Our Programme Foci
Sustainable Living Network
Where We Work: Sichuan / Chongqing

With Love from Our Hands

This is natural dye made from grape skins, extracted by boiling grape skins in water and straining the water with a piece of cotton cloth to remove the remains of grape skins. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)

By Tang Tang (Fine arts student, programme staff and facilitator of the Green SOS Youth Development Centre’s “With Love From Our Hands” programme)

Editor’s note:

PCD has been supporting a handicraft programme that was launched early last year by Green SOS Youth Development Centre (referred to as “Green SOS” below) in Chengdu. The programme aims at facilitating youth learning and exploration of sustainable living through handicrafts (such as fabric art, carpentry, etc.). Participants visit and learn from artisans and share their passion with other handicraft lovers. 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.

Tang Tang’s real name is Tang Yuzhu. She is a final year student in the Department of Digital Media Arts of Sichuan University of Media and Communications. She works for Green SOS’s programme, “With Love from Our Hands” and is the facilitator for the workshop on fabric dyeing. In this article, she recounts her own handicraft experience—how it began and grew, what happened in “With Love from Our Hands”, what she has learnt and her own reflections.

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Tang Tang, who loves all sorts of handicrafts, is crafting rubber stamps. (Daileizi) Yellow dye made from orange peel collected from the garbage bins of fresh juice bars. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
A bright yellow T-shirt dyed with Gardenia pods. Next to the T-shirt are the remains of the Gardenia pods. (Gong Yunya, Green SOS) With proper skills, various shades of pink can be extracted from grape skins collected from the garbage bins of fresh juice bars. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
Fabric art created by using dye extracted from grape skins collected from the garbage bins of fresh juice bars. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS) This is natural dye made from grape skins, extracted by boiling grape skins in water and straining the water with a piece of cotton cloth to remove the remains of grape skins. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
A purple fabric dyed with grape skins. (Fang Shaohui) To dye fabric with plants involves a few steps: remove the starch, fold and tie the fabric, immerse the fabric in dye bath, remove the fabric from the dye bath and oxidise. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)
Participants of the plant dyeing workshop of the “With Love from Our Hands” programme, posing for a picture with their products. (Feng Xiaojun, Green SOS) At a “With Love from Our Hands” event to turn old clothes into new garments, participants tie-dyed their old denim skirts. (Tang Yuzhu, Green SOS)

How it Began—A Bit of Colour that Turned into a Dyeing Mill

I loved handicrafts since I was a child. God knows why a child who grew up playing with dirty mud would end up studying art at university, but it allowed me to plunge myself into learning all sorts of handicrafts. In the third year at university, I learnt plant-based dyeing in a class on fibre art for interior design. Two years ago it was still about a fairly unknown specialism. Our teacher was famous in the business because he had studied in Japan and had learnt handicrafts there. He spent half of the time in class talking about how you could earn a living after you learnt a craft and why it must not be passed on to strangers. The rest of the time he would only introduce a few folding and sewing techniques and then only after much urging from the students. The notes I took in class were so precious to me that I never lent them to anyone, and I spent night after night tying and sewing my clothes, bed sheets and anything that I could get my hands on. However, in lab class, synthetic dye was used to give colour to the fabric. I was upset but dared not speak out. When I asked for the colour chart of plant dyes and their pH ratio (1), the teacher told us to experiment ourselves like Shen Nong, the ancient Emperor of the Five Grains, who tasted hundreds of herbs in order to find out their properties. I went ahead and experimented myself despite not having any experience. A tall boy helped me cut leaves from the loquat tree in the campus while we hid from the security guards. I got three bags of fruit peel from a shop where I bought a fruit drink. I hid an electric rice cooker in the dormitory and secretly boiled water to extract dye. The attempt was rather fruitful. Starting with my own t-shirts and dresses, I was soon dyeing the towels and handkerchiefs of my roommate. Since the sugar content of the fruit peel was quite high, I soon attracted swarms of bees and butterflies when I went out proudly wearing dresses that I had dyed myself. What I enjoyed most was the fragrance that filled my room when I was boiling the plants. I was also thrilled by the fact that every day I wore a “new” garment with a different colour. In those days I did not know about the crimes of stone-washed jeans, but I quit my “hand-chopping” habit (2). I was thinking only about which old cotton clothes I could dye and how many of them I still had.

Meeting Friends—Finding a Group and Being Happy Together

Since I joined the “With Love from Our Hands” programme, the Green SOS Handicraft Salon was born. The space is not big but we have pots, bowls, ladles, basins, scissors, knives and all the tools that we need. The door is open to everyone and I am prepared to pass on all that I have learnt. Looking back on the old days in university, few of my classmates have continued to do plant dyeing as a career or a hobby. This is because of the conservative education that we received surrounding the extraction of dyes. Who would refuse a lifestyle filled with the fragrance of plants? Why then are there so few practitioners?

A few months after conducting classes on plant-based dyeing, I summed up the feedback of the participants as follows: 1. Plant-based dyeing sounds difficult. It is a craft that is not just a hobby. To learn the craft, one has to have courage and proper guidance; 2. In an information era when young people seldom use pens and paper, handicrafts are not a norm in daily life. Because of the preparation materials needed beforehand and the cleanup afterwards, it has to be treated like a ritual and there must be an atmosphere of collaboration. 3. The market price for hands-on experience in handicrafts is incredibly high, so even the cheapest classes far exceed the affordability of teenagers who usually do not have much money. In our handicraft salon, we encourage young people to use cheap materials such as loofa and onion skins, expired tea bags and coffee grounds. You can pick up raw materials easily among kitchen waste, by the road and among weeds. Many participants are surprised and exclaim that they have discovered a rare skill for saving money and the door to a new world. Indeed, there is actually no need for us to keep buying. We have got enough raw materials and inspiration from our daily life and from Nature.

The handicraft salon’s “cunning plan” is to recruit fans for our programme, “With Love from Our Hands”. We are therefore pleased to welcome Zhang Jie, who is taking her gap year (3) after finishing high school, deserting the vast army of “hand-chopping girls”(4) and joining Green SOS as a volunteer. She now wears old t-shirts that she has turned into new garments and actively practices a lifestyle where she buys less and recycles more. She is also thinking about opening Green SOS branches when she goes to study in Australia so that she may pass on the DIY skills she has learnt. Some students of Environmental Volunteers Association of Sichuan University took part in the handicraft salon together and dyed their beloved handkerchiefs. Germ-phobic girls who used to wipe their hands with tissue paper every time they washed their hands now have new ideas about wiping hands. One fashion-conscious boy learnt to distinguish pure cotton from synthetic fibre for the first time in the handicraft salon. He has now turned his attention away from the brand name of a garment to how comfortable it is and how safe its dye is. Auntie Zhao, a faithful fan of “With Love from Our Hands” who keeps donating used coffee grounds to us, has been sending us frontline victory stories via WeChat on using kitchen waste for dyeing. There are so many heart-warming stories that can be told about doing handicrafts in the Green SOS salons. Time flies as we dye and make handicrafts together and we treasure the small things that we have painstakingly made.

Growth—Fresh Water Comes from a Fresh Source

Since the opening of the handicraft salon, the plant-based dyeing workshop has attracted a group of “With Love from Our Hands” fans whose numbers have been increasing. In addition, pressure and motivation from young and ingenious participants are also forcing me to find time amid my busy schedule to visit workshops and handicraft masters. On the one hand I fear that I have exhausted my knowledge and skills and have nothing more to share with the younger generation and on the other hand, we want to integrate handicraft making with environmental actions by bringing in more masters to pass on our message. After learning to make thread-bound books, we immediately applied what we learnt and introduced a programme to recycle waste paper to turn them into thread-bound books. Lily, a weaving master, has been invited to teach the weaving technique called “the eyes of God”, and salon participants are encouraged to bring out their old sweaters to unravel them and weave them for new use again. Since I fell in love with weaving, I have been recycling courier boxes, turning them into clips for weaving coasters and bracelets. After we visited the old town of Anren (5) on a study trip and learnt to do Sashiki stitching, every patch I see on trouser legs and sleeve cuffs is a new canvas……I grow together with the ever-expanding network of Green SOS youngsters, feeling nourished and enriched. The hardships in starting a new enterprise have turned into “seeds of handicrafts and shoots of environmental protection” as I am ushered forward by a group of people. The young seeds have germinated quietly and are blooming in the spring breeze of “With Love from Our Hands”.

When one does handicrafts alone, it is a solitary joy which sometimes feels a bit too quiet. When a group of people do handicrafts together, it is a shared happiness as notes are compared and skills are displayed.

Let us get to know each other better through handicrafts, and cherish artefacts and people more because of “With Love from Our Hands”.

1. Colour card of plant dyes and their pH ratio: The colour of a plant dye varies depending on the pH conditions. A desired colour can be obtained by blending dyes taking into consideration their pH value.

2. 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.

3. Gap Year: Refers to a young person taking a year off after graduating from high school or university to do voluntary or paid work or to travel. The purpose is to encourage the young person to adopt a positive attitude in life, to learn survival skills and to gain more self-understanding by experiencing a different lifestyle in a different social setting.

4. “Hand-chopping girls”: As mentioned above, “hand-chopping” is a saying coming from the internet to describe girls obsessed with shopping.

5. Ancient town of Anren: The old town is located in Anren in Dayi County in the city of Chengdu. The name Anren, means “peaceful and kind”. Last May, participants of “With Love from Our Hands”, travelled to the old town as part of their learning activities.