In many countries, bulrush plants are used for weaving the bottoms of chairs, mats, and baskets. That’s because this wetland grass-like plant’s cylindrical stalks provide a foundation for durable products.
In Miaoli County in northwestern Taiwan, members of the Yuan-Li Handiwork Association have taken this art form to an impressive level, creating elaborately woven hats, household goods, and accessories. The association’s manager, Yu-Chun Lin, was recently in Vancouver for TAIWANfest and talked to Pancouver in Mandarin. Vancouver artist Ann Fu provided translation.
“Bulrush weaving was originally discovered by Indigenous people in Taiwan,” Lin said. “Then, over time, they taught the techniques to the Han people and they used it in all their daily products.”
The triangular bulrush plants that grow in this part of Taiwan are known for their absorption qualities. Plus, they have a magnificent fragrance, almost perfume-like, which lasts for a long time.
“The fibres are well-suited for weaving,” Lin added. “They’re very resilient.”
As a result of these factors, bulrush weaving became a staple of the local economy for centuries. Women passed their skills down through generations, maintaining the tradition.
By the 1930s, bulrush products became Taiwan’s third-largest export after rice and sugar. Woven hats from Yuanli became a style icon.
However, over time, mass-produced, cheap, and disposable products flooded world markets. The bulrush-weaving industry went into decline as artisans sought work in other fields.
Bulrush weavers launch a comeback
But some of the weavers refused to give up. More than a decade ago, the Yuan-Li Handiwork Association formed to revive this tradition and re-invigorate the local economy.
“We find elders and local craft artisans to document and preserve the craft, because traditionally it’s passed on by word and it’s not documented in writing,” Lin said. “That’s a big part of our work, as well as innovating new ways to use bulrush.”
The women in the collective even created their own contemporary craft brand, Tsioh Rushcraft. Furthermore, they backed this up with core philosophy to create a sensory experience, continue a tradition, and advance innovative design. They also hand cultivate all their bulrush.
The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute and Vancouver TAIWANfest presented the work of Lin and five other Taiwanese craft artists at a Labour Day weekend exhibition called Migration & Arts. In addition, the craft artists also offered workshops to enthusiastic participants in the 700 block of Granville Street.
So, how did Lin create the fashionable and elegantly crafted hat that she’s wearing in the photographs?
“It’s one technique that can be split into various sub techniques,” she replied. “You can look at how the bulrush wants to angle and how you control the sizing of the holes. So, if you want to say it’s one technique, then it’s one technique, but it’s actually very varied.”
The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute and Vancouver TAIWANfest presented Migration & Arts at the SFU Segal Building in Vancouver from September 2 to 4. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia. Follow the Yuan-Li Handiwork Association on Instagram.