The process of tie-dying a single piece of cloth involves many hands and hours of labor. A plain piece of cloth is chosen and painted over one of the hundreds of stencils they hold in the factory. Each stencil is made of plastic and is different in size and design. In order to make these stencils, one of the ladies must meticulously draw out the design on the plastic, then use a nail and rock to make small holes along the lines. Once the design has been painted on, it is quickly dried and made ready for stitching.
During the Dali Kingdom reign up until the 1940’s, the stitching and patterns were very different from today, and have become extinct due to their complexity. Stitching is the most essential step in tie-dying because it requires one’s full attention. My days at the factory were spent watching Yang Li Fen complete this action effortlessly, while I struggled to replicate her swift movements. She began by licking the end of her thread, and sticking it through the small needle hole. Depending on the stitch she is about to perform, she chooses whether to knot one end of the thread, or to knot the two ends of the thread in half. For example, flower petals are made with a single piece of thread, because they are later bound by the thread. Butterfly wings and antennae on the other hand, must be stitched with two strands of thread, because they have to be thicker. Once the thread is through the needle, Yang Li Fen wraps the end around her right index finger, and slides it into a knot by rubbing it with her thumb. She then stitches along the small dots on the fabric in small and quick motions. Sections of the fabric that must be wrapped around with thread are characterized by a dot in the center of the petal or square. On these particular shapes, Yang Li Fen pulls on the thread, which then gathers the small amount of fabric together. With her left thumb nail, she presses on the fabric as she wraps the thread with her right hand. This forms a cone, that is then knotted off. The wrapping and knotting must be done very tightly, or else the pattern may not show up once the fabric is dyed. In order for the cones to be secure, one must pull tightly using their index and middle fingers, which forms calluses. Yang Li Fen wears tape around these fingers, and offered me some after three weeks of painful pulling.
Once the entire piece of fabric has been stitched, it is taken to be dyed. This job is only done by men which means that if for any reason the dying man is not present, no dying gets done that day. Dying itself also has many steps because different materials are used for different colors. Many plants and chemicals are boiled with water to produce the desired color. The pieces of fabric are put in large cauldrons of dye, then washed off with water. They are then placed in a spinning drying machine, and the dying is complete.