Mystery of Ancient Chinese Silks

Mystery of Ancient Chinese Silks  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Doyle Galleries.                  

Sacrificial chalices and ceremonial axe heads have been unearthed in ancient Chinese tombs that show textile impressions.  The fabric surrounding these ceremonial objects is long gone but the impression is still there. 

Silk was currency. Silk was gold.  Farmers paid their taxes in grains and silk.

It seems weavers were at work even then producing patterns that would show up 1,000 years later in Chinese silk robes.  A small fraction of these ancient textiles survive today.  The rest is a mystery. 

Captive silkworms were a guarded secret which allowed the Chinese to dominate the production of fine silks for centuries.  Silk weaving not only opened up new possibilities in embroidery, it changed the course of Chinese history.

Breeding “wild” silkworms in captivity was a defining moment for the Chinese.  A single unbroken silk filament could be unraveled in captive silkworms.  Whereas in wild silkworms that single thread was broken into thousands of small pieces during the moth’s emergence from the cocoon.

Each thread had to then be carded and spun.  Each thread from wild silkworms was also weaker, rougher and harder to dye.

From worm to chrysalis to moth, that metamorphosis signified not only the evolution of silk but also the cycle of death and rebirth for many Chinese.

In the beginning fine garments made from captive silkworms were reserved for the emperor and his close associates only.  In the palace, the emperor was said to have worn a white silk robe. Outside, his primary wife, wore yellow, the color of the earth.  Eventually even common people wore silk tunics.    

According to the Chinese legend, queen Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor came up with the idea of silkworm rearing.  Legend says the Yellow Emperor reigned the country in 3000 BC.  But studies indicate silkworm rearing originated much earlier.

Early Chinese writings tell us Shang kings (1600-1100 BCE) prayed to spirits with questions about the best way to produce silk.  They also made sacrifices to the spirits associated with silk production.  No textiles from this period survive but the impressions have.

Silk was one of the driving forces behind the Chinese economy.  In the 19th century and earlier, how a person dressed was the most important indicator of their position in society.  Silk was used in everything from clothing, fishing-lines, bowstrings, and musical instruments to bonds of all kinds and even rag paper.

Silk was currency.  Silk was gold.  Farmers paid their taxes in grains and silk. 

The impact of China’s rich textile history is undeniable and the attention to detail in vintage Chinese embroidery is something that has to be seen to be appreciated.  So finely stitched are some of the vintage robes it took 5-6 people several years to complete just one.

Embroidered items also included theatrical costumes, purses, shoes, spectacle cases, banners, alter cloths, and flags.  Embroidery developed as a hobby for wealthy women and many members of the court were renowned for their intricate work.  The best pieces of clothing were also the most expensive. 

Embroidery is still practiced in many sections of China today.  Suzhou is one of the most well known. 

On March 22, Doyle Galleries, featured a selection of vintage Chinese robes in its Asian

Works of Art auction. 

Chinese Silk Robes

Robe; worked with dragons amid clouds; pearls and auspicious symbols; 19th century; 53 inches long;  $2,375.

Robe; embroidered with butterfly and flower roundels amid floral sprays; 19th century; 44 inches long;  $3,200.

Gentleman’s Robe; woven with dragons, cranes, pearls; auspicious symbols and clouds; 19th century; 56 inches long;  $3,750.

Surcoat; fifth rank Pufu outer robes; woven with silver pheasant flying towards a coral beaded sun; 19th century; 48 inches long;  $5,000.  

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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