The Weaving, Dyeing and Embroidery of the Li People: 2000-Year-Old Techniques

Written by Juliette Qi


The weaving and dyeing techniques of the Li* have a long history and unique characteristics. The Li mainly produce linen fabrics, cotton, brocade, printed and dyed products, embroidery and long bedspreads (a kind of brocade, the most delicate to make). Li women are skilled in spinning and weaving, and especially show their ingenuity in spinning and weaving “bombax” cotton and local cotton. Even before Song Dynasty (960-1279), Li women already knew how to weave and could weave colorful bed sheets and curtains.




According to historical records, the traditional spinning and weaving techniques of Li cotton have a history of more than 2,000 years. Since the Han Dynasty (207 BC-220 AD), Li brocade has been offered as a tribute to feudal emperors of later dynasties. Cheng Bingzhao, a poet of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) once praised the exquisite work of Li brocade in these terms: “Li brocade is as beautiful and brilliant as the sun in the sky “. “Li” brocade is appreciated because it is exquisitely manufactured, beautiful in its design, practical, and has the characteristics of the spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidery of the ethnic group.


The Different Techniques

The Li minority has its own spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidery techniques and, in different regions, has also developed them according to local preferences.

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Spinning: The main tools involved are the hand wheel and the wheel driven by a pedal. Spinning using the hand wheel is the oldest spinning technique. Before cotton sheets grew in popularity, wild linen sheets were predominant in areas inhabited by the Li minority. People peeled the wild flax fibers they picked up during the rainy seasons and turned them into a base material after soaking and rinsing. After dyeing, they spun it by hand or with the spinning wheel and wove it.

Dyeing: The dyes are based on wild or cultivated plants. They are characterized by bright colors, speed of catch and various resources. Dyeing is important empirical knowledge of the Li people. In the Meifu dialect area there was also a knot dyeing technique, called “Jiaoxie dyeing” in the old days. This unique process follows the process of “knotting first, then dyeing and finally weaving” and has obviously integrated these three techniques.

Weaving: There are mainly two types of looms, the loom powered by a pedal and the craft “Juyao”. The craft “Juyao” is rather old, similar to that used by the Banpo clan six or seven thousand years ago. Li women could use the “Juyao” craft to weave exquisite, sumptuous and complicated patterns. The loom is even far ahead of the big modern jacquards in jacquard weaving technology.


Li Knot Dyeing

Knot dyeing, known as “Jiaoxie” in the past, played a major role in the textile printing and dyeing of the Li. The raw materials are knotted, dyed, spun and woven into colored fabric. The dye is mainly made from leaves of plants, flowers, bark or tree roots. Natural mineral dye is also an addition.



Currently, Li-knot dyeing is widespread particularly in the Meifu dialect region. In this region, there are stands that support the fabric reserved for dyeing knots.The patterns are fine and exquisite. In the dialect region Ha, however, there is no support for knot dyeing. People tie one end of the vertical line to their waist and the other to their feet. The patterns consist of thick and irregular lines. The process of dyeing knots consists of drawing the pattern, tying, dying, re-dyeing, rinsing etc. However, the pattern decision process is often omitted by Li women, as various drawings are already in their memory.




Knotting, also known as “wrapping”, plays a crucial role in knot dyeing because it directly affects the result. When the knotting is finished, the skeins are lowered from the wooden bearing and then dyed. After being dyed repeatedly too? Does not make sense on its own), they are dried to allow the indigo to be oxidized and air dried. Then the hanks are dyed repeatedly, until they reach the required color. When the dyeing process is complete, the skeins are loosened, rinsed with clear water to remove the excess color, and then dried. The vertical lines (weft) will then present a pattern. People can then weave the horizontal lines of color (chain) with the loom “Juyao”. An exquisite piece of art will then be born.

The Li process of ” dyeing knots first and then weaving”, although different from the other ethnic methods of “weaving first and then dyeing knots”, not only allows the pattern to show all its fineness, but also adds more color changes and causes the pattern to have a distinct color gradation. Such a kind of naturally formed chromatic halo makes the brocade more exquisite and superior in its artistic efficiency.





The Li 黎族 (Lí Zú) is one of 56 ethnic minorities living in China. Their population was just over 1.2 million at the end of the 20th century. The majority of the Li live off the south coast of China on the island-province of Hainan, where they are the most numerous natives.




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