Encoded textiles – Chinese minority textiles and their digital interpretation

January 26, 2022

Leona Wang is a second-year PhD student and one of three students awarded funding through The Karun Thakar Scholarship Award in 2021. Below is a short introduction to her research in progress.

My name is Leona Wang, and I am a first year PhD student at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I come from a background of fashion design and completed my undergraduate and honors degrees in art and design and my master’s degree in product design.

Miao women’s festive jacket, silk damask, embroidered cotton, Huangping county, Guizhou province, China, 1940 – 60. V&A: FE.262-2018. Given by Lady Keswick © Victoria and Albert Museum

Due to my early contact with ethnic minority groups in China, my work and research interests have been focused on their culture and craftworks. The work and design philosophies of artisans from minority villages have greatly influenced my understanding of both modern design and traditional handicrafts. My doctoral study is a practice-based project that focuses on modern technology as well as the endangered crafts and cultures associated with minority ethnic groups in China.

Heritage arts and crafts are vital to a nation as they are an artistic expression of its cultures as well as a reflection of its historical development. They are communication tools used to present and sustain the cultural characteristics and artistic traditions of a particular region. These skills, however, are on the verge of extinction. Finding solutions and developing strategies to slow down the pace of extinction is becoming increasingly critical for all heritage crafts. This issue is the motivation for my PhD research. Investigating endangered crafts and making them more accessible is something I want to accomplish.

My research into traditional Chinese textiles, to date, has been drawn from reference books and online resources as well as analysis of physical samples to better understand different techniques and approaches to pattern use and narrative. I started with an investigation of the history of decorative textiles and then expanded into the encoded textiles used by minority groups.

One of the iconic examples of communication through textile pattern in ancient China is ‘Bu fu’, a ‘uniform’ for nobles. It had an embroidered rectangular detachable badge at the front of the robe. The information of the wearer’s status, rank and title is transmitted visually through the rank badge. For example, the supreme prince and the king used dragons. Counts and above used pythons. Civil officials from degree one (the highest) wore the crane and degree nine (the lowest) wore the sparrow. Military officials from degree one wore qilin (a Chinese mythical creature) and degree nine used the hippopotamus (Ji Fang & Guang Ming, 2004).

Civil official’s surcoat (bufu), China, 19th century. Museum no. T.104-1958 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Rather than concentrating on textile pattern as a way to express status or rank, minority groups in China used them to record their culture and to journal history. For example, the ‘lanjuan’ dress from the Miao ethnic group has diverse traditional textile elements. Legend suggests that Lan Juan was an ancient leader and heroine of the ‘Miao’ group. She led her compatriots to the south in order to escape advanced enemies. During the southward migration,  Lan Juan created a method of using coloured threads to mark different landmarks encountered along the way upon her clothes to record the journey. At the end of the journey, her dress was covered with densely embroidered intricate patterns from the neckline to the hem. Using these marks Lan Juan later created an exquisite wedding ensemble with a variety of different coloured threads and meaningful symbols for her daughter. This style of wedding ensemble is today the traditional wedding dress of Miao brides, making the lanjuan dress a lasting memorial of a remarkable leader and a way of honouring Miao heritage (Ronghui, 2007).

‘Wearables’ is a term that refers to technologies that employ the human body as a carrier to provide support to the user for a specific purpose (Motti, 2020). It includes various alternative names and sub-categories such as wearable electronics, smart clothes, e-textiles and interactive accessories. They are created in the forms of garments, accessories or devices that provide the user with additional functionality or benefits, such as sensing data, analysing, and transmitting relevant and appropriate information, services and resources (Seneviratne, 2020) and are integral to the wearer.

In recent decades, wearable technology has extended into a range of industries, including consumer electronics, healthcare and sports monitoring. The field of advanced textiles, electronic or e-textiles, has seen the integration of electronics with cloth, utilising new yarns, and the electro-mechanical behaviour of textile structures to hold, carry or even activate textiles and garment-based applications. While there are continued barriers and problems with e-textiles in terms of durability, battery life, flexibility and washability (Bruno, & Kroski, 2015), there has recently been a shift from literately applying or attaching electronics to fabric or clothes to the development of digital or programmable fiber. ‘If you can weave the sensor into the textile, as a material you’re moving away from the electronics’ commented Ivan Poupyrev (cited in Pierce, 2015). This approach attempts to turn e-textiles into true textiles in terms of appearance and hand-feel by implementing miniaturised microelectronics directly into the raw material and weaving them into smart clothing or textile artefacts at an early stage. It involves minimal effort or change from the wearer, and it can be considered as ‘inversible’ or ‘a part of the wearer’ which is a crucial characteristic of the design of a wearable computer (Motti, 2020).

Despite the fact that there are a growing number of studies focusing on the potential of e-textiles in health, sports and for communication, there is limited research on wearable technologies that are initiated from heritage craft. This PHD research aims to investigate how traditional techniques might be expanded or upgraded by integrating the concept of wearable technologies. It also aims to identify and explore elements or features embedded in traditional Chinese textile crafts which can be developed further as smart textile strategies. It is an opportunity for me to explore e-textiles to more fully communicate contemporary narratives as well as to experiment with advanced smart fibers, threads and structures. I aim to create a small collection of e-textiles and an application in the form of a dress, or a small collection of garments, that will achieve visual storytelling through textile interactions. By translating traditional techniques into ‘smart’ textile structures using new materials, I hope to introduce an innovative way to engage contemporary audiences with craft processes and textile traditions.

Experimentation with traditional weaving using conductive materials
Learning the process of traditional Miao tin embroidery
Weaving TC2 loom Sample

Further reading

Ji Fang, H, & Guang Ming, H. (2004). The analysis about the Bufu system in Qing dynasty .Journal of Bingtuan Education Institution, 14, 21 – 40

Ronghui, W. (2007). Yunxiang Clothes: the spirit of Chinese national costume. Beijing, Peking University Press

Motti, V.G. (2020). Wearable Interaction

Seneviratne, P. (2020). Beginning e-Textile Development: Prototyping e-Textiles with Wearic Smart Textiles Kit and the BBC micro:bit

Bruno, T., & Kroski, E. (2015). Wearable Technology: Smart Watches to Google Glass for Libraries

Pierce, D. (2015). Google Is Hacking Our Clothes to Work Like Touchscreens

About the author

January 26, 2022

I am a second-year PhD student and one of three students awarded funding through The Karun Thakar Scholarship Award in 2021.

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