Woven Wonders

Silk, a secret held for centuries, prevails as China’s pride
history, fashion, travel, culture, art
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Terry Duthu

It’s a story older than Confucius.

A Chinese empress, relaxing in her garden under a mulberry tree, is startled, then intrigued, as a cocoon falls into her cup of hot tea and slowly begins to unwind into one gloriously long, smooth strand.

With the help of her court attendants, Empress Leizu wove together the strands of several cocoons, producing the first silk thread. Confucius, the teacher and philosopher who lived in the sixth century B.C., provides the first written account of Leizu’s discovery and places it in the year 2,640 B.C.

Centuries later, Leizu is singularly credited with the start of sericulture, the development and production of silk. By 130 B.C., the Silk Road—a network of land and sea trade routes—connected China with the Roman Empire, and China was beguiling the world with its incredibly luxuriant, mysterious fabric.

Silk became a symbol of wealth and power, and at the hands of master weavers, was spun into gorgeous, intricate robes and overlying ceremonial panels that at a glance communicated the power and authority of those who wore them.

At China’s national silk museum in Hangzhou, silk is described as the “queen of fibers.” One of the museum exhibits makes clear the value the Chinese place in the textile. A large display proclaims: “Silk is not only a symbol of the splendor of Chinese civilization, but also of its profound contributions to human civilization.”

Similar praise is shared outside China. The enduring splendor of silk was well-represented at a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit in New York earlier this year titled “China: Through the Looking Glass.” In a series of galleries, including the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the museum celebrated “how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries.” One gallery alone was dedicated to silk, but other galleries displayed silk fashions ranging from the early dynasties to the couture stylings of designers such as Alexander McQueen.

The history of the Silk Road is so universal, certainly as an example of successful international trade, that its name endures as well. When Chinese officials in 2014 announced a US$40 billion initiative of new infrastructure and free trade zones that will better link China with the Middle East, Europe and Africa, the project had already been named The New Silk Road Initiative.

The Original Silk Road

Silk was introduced to the outside world not so much as a trade initiative but as a peace offering. China’s first emperor unified warring factions within his country and established the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), but he also sought to end fighting with nomadic tribes to the north, who often crossed the Gobi Desert to launch attacks along China’s northern border.

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi placated the most aggressive nomads, the Xiongnu—later known as Huns—by gifting them with silk textiles and floss. As the Xiongnu moved and traded into Central Asia, the silk they wore found new admirers.

While China may have been willing to share its silk products, officials zealously guarded the secret of silk production. Anyone who attempted to share the method or tried to smuggle out silkworms or mulberry seeds faced certain death. For centuries, the Chinese had an exclusive market.

“No one in the Western world had any idea how silk was produced or where it came from,” says Andrew Hare, conservator of East Asian paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “Silk production was the great secret of the ancient world, and because of the quality of the fabric and the varieties of patterns and the complexity of weaves—brocade, tapestry and damask—it was in great demand. Even in the second and third century, incredibly sophisticated, multipatterned fabrics were being made.

“Silk production, economically and culturally, is an important part of China’s history,” Hare says. “It gave China a significant position in the world. Certainly from the 12th century to the 16th century, there was no question that the finest silks in the world were produced in China.”

The Chinese protected their secret of silk production until about 400 A.D. Other countries and cultures—the Japanese, Koreans and much later, the French and Italians—developed silk weaving, but China continued to drive desire with its elaborate weaves and distinctive patterns.

Ancient Cities, Skilled Weavers

Within China, cities often competed for the favor of the emperor, with some creating new techniques and patterns that came to be identified with the city.

Two of China’s ancient weaving cities—Hangzhou and Suzhou—maintain their historic status centuries later, and just as they did in their silken heyday, weave their stories in distinctly different patterns for tourists who visit their silk museums.

Hangzhou today is a bustling town of millions, a place of neon lights and beautifully shaded streets so packed with cars the city restricts drivers to odd- and even-numbered days based on license plates.

As far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), Hangzhou’s weavers were respected for their silk gauze, a strong yet sheer fabric. In one display near the museum, window-sized panels of white gauze showcase incredibly ornate scenes of nature, including strutting peacocks in blue and gold and brilliant red and pink sprays of peonies.

Ceremonial robes and more modern dresses are displayed throughout the museum, and an adjoining department store shows the variety of ways silk is still worn today, whether in ties, robes, skirts, tailored shirts or pajamas.

As shoppers browse, a saleswoman leads a group of about a dozen customers into a small conference room. Each carries a bagged down comforter. No translation is needed to realize she is showing the attributes of silk. First she tugs a shirt sleeve. Then she twists the garment. No stretching or wrinkling. Finally, with a flick of a lighter, she runs a flame under a sleeve, revealing another virtue: Silk is remarkably flame-retardant.

Another salesman, David Zhang, estimates the Hangzhou store and museum host 2,000 visitors a day.

“Silk has a very important role in Chinese culture,” he says. “On weekends, parents and students come here to learn how to buy and appreciate silk.”

Suzhou, about two hours north of Hangzhou, traces its history as far back as 514 B.C. Today, the city has established itself as a center of technology development in laptops, cell phones and integrated circuitry. Suzhou is a standout, too, in urban design and architecture with international influence. Its riverfront dazzles with glass and steel structures.

For all its modern advances, the city retains glimpses of a sleepy village in the neighborhoods surrounding the Suzhou Silk Museum. Earthen walls surround small gardens and low-slung houses. A resident in denim jacket and dungarees, a hoe slung over one shoulder, passes neighbors who lean in doorways enjoying the first cigarette and tea of the morning.

The Suzhou Silk Museum does little to boast of its history as one of the most famed cities in textile history. From the exterior of the beige building, it looks as though it houses a government administrative office; the sort of place where one could lose an entire afternoon waiting to pay a parking ticket. Yet step into the foyer and within moments, someone as endearing as Chen Zhong Jing appears. Later, she will say with some pride that she once was a worker in the number one silk factory in Suzhou. For now, she eagerly begins to guide her guests through the small museum. When she talks of Empress Leizu, she does so with a pride and familiarity of someone describing a favorite niece.

Suzhou, Chen explains, grows the best silk because its good soil is ideal for growing mulberry trees. It was Suzhou, she says, that carried silk to Western provinces. Suzhou weavers were treasured for refining brocade and kesi tapestry. Kesi requires weaving and splicing different types of silk to create colorful artwork. The skill involved was so valued that in ancient times, an inch of Kesi was worth an ounce of gold.

“Silk production was the great secret of the ancient world.”

When the Worm Turns

The Suzhou museum is at its most elemental when demonstrating the process of silk production. In one open-air exhibit, rows of small mulberry trees spread their green leaves to catch the morning sun. A few steps away, Chen beckons to a tall cart of bamboo trays. She slides one out to reveal green mulberry leaves lining the bottom. Scattered across them are dozens of immature silkworms. They are thin, slightly fuzzy and only about an inch long, a combination that makes them resemble bits of animated pipe cleaners.

The worms eat and grow through four stages of development. In the fifth stage, they produce a gummy liquid from their mouths, which they use to form their cocoon. This was the stage when Empress Leizu is said to have made her discovery, and it’s a process still used today. Cocoons are placed in boiling water. As each one loosens, the end of the strand is found and inserted into a reeling wheel, where it’s combined with other stands. One of the longest cocoons ever unraveled produced a single strand more than 4,921 feet long.

That spun liquid, the Smithsonian’s Hare says, is what makes silk unique. Other textiles—cotton and linen, for example—are plant-based and more fibrous. Silk has the smoothest feel and luster because it began as a liquid.

Warp and Weft

Down another corridor, a compound loom nearly 8 feet tall and perhaps 15 feet long stands along one side of the room. Two women quickly take seats to demonstrate. One sits floor level and deftly passes a shuttle horizontally between strands of silk, which run almost the entire length of the loom. Facing her from the far top of the loom is her partner, who pulls and shifts the vertical strands, called the warp, as her partner passes silk over and under the strands, creating the weft. By alternating how she passes over and under the warp, the weaver creates different patterns.

The women chat and giggle as they work, yet their hands are nearly a blur, and in mere minutes, the first lines of a petal from a black peony begin to emerge against a dark red background.

The more intricate the pattern, the more complicated the weaving. Creating a brocade on a handloom, Chen says, would yield less than 2 inches in a day. A modern machine can weave more than 16 feet a day.

Down the Road

Even as China, like the rest of the world, has perfected mass production of fabrics, Hare says there also has been a renewed willingness to return to the past. For 8 years, the Freer Gallery has been working with weavers in China to reproduce some of the museum’s historic silks that are part of a collection of Chinese paintings dating from as early as the 11th century. The first attempts were made with mass-produced silks, Hare says, but the weavers and museum textile specialists realized handcrafted work was needed to perfectly match the ancient pieces. With technique in place, the museum team and the Chinese weavers are turning to their next project: recreating the brocade cover of a 13th century hand scroll that has worn away over time.

“There’s an incredible amount of pride in the work,” Hare says. “They want to show that they still can produce magnificently sophisticated silks.”

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