Photography Brian Vu

The textile artist transforming Chinese knots into harnesses

From natural-dyeing to ritualistic tea ceremonies, Taiwanese knitwear designer Shawna Wu explores Asian culture through textile art.

by Aravin Sandran
19 May 2020, 7:05am

Photography Brian Vu

In Singapore back in 2018, under the red glow of creative workspace 21 Moonstone, a cast of largely queer performers suggestively drank and spilled hawthorn tea. The audience watched on silently as barely-there silk slip dresses and gossamer knitwear were dyed and stained with a blush hue.

The ritualistic tea ceremony was part of a live presentation by Taiwanese knitwear designer and textile artist Shawna Wu. Reflecting on the show now Shawna explains, “Queerness, cultural shame, and tradition — the ‘Drip’ show explored my relationship with my Asian heritage by transforming it into something beautiful.”

Shawna was born in Singapore to Taiwanese parents and moved to New York City — where she’s currently observing strict shelter-in-place orders — to study fashion design at Parsons. These diverse environments have informed both her identity and work. “Moving between these three cities has helped me cultivate empathy, identify subcultures, and build a robust value system,” she says.

That sensitivity is evident in her creations, which are produced using traditional techniques such as Chinese knotting, hand-weaving, and natural dyeing. Her natural dyeing process utilises Asian pantry staples like black vinegar and soy sauce and other ingredients like kimchi juice, sambal chilli, and chewed betel nut. “Natural dyeing is a long-established practice in Asia. I’m exploring it through locally sourced foods,” she explains. “My methods have mostly been part of a performative practice and not all of them are translated into an end product.”

Culturally Chinese knots are known to be exchanged as symbolic gestures of good fortune between loved ones and usually placed in domestic spaces today. Shawna, on the other hand, has transfigured them onto the body as harnesses that call to mind the bondage rope art shibari. The red ropes cling to Shawna’s models to mirror her own push-and-pull relationship with her heritage.

It becomes apparent during her multimedia showcases that the beautiful fragility of her textiles hides their underlying toughness. Last year at underground nightclub Final in Taipei, Shawna explored her ongoing fascination with fetish and queer cultures by working with Taiwanese shibari artists from the local BDSM scene to create a night of dance, music and film. Over the evening rope artist SOA performed while dressed in her Chinese knots, artist Rachel Oyster Kim moved and smashed hawthorn berries to dye garments, while DJs Michele Yue, Ginja, wanglianc11, Ao Wu Chang and Luijachi soundtracked the evening. “I wanted to create a space where we could all gather as a community to enjoy and explore our crafts,” she says of the event. “I wanted to show that fashion as an art form is very intimate and it speaks to our bodies and emotions in a sensual way.”

Working with textiles and dyes means sustainability is always concern of Shawna’s practice. At one point she began making her own materials because purchasing fabric with no origin or composition information was at odds with her process. “I needed to have some quality control over the levels of toxicity that goes into my work because it’s obvious when things are made without love, care, and attention,” she explains. ”As a maker, I use techniques such as fully fashioned knitting and upcycling vintage. I also hope to invent a weaving machine that will reduce wastage and am actively looking for programmers and engineers.”

Shawna views herself more as an artist than a fashion designer. These days, she produces work on an intimate scale, mostly custom orders for her clients and commissions for creative projects including short films, photo shoots, and music videos. “I’m drawn to the potentialities in fashion, not the business of it,” she asserts. “My art form involves textiles and garments but beyond it, I also create experiences and performances. The fashion industry isn’t working well enough for the environment and its labour force, but hopefully, it will change its methodologies, seasonal schedules and systems in the near future. My intention is to be real and emotional.”

rope art
i-D Asia
Shawna Wu