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Ethnic Yi women embroider with pride

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Li Lifeng, a mother of two, has developed her childhood hobby of making embroidery into a prospering career, bolstered by a booming industry that helps raise the status of women.

XinhuaUpdated: March 8, 2018

Li Lifeng, a mother of two, has developed her childhood hobby of making embroidery into a prospering career, bolstered by a booming industry that helps raise the status of women.

Li, 40, was born in Zhizuo Village, Yongren County, southwest China's Yunnan Province. Yongren is a mountainous county mainly of ethnic Yi people.

According to government data, in 2010 there were over 8.71 million Yi people, mostly living in the southwestern Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou.

In Li's village, there is a 1,300-year-old tradition called the "costume competition festival," where farmers dress themselves in florid clothing and compete in public.

Li grew up watching the costume shows in her village. "Every year, we had foreign faces coming to take photos of the show and making notes. There are over 370 types of clothing in my hometown. They come in various styles, patterns and are worn on different occasions," she said.

"Yi girls live in the mountains. The performers wear no makeup and have no idea of what fashion is, but the beauty and confidence that they exude is no less than that on a modern catwalk. We are very proud of our embroidery and clothing tradition.

"It is no exaggeration to say that Yi women are born to do embroidery. I remember learning from my mother when I was only a toddler."

But when Li was young, almost every Yi woman did stitch work and hardly anyone had spare money to purchase from others.

"In Yi families, especially poor ones, needles are the girls'toys. The stitch works are very beautiful indeed, but it was impossible to sell them and make money," she said.

Li's father died when she was young, and she had to drop out of school to help support the family.

"Before my marriage in 2000, I worked as waitress and made only 100 yuan a month. I did not have to work after marrying my husband. But when I picked up stitches, he complained that I was only killing time, and he'd rather I go find something money-making to do," she said.

Li's exquisite embroidering technique has only been developed into a career in recent years.

"Now I'm the main breadwinner of my family. My husband helps me dealing with orders," she said.

In 2006, a Yi embroidery association was founded in the county. Li passed a few rounds of competition and became the secretary-general of the organization. She was also named the successor of Yi embroidery art in Chuxiong prefecture, which administers Yongren County.

Her career began to take off on strong market demand. In 2013, she and three friends founded a company.

"My stitch work sold well in cultural fairs in Shenzhen. People who spend too much time in buildings made of cement and steel grow instant fondness of original, hand-made embroidery," she said.

Li is the chief technician in her company. She makes one set of embroidered Yi clothing per month. Supported by women development funds, Li gets contracts from fashion and cultural designers to produce finished clothing, ornaments, purses and rings.

"A lot of designers like to use Yi embroidery pieces on collars and cuffs. Clothes like these sell well," she said.

The total output value of Li's company was 4 million yuan (about 634,000 U.S. dollars) last year. She took her work to fashion weeks in Beijing and Shanghai last year, and often gets orders from Dutch, German and Indian buyers. This year, she will cooperate with a Singaporean designer to use Yi elements on cashmere scarves.

"Yi embroidery draws inspiration from nature, and when we present the work on the catwalk, they not only dazzle but also endear the audience," she said.

In Chuxiong, there are more than 60,000 women doing embroidery. The industry is worth over 100 million yuan (about 15.8 million dollars) and is growing.

Liu Lingxiu, 29, is one of the embroidery workers. "Li gives out orders to workers based on each one's handiwork. Poor families get more orders. But she has a high standard for embroidered pieces. Substandard ones are returned and redone," she said.

The Chuxiong prefectural government is building a special gallery for the old costume show and has encouraged people to start up their own businesses.

"I'm studying English so that I can talk to foreign clients. I hope one day I will bring my Yi embroidery and show them at international fashion weeks. Maybe I will be a staggering old woman by then, but I also want to take a walk on the catwalk," she said.