Visitors enjoy an exhibition of traditional outfits worn by the Yi ethnic group in Handan, Hebei Province.[Photo provided to China Daily]
Had Shen Xiaoying not run away from her remote village in Southwest China's Sichuan Province more than 30 years ago, she would have married one of her cousins-a child betrothal arranged by her parents-and probably spent the rest of her life deep in the mountains.
The woman, from the Yi ethnic group, trekked several days from her village, 3,000 meters above sea level, down the mountain to town at the age of 16.
"Life in isolation was so hard that I told myself I had to move off the mountain," says Shen, now 49.
She was a dishwasher and a cleaner before opening an embroidery clothing shop in the city of Xichang of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, some 200 kilometers away from her home. The shop, a three-story building, brings an annual income of 3 million yuan (about $430,000).
China is aiming to eradicate absolute poverty this year. Liangshan, home to 178,000 impoverished people, is one of the poorest regions in the country.
Yi women attach much importance to their clothes. A traditional Yi costume usually consists of a long pleated skirt, an upper garment with decorative patterns and headwear used to wrap long hair, as well as silver accessories.
Before the 1990s, when clothes shops were rare, Yi women needed to make clothes for their family members with needle and thread.
"My mother told me she had brought home a lot of food by embroidering for a wealthy family," Shen says, adding that her mother's delicate handiwork helped the young woman of the family secure a long-anticipated marriage proposal, as dexterous hands were expected from any Yi woman who looked for a fiance.
Shen has been fond of needlework since she was young. She sewed a pair of cloth shoes and a halter top for her younger brother when she was 8 years old. Her own clothes were embroidered with patterns of birds, trees, stars and sheep's horns-inspiration drawn from her life-which were admired by her neighbors and classmates.
She honed her skills even further after an accident with a horse confined her to bed through her primary school years.
"I kept sewing in bed, hoping that I could support myself with my needlework just like my mother, even if I could not stand up," she says.
Shen did not sell her work until the late 1980s when a foreign couple found her wearing a beautiful Yi costume in the street and bought 11 of her designs for 37,000 yuan.
"It's a huge sum of money, considering I earned only 60 yuan a month at that time," she recalls, adding that she was too excited to sleep for days.
She later opened her shop, attracting customers ranging from movie stars and lawmakers to ordinary people.
She has hired dozens of embroiderers for the expanding business. Some of her workers can earn up to 6,000 yuan monthly.
According to the women's federation of Liangshan, the prefecture has more than 30,000 women embroiderers. On average they usually earn 2,000 yuan per month.
"With the money they bring home, women will have a greater say in their family," says Zhu Xuelei, vice-president of the federation.
Please understand that womenofchina.cn,a non-profit, information-communication website, cannot reach every writer before using articles and images. For copyright issues, please contact us by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. The articles published and opinions expressed on this website represent the opinions of writers and are not necessarily shared by womenofchina.cn.