Embroidery works from the Xuemei workshop are on display at a rural intangible cultural heritage festival in Shanxi. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Colorful peony flowers are gradually taking shape under the dancing needle and weaving threads in Yin Aixian's hands, as she demonstrates her indigenous embroidery skills online.
On the short-video platform Kuaishou, embroidered items ranging from shoes to hats and pillows provide a feast for the eyes of those browsing the account of Xuemei Embroidery Workshop, which was established by Yin and her two sisters about five years ago.
The polychromatic colors and delicate artistic details have attracted more than 50,000 fans to the Kuaishou account.
"Sales usually peak during major holidays, such as Spring Festival," Yin says.
During livestream sales sessions, the woman in her 40s makes a point of stressing that her embroidery skills are inherited from her ancestors in Loufan county, Taiyuan, capital city of North China's Shanxi province.
Loufan embroidery is a distinctive local art form in Shanxi that carries a unique style. It features concise themes, simple patterns, bright colors, exaggerated shapes and diverse stitching techniques.
The exquisite embroidery craft can be used to produce products of various shapes and forms, thanks to its wide range of artistic approaches, ranging from flat and random stitches, to distinctive needlework that can create a raised, three-dimensional effect on the fabric.
These techniques have been blended to grant Loufan embroidery a simple, rustic, yet bold style.
In local rural areas, the embroidery has made its way into daily life. Its patterns can be spotted on locals' clothing collars, cuffs, skirts, shawls, hats, tablecloths and chair cushions.
It has also evolved into popular gifts for weddings and birthdays among local residents.
"Many women in Loufan are skilled in Loufan embroidery," Yin says.
"Wedding days, especially, are like an embroidery exhibition, as women will present their embroidered bedding, pillowcases and piles of shoe pads for the newlyweds."
Exposed to this cultural influence, Yin and her sisters have long developed a predisposition toward the handicraft, but they never dreamed that their little hobby would turn into a business that receives government support and brings wealth to not only their family, but also many of their fellow villagers.
Recently, the embroidery workshop was selected as one of 66 "exemplary cases" of supporting rural vitalization by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, and the National Rural Revitalization Administration.
The move will drive local people to learn about intangible cultural heritage, gain knowledge and skills, while promoting creative transformation and innovative development of local intangible cultural heritage resources, says Song Junhua, director of the Institute of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage at Sun Yat-sen University.
Song believes it will lead to effective inheritance and promotion of traditional Chinese culture, and strongly promote the economic and social development of rural areas.
Yin says the recognition from the government has given her and her sisters more faith and enthusiasm to carry on their cause.
"My sisters and I have liked embroidery since we were young. We learned embroidery from our grandmother and mother," she says, adding that the embroidery is actually quite difficult.
Color matching and stitching techniques are both important skills. It requires five or six different stitching techniques to embroider a single flower, while two or three colors are usually required to embroider a single leaf.
"It takes patience, attention to detail and love to persist in this craft," Yin says.
She still remembers her first piece of work. It was a pair of insoles featuring peonies and the Chinese character for "happiness".
It took her a whole week to finish, and her grandmother guided her every step of the way, carefully teaching her how to embroider each flower and leaf.
"I felt a great sense of accomplishment when it was finished," she recalls.
Since then, Yin has never stopped embroidering.
"We were once just housewives who would take on odd jobs when we had the opportunity, and when there was no work to do, we would embroider at home," Yin says.
However, their lives changed in 2015, when they shared their embroidered works on Kuaishou.
"They were meant for the wedding of one of our relatives," Yin says.
The video attracted many positive reviews.
"Some left messages and wanted to buy our works, and some commented that they were reminded of their grandmothers or mothers," Yin says.
It encouraged Yin and her sisters to produce more embroidery works, and it didn't take long before they sold their first item: a pair of shoe pads, for 150 yuan ($21.8).
Orders from all over the country have since come their way, from Shanxi and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region to Beijing and Shanghai.
"The recognition gave us more confidence and encouraged us to engage in Loufan embroidery as a full-time job," Yin says.
As the business continued to grow, the three sisters were unable to keep up, so they enlisted the help of other local embroiderers.
"Those who were good at drawing would be assigned to create designs, while those who were good at stitching would do the needlework," Yin says.
Yin Aixian (left) and her sister participate in an exhibition and sales event representing Xuemei Embroidery Workshop in Loufan county, Taiyuan, Shanxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]
In 2017, the three sisters established the Xuemei Embroidery Workshop.
It was around that time that someone at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, who was working on poverty alleviation in Loufan, came across Yin's work on Kuaishou.
"He informed us that this type of craftsmanship was an intangible cultural heritage," Yin recalls.
The sisters were invited to participate in training in downtown Taiyuan, where Yin and her sisters got to learn more about their craft and favorable national policies that would aid their work.
In 2018, Xuemei Embroidery Workshop joined the Loufan county e-commerce service center, a welfare project implemented by the local government.
Through the platform, they received services such as online advertising, consultation and transaction support, electronic account management, and product delivery and tracking.
They were also provided with a 100-square-meter space for simultaneous production and exhibition.
It helped the Xuemei workshop make its mark in the market.
The following year, local authorities conducted traditional Loufan embroidery and e-commerce training to better increase the income of local women, and Yin and both her sisters signed up for it.
"It opened my eyes and reinforced my faith to carry the embroidery forward," Yin says.
The three of them started participating in various events to promote their hometown's unique embroidery, and their efforts saw them named the "most beautiful embroiderers" in Loufan.
Currently, Yin and her sisters are leading more than 300 local women in the Loufan embroidery business, which delivers an annual output value of more than 3 million yuan.
Those women now receive an additional annual income of 4,000-10,000 yuan each.
"They can work in their spare time and have their products sold online," Yin says.
In Yin's view, handmade embroidery patterns are of a more natural and flexible quality and can convey deeper sentiment compared with those produced by machine.
"Each leaf and flower is unique, with a vivid three-dimensional effect rendered by hand," Yin says.
"That's the charm of Loufan embroidery."
So far, the Xuemei workshop has given embroidery training to more than 1,000 women, some of whom are from Hebei and Gansu provinces.
"They are all ordinary housewives with zero Loufan embroidery skills, but, after a few months of learning, they are able to produce good work," Yin says.
Being chosen as one of the 66 national "exemplary cases" that are supporting rural vitalization makes Yin feel her effort is worth it.
"It will make things easier for us to reach out to more women in the neighborhood and enable everyone to see the value of traditional craftsmanship," she says.