China Indigo Dye Artisans – An Interview with ATLAS Studio

WildChina > In the News > China Indigo Dye Artisans – An Interview with ATLAS Studio

In 2015, the Global Heritage Fund and Beijing-based ATLAS Design Studio joined forces on a mission to preserve the ancient craft of indigo dyeing in the remote village of Dali, Guizhou. WildChina travelers often visit Dali Village (not to be confused with Dali, Yunnan) on their customized Guizhou journeys and recently we had the pleasure of speaking with Catherine McMahon of ATLAS about her design studio’s work.

Here’s what she had to say about her exciting project that is now making headlines worldwide:

The way the air smells. There is nothing else like it – the greenery is just so electric and the water smells like deep time as it breaks free from the mountain. Seeing Dali first hand is to really understand with all your senses a different way of life. 


Indigo Dyeing in Guizhou

RELATED READING: Best Guizhou Festivals

Could you tell us about yourself and ATLAS Studio?

ATLAS was started in 2014 and is currently based in Beijing. We are a multi-disciplinary design studio that does a range of different types of projects. The name ATLAS has two meanings for us, one is atlas silk – a vibrantly patterned silk made in Xinjiang that is a product of the cultural transfer along the Silk Road – and another that thinks of an atlas as a book or a kind of compendium of design, techniques, and traditions that can be gathered into one place. In this vein, we aim, in our projects, to use design as a kind of vehicle to explore and research place. Asking “what can we make here?” is another way to create a space of interaction with a particular community, a way of learning, and a potential for social transformation or cultural exchange.

The studio was founded by me, Jenny Chou, and Ahti Westphal – three friends who studied architecture together at the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD gave us a strong sense of the possibilities for design to shape and inform a world-view but also imparted us with the clear understanding that in order to know something truly you must pick it up in your own hands and do it yourself. It was a culture of making and direct investigation and we bring those values to our practice today.

Our projects tend to be collaborative and we are often asked to participate as kind of cultural or transformative agents. We leverage various skill sets (design, strategy, research, curation, and storytelling) to bring people together and create something new.



Dong Ethnic Minority Women

RELATED READING: Why You Should Visit Guizhou and Guangxi Provinces

Could you tell us more specifically about your project with the indigo dyeing tradition in Dali, Guizhou? 

In Guizhou we are currently working with the local traditions of hand weaving, indigo dying, natural dying, sewing, embroidery, and the making of a very special textile called glossy cloth. We have formed a core group of women in Dali Village to make contemporary products based on their existing knowledge and traditional ways of making — the results are detailed, heritage-quality homewares made from natural materials.



Collecting Indigo Dye 

RELATED READING: The Unexpected Natural Wonders of Guizhou

How and why are you collaborating with the Global Heritage Fund (GHF)?

GHF has been working in Dali for around five years now – cooperating with the local government to help shape and inform the future of the village. GHF recognized the high historical value of this place and decided to help play a role in supporting the village both as a living, changing, dynamic place and also a place needing some degree of cultural preservation (or at least dedicated expertise to protect the high quality of cultural uniqueness that exists there).

The village is in a clear point of transition relative to the broader development in Guizhou. In the past several years Guizhou has been experiencing increased attention within China and there is a lot of money being funneled in for development of the region. The local government in Guizhou has recognized the value of its cultural heritage and beautiful landscapes and is focused on sustainable, tourism-driven development rather than in projects like mining or industrialization.

This past summer the road into Dali was finished – and we saw tourism in the village rapidly increase — as well as the number of businesses being created to cater to this new market. GHF had asked us to come in initially to see if we had any ideas for working with the women’s textile arts – a kind of open invitation. After some research, we began developing an idea for making products there based on the incredible textile traditions- and later this grew into a concept for a holistic textile cooperative.


Ethnic minority man outside Dali Village

RELATED READING: Guizhou: An Unexpected Discovery

Our research began in 2015 and the project officially kicked off in 2016. We have a number of products being made in Dali now and the women are growing in expertise and confidence every day. We are also designing a textile center in the village that is currently under construction. Once this center is open, the women can begin selling products directly in the village. Our ultimate aim is that the women become clear stakeholders in the future development and transformation in the village – that they recognize the irreplaceable value of their textile traditions and have the impetus (as well as financial motivation) to pass this knowledge down to future generations.


Traditional Artisan

RELATED READING: Guizhou’s Minority Festivals 

What drew you to Guizhou’s villages in the first place?

Jenny and I (partners in ATLAS) came across a book – Imprints on Cloth – written by two Japanese anthropologists (Sadae Torimaru & Tomoko Torimaru) almost 10 years ago in her mother’s kitchen in Delaware. The book documents the making of glossy cloth ( a very specialized and rare indigo cloth) in Guizhou by both the Dong and the Miao peoples. We were entranced – it was unlike any fabric we had ever seen before and the way of making it was so close to the earth – so raw. That book led to a lot of conversations and eventually the forming of our studio in Beijing (ATLAS) to focus on craft, design, and textiles but we were never quite sure we would actually get a chance to work with this particular cloth – it was just an inspiration.

The minority groups in Guizhou have been able to preserve their cultural traditions with such strength – even as China as a whole has rapidly changed in the last 100 years. Being able to work in this community and this place is the opportunity to really see how a society can have a strong and direct relationship to the land. Additionally, the Dong people in Dali have a beautiful cosmology and spirituality that gives shape and meaning to their more earth-bound relations. It gives us, as both designers and researchers, a window into a totally different way of life – one with less waste, a slower pace, self-reliance, and a wealth of knowledge about different ways of working directly with natural materials.


Why do you think people should visit Dali and see it first-hand? 

The way the air smells. There is nothing else like it – the greenery is just so electric and the water smells like deep time as it breaks free from the mountain. Seeing Dali first hand is to really understand with all your senses a different way of life. Time works differently in the village. In Dali, song, building, nature, textile, and food are all interrelated and you come to know that you cannot have one at its very best quality without the others at their very best quality too. It brings a fresh perspective on the way we live compartmentalized, modern lives and gives a sense of the possibility for deep connection and strongly rooted living.

If you want to follow in Catherine’s footsteps and see indigo dyeing for yourself, WildChina organizes completely customizable journeys to Guizhou. Click the related trip links below to find out more!


All Photo Credits to ATLAS Studio