tie-dyeing, a completely new world opened up to me: Who says that you can only get a new garment by buying? Who says that a new garment cannot come from an old one, especially from old ones that we would probably never wear again? What about those clothes that you cannot wear outside of your home because they have juice or sauce stains? Actually the stains will disappear once the clothes are dyed using plant-based dyes. Do you remember those garments lying at the bottom of piles of clothes in your wardrobe? The fabric of those clothes can be tailored to decorate your planner (4) or to make a wallet.

In this way, your old clothes can be turned into new garments, new wallets or new planners. Not only will you change your consumption behaviour and stop wasting your money, you will wear your garments and use your wallets for a longer period of time because you made them yourself and so you love them.

Handicrafts can be something with which you express your love and affection for your family too. I remember when I was small, my maternal grandmother used to sew our pyjamas with a sewing machine. I have been wearing those pyjamas since I was small. Even though they are not fashionable, they are the most comfortable ones I have. I also wore shoes, the soles of which were sown by my paternal grandmother, and I can walk a long distance in them without my feet hurting. Even though these inexpensive clothes and shoes did not cost a dime, they were most precious to me because they were an expression of my grandparents love for me. Compared with clothes bought with money, children treasure and love objects made by their parents more. That is what is called the warmth of handicrafts.

Apart from our subjective feeling, objectively speaking, handicrafts can alleviate pollution because you have control over the raw material you use. For example, plant-based dyeing creates much less pollution than chemical-based dyeing. Similarly, the carbon emission generated by bags made of used cloth is much less than bags made of leather.

When we talk about handicraft, we are talking about how to do something “with love from our hands”. The love can be our love for the objects that we make ourselves. It can be the love from the older to the younger generation. As we extend our love, we learn to give up our obsession with consuming and become more aware of the impact of our consumption on the environment.

Now, what love comes from your hands?

1. The programme “With Love from Our Hands”: Supported by PCD, this handicraft programme was launched early last year by Green SOS in Chengdu. The programme aims at facilitating youth learning and exploration of sustainable living through handicraft making (such as fabric art, carpentry, etc.). Participants visit and learn from artisans and share with other handicraft lovers about their passion. Through “handicrafts”, participants explore the connection between human beings and artefacts. “With Love from Our Hands” implies the warmth artisans feel for their products as well as our care and respect for nature. In the process participants also reflect on their consumption behaviour.

2. Fashion blogger: bloggers who write mainly about the latest vogue and fashion trends.

3. To chop off one’s hands: A saying that comes from online shopping and is used to describe obsessive shoppers who want to stop themselves by chopping their hands off. In other words, it implies “reckless or excessive consumption” which is common in online shopping.

4. New planners: In “With Love from Our Hands”, old cloth is used to make covers for planners. In this way, participants make their old clothes into new clothes for their notebooks and planners.