Our early work with bamboo was a wild journey. We depended on the expertise of others to point us in the right direction. With a little digging, exploring, and hours in the saddle we managed to find a handful of practiced craftsmen with the necessary insights to aid us in our research of bamboo’s applications.
One of the first spots we found was this little bamboo basket market. It’s located in an old alley at the fringe of a satellite town to the south of Chengdu. This market is timeless and works on its own schedule. For starters, they only open on even dates. If you show up to peruse on an odd date, you’ll just find the doors shuttered.
In this alley you’ll find just a handful of old men, well-practiced in the craft of bamboo weaving. They’re masters of working with native materials – the bamboos, grasses, recycled plastics and fabrics – to make a multitude of useful tools. Here you’ll find a variety of sifters, back packs, child carriers, scoops, chairs, brushes, brooms and even hand-woven grass sandals for sale.
For some time now we’ve worked directly with one savvy weaver to make the perfect sized bamboo basket for bicycles. We’ll place an order and within a week are guaranteed to get an excited call at 6 a.m. and be told in barely intelligible Sichuan dialect that the baskets are ready to be picked up.
Every time we ride out with the cargo bike our weaver is ultra happy to receive us. He runs us through his handiwork and proudly displays his newest item on sale. It’s a bit of a ride out, so generally we’ll take a moment to sit and catch up. These guys can’t even feign trying to speak standard Chinese, so we’ll roughly hash out a conversation while we sip water and soak in the ancient feel of this old alley.
It’s always interesting watching these weavers’ interactions with their customers. Short and terse, their sales pitch seems like an argument. Our weaver in particular has a special trick he pulls out to display the quality of his weaving. He’ll take whichever basket for sale is in question and brusquely rub it against his face in a defiant display of confidence. “See! You don’t need to worry about splinters because I split my bamboo so finely!” he’ll say to a scrupulous client.
Talking with these old craftsmen is also reassuring. We’re very familiar with all of the native bamboos and their applications and can talk shop in a way. We know the skill and depth of experience that goes into their labor and vice versa. Despite most average people’s shock at the sight of a bamboo bicycle, these guys will carefully survey our cargo bike and nod in approval.
Our bamboo, which grows further south is nothing they work with regularly but they know the variety and its strength, lauding us for its application. The natural fibers we use in the joint are the same they use in weaving. These craftsmen are some of the select few, who know without a doubt the durability and practicality of bamboo for use in building a bicycle frame.
Unfortunately for these craftsmen, their art and skill is past its prime. In a world that is far too comfortable with mass production, they know that soon there won’t be anyone to carry on their tradition. Having apprenticed in their teens and twenties, these men have made a living weaving for over 50 years. Masters of a slowly dying skill, these weavers have long since been without students.
However, they’re still warm to us. We’ve been invited into their homes and given an introduction to the tools and techniques of their work. They’ve graciously shown us store rooms of baskets patiently awaiting purchase. They’ve shown us their mud-thatched walls and rudimentary furniture. You don’t need much when you subsist on what the land can provide you and possess the skill to build whatever you may need with what grows around you.