Keeping alive a skill to dye for

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Ancient coloring craft in good hands as it attracts new generation.

Ni Shenjian was so devoted to his craft that he became immersed, literally, in it. He can still easily recall the time when he started to learn the craft of making blue calico (untreated cotton, often used for wrapping, tablecloths and bedsheets) about a decade ago. When Ni, about 180 centimeters tall, stood in front of a large dye vat, about 50 cm deep, trying to lift a piece of 12-meter wet cloth from it, he lost his footing. Next thing he knew he had fallen into the vat and emerged resembling a member of the Na'vi-the blue-skinned protagonists of the movie Avatar.

Ten years later, the dye on his skin has long since disappeared, but his skills have grown deeper and more prominent. He has become a city-level inheritor of the craft, following the steps of his father-in-law Wu Yuanxin and his wife Wu Lingshu, after closing the account on his former job as a bank clerk.

The craft of dyeing and treating calico originated during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and reached its heyday during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Blue calico was used by people across China. The blue cloth has patterns in white and the white cloth has patterns in blue. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, more colorful cloth, introduced from foreign countries, gradually replaced the traditional blue, and most dyehouses dedicated to the craft closed.

But, crucially, not all. Many in Nantong city, Jiangsu province, didn't halt production, since the blue calico made in factories there continued to be exported to Japan. In the 1970s, Ni's future father-in-law, then 17, whose family income came from dyeing and selling cloth, was recruited by a factory. After years of working and researching, he opened a blue calico museum in Nantong to promote the craft.

In 2006, Nantong blue calico dyeing craft was listed as a national-level intangible cultural heritage, and Wu Yuanxin became a national-level inheritor of the craft.

"Blue calico features various patterns," says Ni. "The sophisticated combination of dots, lines and space can form auspicious patterns, and thus create a happy atmosphere."

Born in Nantong in 1987, Ni obtained a master's degree in finance at Hohai University in 2012 and then worked in a bank. Later, he met and fell in love with Wu Lingshu, who had just graduated from the Chinese National Academy of Arts and had returned home to Nantong to inherit the craft.

According to Ni, at that time, many of Wu Yuanxin's apprentices turned to other jobs instead of inheriting the craft, which was poorly paid. When Ni saw the dedication and hard work of his father-in-law and wife, he decided to gamble on making a living in the sector and quit his job.

"Inheriting and passing on crafts in a family is relatively stable. Other people often give up halfway since it's difficult to make much money in a short time," says Ni.

He received encouragement from eminent artist Han Meilin. He met Han when the artist visited the museum in 2018. Numerous people do work related to finance in China, but there are not many working as traditional craft inheritors, Han told Ni. "Your change of job is very important, and I hope you can pass it on to the next generation," Han said to Ni.

At first, Ni tried to learn the basic skills. "In the old days, apprentices needed to learn the craft for five years to basically grasp it," says Ni. "When I started, I realized the learning is endless. You must continue to spend time improving, so that you can master the core techniques and become skillful."

Ni took advantage of his educational background, and innovatively analyzed the craft in a different way from the older craftsmen. "In the past, craftsmen made their works mainly based on their experience," Ni explains. "I try to consider reasons for their experience, analyze such experience in the form of data, and make some comparisons to better understand it."

Patterns are an important part of blue calico.

"The patterns on the cloth are formed by small dots and short lines," Masa Kubo, a Japanese woman who opened a blue calico museum in Shanghai in 1990, once wrote in an article. "The dots and lines are different in shape, size and thickness, and their combination forms patterns like lions, peonies and cranes.

"Although it's a single-color dyeing, it seems to contain rich colors."

But patterns we see today are reducing in number. "Those who still keep blue calico are mostly old people, who used it when they were younger," Ni says. "But tradition means that when they pass away their relatives will burn the clothes they used. That is why many old patterns are disappearing."

As a result, Ni and his family members have traveled to the main producing areas of blue calico to collect such patterns.

Several years ago, they went to a town in Rugao city, Jiangsu province, and visited the home of a 103-year-old woman. When they asked her if she had blue calico, she didn't understand. But when they showed her a photo on the cellphone, she nodded, opened a box, and drew out a very old piece from the bottom.

To Ni's delight, thanks to such people as this elderly woman, their collection became larger.

"After hearing news about our search for old blue calico patterns, some old people visited our museum. They donated their blue calico to us, or asked their children to send it to us," says Ni.

Over the years, they have collected tens of thousands of works, categorizing them into different groups, and published a book on patterns of blue calico.

Wu Yuanxin paid special attention to researching the craft, and established an institute dedicated to it under the auspices of Nantong University. With that platform, they have undertaken a number of academic projects studying topics like the development of the craft, and its link with other crafts.

In 2012, Ni opened a selective course of blue calico craft at Nantong University and Nantong Open University, and gave lectures. Ni also launched experiential activities in a number of universities, middle and primary schools.

"When students tried to cut the meticulous patterns on a board, as one of the steps of making blue calico, they said 'it's too tiring'. But when they finally finished their pieces, they cherished them so much that they wanted to keep them and didn't want to hand them in as homework," says Ni.

Some of Ni's students, as fashion design majors, later used blue calico elements in their designs. Others who became teachers also used what they learned at Ni's lessons in their own classes.

To give blue calico a more modern context, Ni and his family have been trying to innovate the craft. For example, old blue calico was entirely cotton, but they changed the material used to create silk, woolen and linen examples. Some young people thought the blue color was too dark, so they changed the proportion of dyestuff and developed gradient blue calico.

Over the years, Ni has found his life busy but meaningful. "Some jobs can reward you with both fame and wealth, and people flock to do them. But for some others, if you don't do them, maybe nobody else will do so in the future," Ni says.

Our family are trying to keep the craft alive, he adds.

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