Threads Adeptly Brandished by Loving Women:NZTT Sewing Co-op and its innovative practice

As I pass the doorway into BOLOHO Space,1As both a coworking space and physical site of the friendship economy, BOLOHO aims to revive and reconnect the “handicrafts” that the mainstream looks down on, providing another avenue to self-sufficiency for those unwilling to go into full-time work. Its regular staff are currently bubu, CAT, Feng Weijing, Li Zhiyong and Zhu Jianlin. Li Xiaotian’s Reading Room project is currently based at BOLOHO too.​ I find myself under the sea. Before me floats an enormous jellyfish, tulle body radiating fluorescent light from near the ceiling, a label with a song lyric protruding from cloth floating in the air. All around me are more sea creatures fashioned from clothing and fabric: a sea snake from rubber gloves and lace, an octopus from cloth baby bibs, a sunfish seemingly made from an apron. This underwater otherworld is also populated by some human friends, standing there undulating like seaweed to the beat of “Transforming Girls and Boys’ Family Guide.”

Like tripletail fish, NZTT Sewing Co-op members Money, bubu and Jialu course through the crowd, pointing out the wearable artworks and making odd sounds with the small percussion instruments lying around. Then they come together in a corner to video chat with former member Miaozi, now in Jieyang, Guangdong, who appears somewhat at a loss with all this, but holds her baby and waves to everyone. In this sea of electronic music and banter, we watch the baby blow a gentle bubble at the friendly aunties over at this end of the line.

“Sew sew everything, sewing all my desires together, poking new gaps”

This line from NZTT Sewing Co-op’s track “Transforming Girls and Boys’ Family Guide” sums up exactly what sewing means to them: the act of sewing is an outlet, a vehicle for their artistic voices; “sewing it up” has a broad spectrum of connotations, or sometimes none at all; the act of sewing is an inlet too, all the strands of your soul are fused by needle and thread and invoke not only the figures of memory but also the physical sensations of intimacy between communities.

NZTT Sewing Co-op is made up of Money, bubu, Jialu, and Miaozi (former member), all members of SoengJoengToi, a platform-style practice space in Guangzhou’s Haizhu District. SoengJoengToi is an alternative space that advocates decentralized forms of organization and social relations that radiate outwards from internal linkages. Initiated in 2016 by the art organization HB Station, space is currently running 10 projects simultaneously.2Projects in the SoengJoengToi space are run by “proprietors”. Each “proprietor” unit is made up of a certain number of participants. NZTT Sewing Co-op members were all once part of different “proprietor” units. Symbolizing participants’ commitment to space, “proprietor” is also a subversive choice of word vis-à-vis the passive role of the tenant.​ Several women who were co-managing the spaces and daily minutiae at SoengJoengToi found themselves united by a shared passion for cloth and sewing; eventually, they formed a unit that came to be called NZTT Sewing Co-op. Unlike SoengJoengToi’s relational practice with Bourriaudian aesthetic “interaction,” which deploys reimagined social relations and forms of organization to resist the powerlessness and alienation engendered by capitalism, Sewing is a smaller unit with a very different stance. They address issues faced by women at different points in life and under disparate circumstances via deft and patient examination of their own everyday and physical experiences. They often browse Xiaogang Cloth Market, but also draw upon their own collections of household wearables. Their output embodies the idea of “love and disappointment, power and tenderness” put forward by Adrienne Rich.3Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution. S.l.: W W.NORTON, 2021.​ When bathed in emotion, tender cloth can also have a rigid skeleton.

A key theme in their practice over the past few years has been bewilderment, expressed in their output, about interpersonal relations: what a family is, intimate relations within and beyond it, and the way they themselves thread relationships together. Through their experiences working as seamstresses for other artists, NZTT Sewing Co-op has come to wield the power of “threads made by a loving woman,” which trace the contours of members’ pluralistic relations.

“Complex emotions run through your heart and mine”

NZTT Sewing Co-op’s early days saw tentative explorations of the “intimate,” focusing first on women’s pent-up emotions resulting from matrimony and labor in the nuclear family context, and the “duty” that keeps them tied up with household minutiae. Then, at the end of 2018, NZTT Sewing Co-op was given a commission by a friend, curator, and fellow SoengJoengToi “proprietor” Li Xiaotian: wedding outfits for her and her fiancé Wu Wenli. And so, newly married, Li and Wu made their grand entrance into SoengJoengToi decked out in outfits pieced together from their parents and their own old clothes, adorned with aluminum cans, neighborhood shop receipts, and bubble wrap. Brown cloth, soft to the touch, epitomized intergenerational intimacy while allowing the lucky couple to give the finger to traditional matrimony—in a dignified manner.

This questioning of the nuclear family and matrimony nudged NZTT Sewing Co-op’s focus more towards what makes up a family, explorations of intimacy within the family, and finally on to each other. “Invisible ties that bind, maybe – definitely complicated friendship,” Jialu described the relations between the group members. So complex, in fact, that NZTT Sewing Co-op’s practice was often fraught with tension and difficulty. For the past two years, its members have wrestled with excessive proximity to each other, enduring, persevering, negotiating, and finding a way forward.

For a while, they all wanted to be “mothers” taking care of the same child. This experimental vision was born in the summer of 2019 when NZTT Sewing Co-op and many other SoengJoengToi friends helped Miaozi look for solutions to become a mother as a single woman. A lack of cultural tolerance and institutional acceptance in China means that single mothers there face policy obstacles, financial stress, and social rejection, with the first of these obstacles being the difficulty in obtaining an urban residency (hukou) for the child and the “social maintenance” fee charged for these births. They helped Miaozi explore new approaches involving diverse families and collective child-raising: was there a way for them to come together to raise her child? Although bypassing the nuclear family in favor of a classless poly-mothering model would place huge demands on participants’ time and energy and emotions, the SoengJoengToi community had active discussions about doing it. With upheaval in the partners’ relationship and given their complex circumstances, these experimental visions did not ultimately get realized, but the whole experience gave the community a deeper sense of women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights and forged new bonds on many levels.

From how the job of motherhood has been “constructed” to how to envisage becoming “mothers” collectively, collaborative child-raising became a prominent theme of NZTT Sewing Co-op’s output. Baby bibs fluttered on SoengJoengToi’s washing lines, embroidered with the mantra “mother is a verb – mother for a minute” interspersed with cartoon images; the hard ridges inlaid within the otherwise soft and gentle texture of the bibs stood there like a challenge to the concept of childbearing, like a refusal to just stand there and take it, a duality of caresses and resistance, a more proactive stance on the role and practice of “mother,” as well as a reflection on the morality and duty underpinning the mother figure in the traditional nuclear family.

That period was also the high point of the relationship between NZTT Sewing Co-op’s members. But like intimacy’s ebb and flow between its actors, after high points come the low. Emotion and lived physical experience evolve into a dynamic of affect between the various subjectivities. Internal frictions and painful episodes gradually led NZTT Sewing Co-op to realize that when this “fabric” between them was woven too tightly, it brought warmth but also created thick “creases.” If you loosened the weave, though it may keep out less wind overall, the threads hold together equally well—and it’s much more comfortable to wear.

“Sewing and chatting, our inner trails”

These reflections on their relationships as group members led NZTT Sewing Co-op to look for intimacy beyond the traditional nuclear family in mutual nurturing and support, and by cultivating physical actions: practicing how to draw close to one another, while still maintaining enough breathing room so the emotional space between group members is less stuffy.

This deliberate practice involved continuity and rhythm, and soon became a new theme for them as artists. Around the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, they started “afternoon bubble tea” party spaces online, with friends DJing and playing love songs. Amid this proactive outreach to a fresh audience, they interspersed the programming with fragments of dialogue about blurred boundaries in intimate relationships, playing off song lyrics about intimacy or pain between various actors. Each NZTT Sewing Co-op member had to overcome her shyness, like a clam forcing itself to open its shell just a crack and embrace the grit with sincerity and vulnerability.

They gradually expanded their discussions of love and intimacy by bringing their exploration of relationships to multiple sites, such as the “open sewing-machine days” held in a fixed time slot every week at SoengJoengToi, which involved sharing their sewing equipment with patrons and including other friends in their public conversations. They then brought the “open sewing-machine day” collective practice to X Museum in Beijing with a series of workshops on intimate relations in March 2021, where participants were invited to sew or paint their intimate insights onto fragments cut from the same broadcloth, thus feeling their collective way towards an understanding of the delicate web of interconnections. This experience of sewing caused participants’ expressions of intimacy to interact, as they openly shared the trust and hurt they’d felt in love. This practice of making overt and releasing the normally private expression of love and intimacy harks back to the sensual practice Michael Hardt finds in the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai’s essay “Red Love.” Drawing upon her idea that “love is a profoundly social emotion,” Hardt posits that in this intimacy we encounter the other and abandon “property love,” as entrenched in the nuclear family, or atomized love, rejecting it in favor of more multifaceted dynamic social ties.4Hardt, Michael. "Red Love." South Atlantic Quarterly 116, no. 4 (2017): 781-796. See also “For Love or Money,” in Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011): 676-682 and “Zou xiang ‘ai’ de zhengzhi gainian”, tr. Wang Xingkun, The Paper (China), Sixiang Shichang (Marketplace of Ideas).​ The “open day” is one form of these ties; NZTT Sewing Co-op’s approach is precisely this, to depart from the nuclear family towards a more diverse family model and more open social relations.

In the new video5Music video for “Transforming Girls and Boys’ Family Guide” available on Bilibili and on YouTube​ for “Transforming Girls and Boys’ Family Guide,” shots of female labor in the home cut back and forth to/from whirring sewing machines against a sonic backdrop of random percussion. The women’s doubts and concerns are voiced as the threads move; their emotion-laden words sound like the sewing machines rapping. As a woman grasps the handlebar of a baby stroller in her home, NZTT Sewing Co-op’s members dance as though inviting us into their living room-turned-disco. From their concept of an extended family to their reflections on intimate relations and feeling outside of the family sphere, these loving women are not so much stitching sensuous threads around each other as weaving a fabric out of many lines, drawing their threads outwards till they touch those places that need tenderness most.

Translated from the Chinese by Alice Xin Liu

Yanzi (Siyan Xie) is an art researcher and practitioner. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, researching socially engaged art communities in mainland China. Siyan cares about art labor and gender issues in the Chinese context and continues to practice as a progressive activist.

Alice Xin Liu is a writer and translator living in Beijing with 13 years of experience working in the China field. Born in China, she left aged seven and was educated in Britain, graduating from Durham University studying English Literature. Alice has translated three books: The Letters of Shen Congwen (Yilin Publishing House), The Problem with Me: And Other Essays on Making Trouble in China by Han Han (Simon and Schuster), and The Road Home by Ai Wei, which is a Penguin Special.

Photo from the event “Transforming Girls and Boys’ Family Guide”

Sewing Co-op group photo

Wedding outfits

Mother for a minute

Party space

“boundary lines in intimate relations” workshop

“Transforming Girls and Boys’ Family Guide” Music Video screenshot

Published: 2021.05.27