In a small workshop in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Li Youxia turns the threads of finely matched colours into blooming peonies on a piece of cloth.
Li is a seamstress of ethnic Hui embroidery. The art is rich in colours with delicate texture, and is characterised by the unique culture of the Hui people of China.
The 41-year-old woman is taking her latest work to countries along the Belt and Road in April, hoping to attract foreign orders of her embroidery.
“Kuwait will be my first stop, and I will probably get an order there,” Li said. A Kuwaiti businessman has already seen her embroidery work and discussed business with her last year in the workshop in Ningxia’s Haiyuan County.
The county, home to a large Hui population, is famous for Hui embroidery. Most local women can embroider, as part of family tradition.
Li watched her mother and grandmother weave the threads on pillowcases and shoes when she was a little girl, and learned it by heart.
“I went to work for a while, but I stuck with embroidering,” she said. “In 2006, I resigned and opened my own workshop.”
The beautiful flowers on cloth later translated into big business, and Li even launched her own company in 2010.
“Local people in Haiyuan are quite fond of the embroidery, but the market was limited, and competition was fierce,” she said. “So I started to think about taking my products to a bigger market in China.”
Li began to attend exhibitions across the country, and many foreign business people showed particular interest in her works. It was during this period that Li’s ambition turned from “going to other provinces” to “going overseas.”
In 2010, she went to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to see if there was any prospect. Even though no deals were struck, she saw huge potential.
“Local people in these countries were quite interested in hand-made Chinese souvenirs, but our products failed to match their expectation due to strong cultural differences,” Li said. So she decided to transform her business by accepting tailor-made Hui embroidery.
She also started to build connections with foreign business people at the China-Arab States Expo, held every two years in Yinchuan, the regional capital of Ningxia. For starters, she managed to establish connections with Malaysian and Indonesian customers.
With rising number of countries and regions along the Belt and Road, the market for Hui embroidery is expanding. Over the years, Li went to more than 10 countries in Southeast Asia and West Asia.
The products Li makes include wallets, scarves, shoes and paintings. Art collections for high-end consumers are also produced. Last year, she inked deals worth about 3 million yuan (447,000 U.S. dollars) with a Malaysian businessman.
“I started from scratch, and it was difficult,” she said. “But the government supports the development of Hui embroidery, and I am also experienced, so I want to go further in the business.”
Li’s company currently employs more than 30 seamstresses, including eight “intangible cultural heritage inheritors” at city or county level.
“We used to be little women spending our days around woks, but now we are independent women making money from the work we love,” she said. The monthly salary of each seamstress can reach 6,000 yuan – a handsome income in the poverty-stricken county.
“They trust me, and stick with me, and of course I want to help them make more money to live better lives,” Li said.
Local officials have also encouraged locals to jump on the bandwagon of the Hui embroidery business. In 2015, a start-up training base was established in Haiyuan, helping women in poverty improve their skills in embroidery and paper-cutting, also a local tradition.
Local official Li Jinxing said that the base had turned out more than 4,200 professionals in embroidery and paper-cutting.
“The embroidery and paper-cutting industries in 24 villages can create an annual revenue of more than 16 million yuan,” the official said.
Li Youxia said that when production in her company is in full gear, she goes to seek skilled women from the training base for help.
“I hope to boost women’s confidence in our county, while passing on our cultural heritage,” she said.