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Boy’s Fish-Skin Jacket

Curated Submission
Northeast China
DIMENSIONS in centimetres
47 x 98
Materials & techniques
Salmon skin; Hand-sewn, appliquéd
Textile Museum of Canada purchase
Textile Museum of Canada T2006.29.1

This traditional boy’s jacket made of fish skin was commissioned by the Textile Museum of Canada with the help of Ruth Malloy, a Canadian traveller, anthropologist, and photographer who explores and records vanishing cultures of Asia. While travelling in northeast China in 2006, in a small village on the Songhua River, Malloy met You Wenfeng, a Hezhe woman who made fish-skin clothing for her grandchildren, and also for museums in China and around the world. She suggested that the Textile Museum commission a fish-skin outfit; it was made and delivered to Toronto in the same year.

Hezhe is an ethnic group of Manchu-Tungus origin living in the reaches of the Heilongjiang River. The entire traditional economy of the Hezhe was based on fishing in the river and hunting along its tributaries. For centuries, the population of the area made clothing of fish skin because it was soft, durable, waterproof, and cold resistant. In the 20th century, when the fishing communities turned to farming and developed new modernized ways of living, fish-skin clothes started fading out of their lives.

You Wenfeng was one of a few women in the village who could still make fish-skin clothing the way her ancestors did. The process of making fish-skin clothing, which she learned from her grandmother, is time consuming and requires skill, patience, and physical strength. She flayed the skins, scraped them with a knife, and pressed them flat for drying. When the skins were dry she sprinkled them with corn powder and mashed them in a special jaw-like wooden instrument to make them softer. She then rubbed the skins by hand to make them as flexible as cotton. Next, she cut the skins with scissors and assembled the pieces together according to the colour and scale patterns of the fish. Without drawings and from memory, she sewed the garments by hand and decorated them with traditional appliquéd patterns.

Information about You Wenfeng was recorded and photographs were taken by Ruth Malloy.

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