An Exquisite World in Fabric and Embroidery – Fine Handcrafts Carry on the Glory of the Past
Article: Zheng Jinyao
Photos: Yang Zilei
In the 19th century, Dadaocheng pier became a hub for goods from different places. The “Public Yongleding Foodstuff Market,” which later became Yongle Market (永樂市場), was set up in this neighborhood by the Japanese. Back then, in addition to the staples of trade, ships also brought in fabrics such as silk and printed cotton fabric. Stores selling imported material appeared in Yongleding, so this neighborhood gradually developed into the main wholesale and retail fabric center in northern Taiwan.
Second-generation fabric store proprietor, Li Peiru (李姵儒) still remembers the glorious days of the 1970s. “A lot of wealthy people came here to buy fabric which they would have the tailor make into a formal outfit.”
Her mother Mrs. Li has been running her shop for over 30 years. She says that in the old days, when a classy family planned a wedding, they’d come to the store and be fitted for their outfits, which usually included cheongsams for the mothers, and dresses for the bride and her bridesmaids.
In the 1980s, the textile industry in Taiwan revitalized and in addition to fabrics imported from overseas, a lot of locally-produced textiles became available. Yongle Market owners still recall those halcyon days with great joy, when even stock market analysts would come to chat. They’d learn which factory was releasing new fabric and how sales were doing, and this knowledge would then influence stock prices.
Fast Fashion Goes Up; Customized Down
“By the year 2000, fast fashion had appeared, mass-produced apparel had replaced traditional customized clothes, and the business of fabric stores was nothing like what it used to be.” At that time, Li Peiru was not thinking of taking over the family business, but then things started to change. She notes, “People used to buy fabric only for making clothes, but then they needed it for home and furniture – things such as curtains or pillow cases.” This change caused merchants to choose differently when purchasing. Besides the fine-weave and delicate fabric used in apparel, they needed heavier and brighter textiles, and functional cloth such as material that could block the sun. Some stores even specialized in making sofa covers.
“With a market filled with mass-produced products, consumers start looking for something customized, more durable and with higher quality.” In 2006, Li noticed another change in the market, which was the appearance of DIY classes where consumers learned how to make their own handbags and accessories.
Second-Generation Owner Makes Bags by Hand
In 2011, the number of apparel stores in Taiwan had reached its peak, and Li could see that the trend had run its course. “All trends follow a bell curve. When the apparel industry started to shrink, the custom fabric business, which was already targeting consumer needs, found its best chance for development.” In 2014, she opened Pins & Needles (針線勤) next to her mother’s fabric shop. It specializes in custom handmade bags, and also holds courses teaching people to design and make their own bags. As a result, customers who had rarely set foot in Yongle Market before have now started to visit fabric stores.
Li brings out a beaded pink purse with clasp frame and says: “This purse uses a French handwoven fabric costing NT$30,000 per yard. The beadwork is sewn by hand and the price of this little thing is NT$18,000!” She says this exquisite imported fabric came from her mother’s store, and was intended for a Haute Couture wedding gown. This humble cloth store actually hides many such treasures, which just need a stage where they can shine.
Li wasn’t planning to take over her family’s business, but then she saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. She realized that, “After a bolt of fabric had been cut to make a piece of apparel, the remnants left over could be used to make a matching handbag.” Now that she’s about to take over business she says, “I’ll purchase more new fabric and display more samples in the store, so that customers can imagine how their outfits, handbags and shoes will look”
Fabrics can be used in different ways; it might be a fascinating dress for a lady, or it could be a simple table cloth. The textile industry is more than just a business – it represents a whole lifestyle.
Contrary to those shops selling modern and European-style handbags, Lianhui Embroidery Store (聯暉繡莊), an unassuming little shop outside Yongle Market has stuck to the traditional handmade path and tried to find its way in this sunset industry.
Traditional Embroidery Survives the Low Price Onslaught
Lianhui was the first embroidery shop in Dadaocheng, creating mainly custom items for religious institutions – pieces such as a god statue’s robe, a table skirt for an altar, or a Ba Xian Cai (八仙綵; an embroidered banner depicting the eight immortals).
Third-generation owner, Tong Zhenxi (童振熙) says, “Embroidery stores have been through two glorious periods: one in the 1950s, when mainland Chinese settled in Taiwan after the war and wanted to worship their ancestors; and another in the 1970s when a certain illegal gambling game became popular. By then, temples were receiving a lot of donations, which allowed them to purchase a greater number of worship-related products. When business was ascendant, they often worked day and night. “Twenty years ago, I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, worrying that I wouldn’t get the work done on time,” Tong says.
In its heyday, there were fifteen embroidery stores in Dadaocheng. Every household had its own ancestral tablet, and temples could be seen everywhere. When people living in the northern part of Taiwan above Hsinchu (新竹) wanted to buy Ba Xian Cai or some clothes for a god statue, their first choice was Dadaocheng. Today, there are only three embroidery stores like Lianhui left in all Taipei.
“Compared to the peak, our business now is only a tenth of what it was.” Tong has analyzed the whole industry and says that, in the heyday, people went for industrial mass production to meet the demands of quantity. But later on, they found they couldn’t fight mainland China’s production lines, which employed even cheaper labor. One after another, embroidery stores in Taiwan closed, but Lianhui always insisted on handmade products and thus survived the onslaught of low-price competition.
Tong says, “There are some old embroidery places like ours in Tainan (台南) and Yilan (宜蘭). They produce only handmade work done by experienced masters. The price they charge is even higher than ours.” To make a twelve-foot Ba Xian Cai by hand takes a master about ten days and the price will be between NT$70,000 and NT$200,000!
Diversification and Insistence on Handmade Products
In the old days, a typical embroidery store mainly provided items for weddings, celebrations and funerals – pieces such as the Ba Xian Cai, table skirts, and the “double happiness cloth” draped over the stage at a restaurant wedding banquet. “But there aren’t as many people now who care for tradition. We might only sell one set of embroidered dowry products in a whole year.”
Tong still insists on handmade work, although he has made some changes to meet market demand. For example, there used to be strict rules for making a god statue’s robe. Traditionally, Mazu’s finery could only be in orange, but these days, a devotee might choose bright peach or green, and Tong goes along with it.
In addition to the religious items, embroidery stores take many other kinds of orders. “In recent years, a lot of culture workers have joined the zhentou (陣頭; “battle-array” performance troupes) activities, and order all kinds of embroidered flags.” These exquisitely produced handmade works of art have become the pride of the nation. “Last year, someone ordered an embroidered work depicting two dragons. When we wrote up the receipt, we saw that it was to be a gift from the Office of the President to a foreign guest!” Lianhui’s work has also included birthday couplets for Chiang Kai Shek and an embroidered flag for the Qing Long junior-league baseball team.
Although the store doesn’t receive as many orders as it used to, Tong states positively: “Not many stores can handle this kind of handmade embroidered work. If you need exquisite embroidery or a Ba Xian Cai, you have to come to old stores like ours.”
By adjusting the direction they are going, traditional fabric and embroidery stores in Dadaocheng have made a beautiful turn and thus gained a chance at rebirth.