blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sericulture and a wealth of silks

National Silk Museum, Hangzhou
May 26th, Thursday

I took a taxi through a couple of tunnels to the National Silk Museum on Yuhangshan Lu, up the hill from the southern end of West Lake. The museum is free; after my driver dropped me at the foot of the steps I walked straight into an almost empty modern and spacious exhibition hall, finding silk worms, fat, white caterpillars about 5 cm long, crawling around in a display case crammed with mulberry leaves. It takes 30 days from egg to silk. The smallest grubs, emerging from the hundreds of eggs laid by each female moth, are black; they turn gradually whiter as they fatten, sloughing off skins. They spin their cocoons onto a nest of sticks which is the point at which the silk fibres can be harvested, traditionally by hand, the ladies making a sort of glove out of them that they dip in water to wash. Eventually the pretty, silky white moths free themselves from the cocoons, mate with the males, lay their many eggs and promptly die. Fascinated, I watched this process on video.

At the museum: silk worms on mulberry leaves
Silk worms were first cultivated 5000 years ago, it seems, in the Neolithic age, and the silk trade has been international since the 7th century Tang Dynasty. In fact the cloth was used as currency for the slave trade, a 15 year old slave, for example, being worth about 6 bolts of silk. This area was an important source of silk which was then transported via Suzhou and Nanjing, thence to Beijing by sea, following the coastline. In the 3rd century BC, silk manufacturing methods influenced the invention of paper.

I saw several displays about the Silk Road, used from the 5th century BC, stretching all the way from China to Syria, to Turkey, to Hungary. Some of the "road" was across the ocean, to Madras and Arabia, even to Somalia, the Philippines and Rome. The bales of silk were either carried by camel or transported on ships such as the 12th century one I saw a model of; these vessels were 24 metres long, with 13 cabins.

There are as many as fourteen main types of silk cloth, including gauze, chiffon, crepe, brocade,  velvet ... Different shuttle patterns in the weaving too, tabby, twill, satin, etc. Looms have been found near here by archeologists, their ornaments 4000 years old or more. I saw examples of the different kinds of dyeing. To decorate the cloth, they used wax or ash (if wax was scarce) and tie-dyeing techniques. Styles of embroidery and types of stitch were regional, though the subjects didn't differ much: cranes, dragons and winged horses. These "auspicious symbols" are still to be seen all around Hangzhou, engraved on paving stones on the side walks for instance, expressing "people's yearn for a well-being life," as the info board at the silk museum quaintly puts it. Bats, lions, peonies and the Chinese character meaning longevity. By the time the Qing Dynasty came along, the Chinese were also exporting silk in patterns created for western tastes (e.g. "greater western flowers" for Louis XV's mistresses in France). The tiny embroidered silk shoes, for the Qing Dynasty ladies' and children's bound feet made me feel sad.

Mulberry bushes at the silk museum
Outside the museum was a mulberry grove. I walked through that too and at the back of the building came across five shops selling silk from bales.

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