Welcome to China National Silk Museum

It was an important milestone in human civilization when our ancestors first clothed their bodies in woven textiles. Due to differing circumstances, the great early civilizations each had their own natural fibers: ancient India produced cotton; the Egyptians wore linen; the Babylonians wove fabrics from wool; and the early Chinese, known to the Greeks as Seres (silk, hence sericulture, the production of raw silk from worms), were renowned throughout the world for mulberry cultivation, the domestication of the silkworm, silk reeling and fine weaving. Silk is not only a symbol of the splendor of Chinese civilization, but also of its profound contributions to human civilization.

What are the origins of silk production? How many different types of silk are there?

What role did silk play in ancient Chinese society? What is on display here is the story of the development of silk in China, told in a manner to deepen your understanding of the “Queen of Fibers.”

The Origin and Development of Silk

The earliest silk can be traced back to the Neolithic age, some 5,000 years ago. In the Shang and Zhou dynasties (BCE 16th--3rd century), a wide variety of silk fabrics were produced, including tabby, gauze, polychrome woven silk and silk embroidery. During the Qin and Han dynasties (BCE 2nd century--2nd century ACE), a complete system of silk production and technology was developed. In the Tang and Song dynasties (7th--13th centuries), thriving international trade and the movement of the center of Chinese economic activity to the southeast brought about great changes in silk technology and production. The specialization of production in the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th—19th centuries) resulted in a wide variety of novel weave structures and brilliantly colored patterns.

Origins and innovations

According to legend, the ancient Empress Luozhu taught the Chinese people how to raise silkworms. However, the earliest written evidence of silk is found in oracle bone inscriptions, which record such terms as mulberry, silkworm, silk and silk textiles. Archeological finds in Henan and Zhejiang provinces suggest that silk reeling and weaving with backstrap looms was practiced in the Neolithic Age.


In early history books, Empress Luozhou, wife of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi)  is cited as the inventor of sericulture. The Song-dynasty classic, The Comprehensive Mirror of Government (Tongjian gangmu), contains the following passage:


The Empress Luozhu, daughter of Xiling-shi, married the Yellow Emperor and taught the common people how to domesticate silkworms and how to transform silkworm cocoons into clothing. For this reason, the Chinese people never lacked garments to wear. Later generations offered sacrifices to the Empress Luozhou, revering her as the Goddess of Sericulture.


Once upon a time, there was a young maiden whose father had traveled to a distant place. She longed for her father so intensely that she told her family’s white horse that if he could reunite her with her father, she would marry the horse. The horse brought back the girl’s father, but the girl found it impossible to keep her promise, which enraged the white horse. When the father learned of the horse’s anger, he killed the animal, removed its skin and hung it up to dry in the sun. One windy day, the horse skin enveloped the young girl, and appeared in a grove of trees in the form of a silkworm, but with a horse’s head and the body of a girl. The trees in the grove were called seng, mulberry (a pun on sang, mourning) by the local people, while the silkworm on the tree was called the Horse-headed Goddess.

Silk ribbon. BCE 2,750. Qianshanyang, Huzhou, Zhejiang province. First discovered in 1958, the Qianshanyang site belongs to the Liangzhu culture.  Finds at the site include plied silk threads, silk fragments and braided silk ribbons. These represent the earliest silk finds in the Yangtze River basin.

Microscopic enlargement of silk fiber.


Jade ornaments from an early loom. BCE 2,500. Fanshan, Yuhang, Zhejiang province.

Three pairs of jade ornaments were found. Their distribution in the site suggests the presence of the wooden components of the original loom, which are no longer extant. Analysis of the finds suggests a loom consisting of a warp beam, cloth beam and shed stick.  

Reconstruction of the loom.


Ivory carving with silkworm design. BCE 4,080. Hemudu, Yuyao, Zhejiang province.

This carving was a handle or finial of a wooden rod. The decoration consists of four silkworms and a geometric pattern that resembles a weave structure. This combination of design elements suggests an understanding of the relationship between silkworms and woven textiles.

Oracle bone inscriptions, the earliest form of writing in China, date from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (BCE 1,600—1,100). They include characters for mulberry, silkworm, silk and silk textiles.


 Innovation and sophistication

The two millenniums from the Spring and Autumn Period (BCE 770—476) to the middle period of the Tang dynasty (ca. 755 ACE) saw the continued growth and maturation of silk production in China. This industry was centered around the Yellow River valley, where silk textiles were exchanged in lieu of tax payments. Treadle and mechanical patterning looms were used in silk weaving, and a variety of printing techniques were developed. Patterns grew increasingly intriguing and decorative.  During this period, the Silk Road, a series of trade routes that crossed the Eurasian mainland, served as the principle conduit for the transmission of Chinese silk to the West.

Official silk workshops

Silk production in official government workshops reached a peak during the Tang dynasty. This highly structured organization consisted of four departments and 25 specialized workshops under the aegis of the Weaving and Dyeing Bureau. In addition, workshops operated within the imperial palace, including the Studio of the Empress (guifeiyuan).


Stone relief (replica). Han dynasty (BCE 206—220 ACE). Chaozhuang, Sihong, Jiangsu province.

Han dynasty stone reliefs, commonly found in tomb chambers, depict human figures and stories. The story here, “Madame Zeng educates her son,” illustrates a Han-dynasty treadle loom.

Madame Zeng Educates Her Son

Master Zeng, a noted scholar of the Spring and Autumn Period (BCE 770-476), did not enjoy going to school when he was a young boy. One day, he ran away from school. When his mother found him and brought him home, she threw down the shuttle she was using to weave with, and tore the cloth on the loom. Scolding him, she said: “If you do not study hard, you will never succeed in life, and end up like this tattered cloth.” From then on, young Master Zeng applied himself diligently to his studies.


Painted brick (replica). Jin dynasty (265-420 ACE). Wuwei, Gansu province.

During the Wei and Jin dynasties, silk was produced in northwest China. Mulberry trees were cultivated intensively in the regions covered by present-day Gansu and Xinjiang. The painting shows the gathering of mulberry leaves by members of non-Han Chinese ethnic groups who lived in the Gansu Corridor.


Seal of the Central Weaving Workshop (replica). State of Chu, Warring States Period (BCE 475—222). Changsha, Hunan province.

This seal provides evidence of advanced silk production in the State of Chu. It is noteworthy that Chu established an official weaving studio (zhishi) to produce silk for the court.


Roof tile (replica). Western Han dynasty (BCE 206—25 ACE). Xi’an, Shaanxi province.

The administration of the Han dynasty paid close attention to the silk industry, and established the “Silkworm Office” to supervise production throughout the empire. This roof tile was fired especially for the headquarters of the office in charge of silkworm breeding.


Silk prices in the Han dynasty [weights need modern equivalents]

One jin (ca. 500 grams) of silk = 300 qian (copper coins) = 3 dan (???) of rice

One bolt of plain silk (su) = 6 dan of rice

One bolt of silk (jian), enough for an entire robe = 6 dan of rice

One bolt of superfine plain silk (su) = 8 dan of rice

The price of the silk in Han dynasty


Silk with inscription (replica). Han dynasty (BCE 206—220 ACE). Niya, Minfeng, Xinjiang autonomous region.

The handwritten inscription reads “One pi (bolt) of jian silk tabby made by Yang Ping of Dongxiang, Xiuruo, Henai (present-day Henan province).” Jian was the general term for tabby


Damask with inscription (replica). Tang dynasty (dated 710 ACE). Astana tombs, Turfan, Xinjiang autonomous region.

The handwritten inscription on this fragment of damask reads “One pi (bolt) of silk damask for tax purposes, dated year 1 of the Jingyuan era (710 ACE)” and indicates that the silk was produced in Shuangliuxian in present day Sichuan province. This fragment provides evidence that silk submitted in lieu of tax payments was inspected carefully and marked by the officials in charge.


The Silk Tax

Silk was one form of currency in ancient China. During the Wei dynasty (220—265 ACE), the government accepted tax payments in silk. During the Tang dynasty, the taxation system known as zu-yong-diao  required each adult to submit two bolts of silk as tax. After the fall of the Tang dynasty, money gradually replaced silk as the instrument for tax payments.



Interaction and development

From the Mid-Tang (755A.D.) to Qing dynasty (1636-1911A.D.), within one millennium, the silk production of China approached a new system on the basis of the interaction with the Western textile culture. The silk production center moved southwards to the Yangtze Delta and became more professional. The Silk Road by Sea played an important role in world wide silk trade during that period. The drawloom was used all over China, silk textile categories were various, including innovated satin weave and imported velvet, and the designs became more naturalized and symbolized for auspicious wishes.

Pictures of Tilling & Weaving

Pictures of Tilling & Weaving are two sets of illustrations with poems that depict in great detail the entire process of agriculture and sericulture, including silk weaving. The earliest version edited by Lou Shou, administrator of Yuqian County near Hangzhou the capital, during Shaoxing Era (1131-1162ACE) in the Southern Song dynasty. The original was lost but various copies exist, from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The earliest known version bears an inscription attributed to Empress Wu of the Southern Song (1127-1162ACE). However, the most widely reproduced version is that of the court painter Jiao Bingzhen (act.c.1680-1722ACE), during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722 ACE) in the Qing dynasty.

A license for an officially owned loom (replica) Qing dynasty (1636-1911ACE)

To fill the glowing demand of the coult, from the late Ming dynasty, privately owned looms were frequently used to fill official weaving orders. At the time, there were three types of loom: officially owned looms in the palace, officially owned looms outside the palace and privately owned looms. Officially owned looms had special licenses indicating the weavers name, age and native place, by right of which the weaver could draw his grain ration. Privately owned looms were less restricted.  

The prosperity of loom-owning families

The development of a commercial economy raised the living staudards of the independent silk producers in civil society - the loom-owning families – to the point where some became lacge –scale manufacturers. In hing shi heng yan, the Ming writer Feng Menglong, described a private weaver named Shi Fu, who lived in Shengze, Jiangsu province. He had one loom at home and worked on the loom with his wife every day. At the time, Shi’s silk was renowned in the silk ftade  due to its splendid sheen. Shi bought an additional three or four looms. Because of the considerable profit, within 10 years Shi became wealthy, with 30 to 40 looms and many employees.


The stone stele of the official textile workshop of Suzhou

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the production of silk fabrics was concentrated in the Yangtze River delta. More than ten weaving and dyeing workshops were established by the Ming local government in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. In the Qing dynasty, the three official textile workshops were located in Jiangning (present day Nanjing), Suzhou and Hangzhou. There were the so-called “three official textile workshops in South China”, which operated on an unprecedented scale.

Passport for silk transportation, Guangxu reign, Qing dynasty (1893ACE )、(1903ACE

This passport was issued by a local government to accoutory shipment of official silk textiles which were woven or purchased in southern Chinaand destined the court in the north. In the late Qing, most silk textiles contributed by the “three official textile workshops of South China” were actually purchased from civilian workshops. These two passports show how official silk textiles during the Guangxu era (1875-1908 ACE) were initially woven in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, dyed in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and eventually consolidated in Nanjing, were shipped to Beijing by sea.

Officied silk seal, Qing dynasty (1636-1911 ACE)

Seals of this type were used to wrap official silk textiles. This seal is made of bright yellow paper, with printed dragon motifs on the border. In the middle are recorded the workshop supervisors name, title the size of the textile, and the manufacturing date.


The splendor of Chinese silk

The history of Chinese silk is also the story of beauty. Due new technologies and improvements in mechanical looms, silks with complicated structures could be produced. Further innovation in printing, dyeing and embroidery resulted in silk textiles with great visual appeal.

The variety of Chinese silk fabrics was immense. In the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, plain tabby or simple geometric pattern formed the mainstream of silk design. From the Spring and Autumn period, both monochrome and polychrome patterned silks were woven. In the Tang dynasty, the varities of twill damask and gauze increased, while satin damask, velvet, kesi(tapestly weave) and brocade were invented.


Classification of silk textiles

In ancient China, the main types of silk were juan (silk tabby), sha (plain gauze), qi (damask on tabby), ling (twill damask), luo (gauze), jin (polychrome woven silk), duan (satin and satin damask) and kesi. The classification of silk textiles today is mainly based on weave structure, material, technique and texture. The major types are sha (sha), luo gauze (luo), ghatpot (ling), plain silk (juan), habotai (fang), chiffon (xiao), crepe (zhou), brocade (jin), satin (duan), crepons (ti), bengaline (ge, silk-cotton goods), matelassé(ni), velvet (rong), and chou (chou).


Twill damask (ling)

The twill structure features diagonal lines on the textile. There are two variations, simple twill and twill damask, the former referring to basic twill or irregular twill and the latter to all damasks using twill weave as the ground. Twill damask was very widely used in the Tang dynasty. Liaoling damask was the Dest Known type.

Liaoling damask

In the Tang Dynasty, liaoling damask was a form of tribute sent to the imperial court from Zhejiang and nearby. It was not only documented on the burial list for Famen temple, Shaanxi province, but also immortalized by the famous poet Bai Juyi (772-846ACE).


What does Liao ling damask look like? Its finer than either common raw or processed silks.

It resembles a great waterfall, 45 feet high, on the Tiantai Mountains under the moonlight.

It’s woven with marvelous patterns, snow-like flowers on white smoke-like ground.

Who are the weavers? Humble women working beside the streams of Yue. Who are the wearers? The ladies of the ancient palaces of Han.

Last year, an order came that in the future, the patterns used were to be determined by the palace -such subjects as autumn geese flying in formation - and that fabric should be woven in the private workshops and dyed with the colours of a Jiangnan brook in spring.

The results were wonderful, the patterns changing when observed from different angles; with cutting and ironing, gowns and skirts were made for the dancers in the Zhaoyang Palace, and all were much admired by the Emperor.

Yet some of these dresses will be thrown out without a care once they are stained with sweat or cosmetics, or dirtied with mud, or merely stepped on during a dance. 

Liaoling damask is no ordinary silk; one foot of it requires thousands of throws of the shuttle, the weavers working untill their hands become sore.

If the singers and dancers of the Zhaoyang Palace knew this, surely they would treat their garments with greater care.



Gauze includes all textiles woven with doups and fixed warps. Four-end complex gauze originated in the Shang dynasty. In Tang dynasty, two famous gauzes were so-called Yueluo gauze, produced in Yue prefecture in Zhejiang, and single-warp gauze, formed by one doup end and one fixed end crossed after each shuttle movement.


Yueluo, named after Yue prefecture (present-day Shaoxing, Zhejiang province), was as famous as Shujin silk in the Tang dynasty. During the 10th century, yueluo gauze was an form of important tribute offering from the Wuyue Kingdom to the Song dynasty court. A good example of yueluo gauze was excavated from the repository of the  Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou.


Silk tabby

A simple weave based on a unit of two warps and two wefts in which each warp passes over one weft and under the next. It was woven from as early as the Neolithic period.


Originally chou was a general term for spun silk textiles. In Qing Dynasty, chou existed in many varieties, including Jiang chou, Ning chou (made in Jinagning, present-day Nanjing), chun chou (spring chou) and zhou chou (crepe like chou), but often refers to patterned textiles on a tabby or twill ground. During the first half of the 20th century, plain tabby was also called chou. Today, however, chou is the common form for all silk textiles. 



Satin weave features weft floats on one side and warp floats on the other, resulting in the warp side being extremely smooth and bright. Satin and satin damask were appeared in the Yuan dynasty (12791368ACE ) and became the dominantweave in the succeeding dynasties.


Brocade uses polychrome or gold supplementary wefts, which are interlaced into the foundation weave in the areas required by the pattern. Brocade first appeared in the Tang dynasty and widely manufactured in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Major categories include brocaded gauze, brocaded twill, and brocaded damask, named after the foundation weave.


Link:  Yun brocade (yunjin)

As a representative silk weaving technique of Nanjing, yun brocade, or cloud-like brocade has been being reproduced since the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The category of yun brocade includes four groups: ku damask, gilt silk, lampas and brocade. The latter is the most common type.

Brocaded damask with dragons (replica). Ming dynasty, Wanli era(1619). Dingling tomb, Beijing.

A remarkable 18.95 meters in length, this brocade damask was designed and woven according to the pattern, the size and the style of the robe. This kind of textile is called zhicheng (woven into shape).


Gilt silk

Silk with gold threads woven into different foundation weaves first appeared in the Tang dynasty and became popular in the Song and especially in the Yuan dynasty. Nasji was the best known type, with the large pattern element, covering most of the ground.. 

Link:  Nasiji

Nasiji is a Persian term for lampas woven with gold threads. This luxury textile was highly admired and widely used for official clothing and daily use. At least five official weaving workshops were set up especially to weave nasji, with artisans from China and the West collaboration in the production


Jin-silk is a complicated warp-faced compound weave, with numerous variations. In fact, the Chinese character jin (brocade) consists of two elements, jin (gold) and bo (silk), suggesting its splendor and value. The earliest known examples of jin-silk were excavated in a Western Zhou site, further examples have been found in tombs dating from the Warring States period;’’ to the early Tang dynasty.

Shu jin-silk, produced in Shu (present-day Sichuan province), is a polychrome silk with warp-faced compound weave. It was well known in the Qin dynasty, reached its zenith in the Han and Tang dynasties, dedined in the Yuan dynasty. Though in the Qing dynasty, the silk textiles of Shu differed considerably in style from the products of the Han and Tang dynasties.


Weft-faced compound weave

Under the influence of central Asian textiles, weft-faced compound textiles, in two basic weaves, taquete with a tabby foundation, and samite with a twill foundation, came into being during the Wei and Tang dynasties. Since that time, weft-faced compound weave has been the dominant technique used in the manufacture of patterned silk textiles.

Persian samite

Ancient Persia was one of the principal countries of silk on the Silk Road during the Han and Tang dynasties. Not later than the 5th century ACE, Persian textiles were imported to China. This is demonstrated by documents with the term bosi jin (Persian samite) found in Turfan, Xinjiang, and a fragment woven with ancient Persian script (Kufik), excavated at Dulan, Qinghai dated approximately from the eighth century. Persian textiles played an important role in the development of Chinese weaving techniques.


Song-style lampas

Lampas refers to a special type of textile in which warp ends in addition to the foundation warps bind the pattern wefts, and the wefts interlace with each other. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, lampas was produced in great quantities in Suzhou. Song-style lampas has geometrical grids decorated with floral roundel or floral sprays a form of design popular in the Song dynasty.

Double weave silk

The warp in double weave silk is composed of two series of ends, each interlacing with its own weft and forming two layers of textile. The patterns on the front and back side are the same, but the colours are different. Double-weave textiles made of wool appeared around the third century ACE. The technique was applied to silk during the seventh to eighth centuries. It became popular again in the Ming and Qing dynasties, with small geometric patterns.


Velvet is a warp-pile weave in which pile warps are raised in loops by rods above a ground weave. All or some of the loops will be cut according to a pattern to form tufts. Looped Jin-silk was excavated from the Western Han tomb No.1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, but in the Ming and Qing dynasties, velvet, including zhangduan velvet (patterned velvet) and zhangrong velvet (voided velvet) were produce.


Kesi (Silk tapestry)

In kesi, one set of undyed warps is woven with discontinuous wefts of different colours only at the point where the particular color is required. This unique technique allows the weaver to interpret both the motif and the colouration with enormous flexibility and between two areas of colors. The technique was first used to make wool tapestry and adapted to silk in China in the Tang Dynasty,. It became popular in the Song Dynasty, and is even today.

Inscription on textile

In ancient China, official workshops had such a tradition that products should be reined with worker’s name. On textiles, woven inscriptions with official workshop title were found on transverse selvage in Ming dynasty, and those with not only workshop title but also officers name in Qing dynasty.


 Splendid Printed and Dyed Textiles

Painted silk in the pre-Qin period was gradually replaced in the Qin and Han dynasties by textiles printed with carved wooden blocks. During the Wei and Jin dynasties, resist dyeing was employed. During the Tang dynasty, tie-dyeing, wax, ash, and clamp resist dyeing, and gilt printing were invented and perfected. These techniques were applied to cotton in Ming and Qing dynasties.


Clamp-resist dyeing

In clamp-resist dyeing (jiaxie), the textile to be dyed is placed between two symmetrically carved wooden blocks. Ink is poured into the unclamped areas, resulting in a resist pattern. This technique appeared in the Tang dynasty and continued to be practiced in Zhejiang and Tibet during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Tie dyeing

In the process of tie dyeing, the silk textile is wrapped tightly with threads or knotted before being dyed. Patterns appear on the textile with a characteristic shaded effect. Tie dyed textiles were first manufactured in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265-316 ACE), became popular in the Tang and Song dynasties, and are still made in some areas of China.

Wax-resist dyeing

In wax-resist dyeing, hot wax is applied to the textile as a resist before dyeing. The technique was first applied to cotton in the Eastern Han dynasty. Most likely it was introduced to central China from the West, and became popular from the Wei to Tang dynasties. Due to the scarcity of wax in central China, ash was used instead of wax in the Tang dynasty. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, ash-resist dyeing was used widely on cotton to produce blue and white indigo textiles.


 Marvelous Silk Embroideries

Embroidery in China can be traced back to the Shang dynasty. From that time, the dominant stitch was the chain stitch. In the Tang dynasty, the plain, running, layered, and long and short stitches were added to the embroider's vocabulary. Embroidery was not only used to decorate garments, but also to copy paintings and calligraphy. In the Ming dynasty, four regional styles emerged: Su (Suzhou), Shu (Sichuan), Xiang (Hunan), and Yue  (Guangdong).

The four main schools of embroidery 

The four main schools of Chinese embroidery, Su, Shu, Xiang and Yue, took shape and thrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Each has its own unique characteristics, and all four are  still practiced today.


Silk Patterns from Heaven to Earth

Chinese silk not only represents the most developed technologies in the past, but is the outstanding embodiment of ancient Chinese art as well. Chinese silk art underwent the transformation from heaven to earth through more than two millenniums: earliest silk patterns of China applied imaginary heavenly animals, while natural images of flowers, birds, insects and butterflies became dominant in the Tang and Song dynasties, and these were later taken over by scenes of worldly life during the Ming and Qing dynasties.


Patterns from the Heaven

Silk in early days were mainly used in funerals and sacrifices, thus were usually decorated with diversified immortal creatures from the heaven, such as the cloud and animal patterns during the Warring States period and Qin and Han dynasties, patterns of exotic immortals introduced to China through the Silk Road in the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties, and patterns of floral medallions and auspicious beasts in early Tang dynasty. As the great Tang poet Bai Juyi commented, “the patterns come from the heaven, and are weaved on earth.”


Twitter of Birds and Fragrance of Flowers

Naturalistic style became prevailing in China since the late Tang dynasty, and great numbers of lively naturalistic patterns appeared on silk products, such as patterns of winding or plucked sprays and magpies flying in the flowers. This fashion reached climax in the Song and Yuan dynasties, and was continued in the Ming and Qing dynasties.


The World of Auspiciousness

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, silk patterns became worldlier, and were mainly used to express auspicious meanings in different ways. Elements from every aspect of daily life including Chinese characters were selected to form all kinds of compositions which connoted peoples yearn of a well-being life.  


Silk for Exportation

During the 17th to 18th century, with rapid development of the sea route between east and west, the exotic Chinese decorative style spread across Europe. European countries sent samples to China, and ordered great amount of Chinese silk for exportation, especially patterned textiles, hand-painted textiles and embroideries. Meanwhile, European patterns such as large flowers also appeared on Chinese silk, which were commonly known as greater western flowers.


The Silk Road

The Chinese was the only people who grasped the secret of sericulture and silk production during the long period from the Neolithic Age to Western Zhou dynasty. In the 6th-5th century B.C., the trade caravans of the ancient nomadic tribes crossed the desert, Gobi and wilderness of Eurasia inland, bringing the gorgeous Chinese silk to the west and thus setting the prelude of the Silk Road, which was named by Richthofen, a German geographer in the 1800s. This Silk Road was thoroughly opened up during the reign of Emperor Wudi (14088B.C ) when the silk trade was unprecedentedly prosperous. The Chinese silk was introduced to even more countries in the world after the new maritime routes had been opened up. Serving as a bridge across various cultures, the Silk Road has succeeded in spreading China’s silk culture throughout the world and in the meantime enriching its own values.


The Ancient Silk Road

In the 2nd century B.C., the Silk Road from Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) to Mediterranean Sea was set up after Emperor Wudi (14088B.C ) embraced the Gansu corridor into Han’s territory. The trade on the road, mainly concerned with silk business, had greatly promoted the economic and cultural exchanges between the east and the west, and contributed a lot to spread the Chinese sericulture and silk production over to the west. However, the maritime Silk Road has become the major way for China in foreign trade since Song dynasty.



As the capital of China in Han and Tang Dynasty, Chang’an (now Xian) was the start of the Silk Road.

Dunhuang was the intersection point for traffic on the Silk Road. Large quantities of silk fabrics carried from inland were kept in Mogao Grottoes.

Loulan was an important town located in a strategic position on the Silk Road in Han dynasty. There excavated many world famous relics including mummies, gorgeous silks and ancient coins.

Khotan is a strategic town in the south route of the Silk Road. It has been famous for silk production for a long time, nowadays it is still called the Silk City on the Silk Road. More than 60 ancient sites had been found and large quantity of relics had been excavated in Keriya River, Khotan.

Niya, located in the south route of the Silk Road, used to be the Jingjue kingdom, one of the 36 kingdoms in the west region of China about 2000 years ago. Many silk textiles had been excavated there during the 20th century.


Dulan is located in the southeast of Chaidamu Basin, Qinghai province, also on the Silk Road from inland to Tibet. A large number of silk fabrics from the 6th-10th century were excavated in those Tibetan tombs. They include not only the silks from central China, but also those made in central Asia.

Yingpan was another major town on the Silk Road in Xinjiang. It lies at the eastern range of Xinjiangs Tianshan Mountain Range. The Yingpan ruins consist of the ancient city, Buddhist monasteries, beacon tower, and a large public burial ground. Among the unearthed artifacts, textile is the most important items, which show the influence of the cultural exchanges between the west and the east whether from the technique or from the design.

Subashi is a famous historical site in Qiuci (now Kucha) and also an important strategic post in the northern Silk Road.

Kashgar is the west end of Silk Road in China. Kashgar was called Shule in ancient time, which means silk market in local language.

Afghanistan is the very place where the art of Buddhism met Greek art. In Bamiya Grottoes, Afghanistan, the image of Helios was painted on the mural, and later on, it was woven into silk textile by Chinese weaver.

Samarkand, located in the southeast of Uzbekistan, was the capital of the ancient Sogdia. The Sogdians were known to many people as merchants in trade and business, and most of the merchants on the Silk Road were Sogdians.

Persia (now Iran) was the transferring station of the Silk Road, where the trade caravan and merchants could take a rest.

According to the legend, in the 6th century, some Persian monks hid the silkworm eggs in their sticks, and took them to Byzantium. That was the very beginning of Europe’s sericulture and silk production.

Istanbul: Silk fragment, Byzantium. Caravans went in the direction of west on the Silk Road could arrive Mediterranean littoral.

A piece of Chinese silk was found in an Egyptian Mummy with a history of 3000 years. It was probably brought from Haojing (now Xi’an) by an envoy of  the Nili Kingdom.

Syria was the center of the ancient silk production, where a great deal of raw silk made in China was woven into silk fabrics. The replicas of the Han silk fabrics there could pass for an authentic.

Some silk textiles, including jin-silk and embroidery, in Chinas Warring States period (770-476 B.C.) had been excavated in Pazyrik, Russia.

Not only the silks from Han dynasty (206B.C-220A.D) but also some wool carpets were found in a Hun Kings family tomb, Noin-Ula, Mongolia.

In the well-known Parthenon of Athens, the statue and relief of Athena are dressed in silk. This might be the earliest Chinese silk transmitted into the west.

Links: Ancient Greek legends about silk and silkworm

In 5-6 century B.C., the Chinese silk appeared in Greece but the local people knew nothing about the silk production. Therefore, all manner of weird speculations emerged. One said that the silk used by the Seres people to weave fabrics was produced by a worm with eight paws, which was twice large as a beetle and produced silk like a spider. Another one popular in the 4th century mentioned that silk was taken from a special tree which produced silk like wool, so called wool tree. People in the east planted these trees and developed the products into silk.

Chinese silk was greatly treasured in Rome. The silk costume the Roman Emperor wore when watching a play caused a stir in the upper class of Roman society.

Silk textiles were transported in bulk from Han dynasty to various places in terms of gifts or trade and some of them were excavated at Yuelang, Pyongyang, Northern Korea.

It is also suggested that the east end of the Silk Road is in Japan, where Chinese silk textiles were used by the imperial family or donated to the Buddhism. Textiles from Tang dynasty kept in Shoso-in and Horyu-ji are good examples of them.

Xiantong Pagoda, built in 863A.D in the Tianning Temple, Ningbao, is the only Tang pagoda in the south of the Yangtze River.

Kaiyuan temple, first constructed in 686 A.D, is actually the start of the maritime silk road and also a symbol of Quanzhou, a well-known cultural city in history.

Zheng He, a great navigator in Ming dynasty, was active on the sea for 28 years (1405-1433). He set out from Suzhou seven times with his fleet, which arrived in more than 30 countries in Southeast Asia, the India Ocean, Persian Gulf, Red sea, and the East African coast. Many Sambao temples set up to memorize Zheng He in the southeastern Asia.

Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam (todays Thailand). Zheng He reached Ayutthaya on his second voyage (1407-1409).

Cape Cormorin is located at the southern tip of the India Peninsula, which marks the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, the India Ocean, and the Arabian Sea.  

Aden Bay links the Red Sea and India Ocean, and has occupied a strategic position.

Istanbul is the intersection point linking Europe and Asia. Owing to its strategic position, it is very famous in the world.


Camel made of three-colour ceramic (replica), Tang dynasty (581-618A.D.)


Shipbuilding was flourishing in Song dynasty when the technique was the best and the production was the largest in the world. This Song dynasty boat, remaining 24.2m long and 9.15m wide, was found in Quanzhou Bay in 1974, which is reconstructed to be a boat with 13 separate cabins and a capacity of 200 tons.


Jin-silk with phoenixes in pearl roundel, Tang dynasty (618-A.D)

The pearl roundel, suggested to be a typical design of Sassanian Persian art, is formed by small pearls in the same size. It made the greatest influence to China’s silk pattern compared to any other motifs in from the west Asia.

Damask with Griffins, Tang dynasty (581-618A.D)

Griffin is a mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle and a lions body.

Bodhisattva sculpture (replica), Southern & Northern dynasties (420-589), Bachu, Xinjiang

Buddhism was introduced to China from India about 2000 years ago. It was first developed in Xinjiang, and influenced all aspects of local politics, economics, culture and society. The prayerful people had built many monasteries and grottoes there and also a number of Buddhist sculptures, from which we could learn the art of the Buddhism.

Contract for slave trade (replica), Tang (661A.D), Turfan, Xinjiang

On this contract it was recorded that a 15-year aged slave costs 6 bolts of plain silk textile plus 5 Chinese coins.

Wooden slip (replica), Han dynasty (206B.C-220A.D)

On this wooden slip, the distances in between those important places, including Changan and Dunhuang, along the Silk Road near Gansu corridor were recorded.

Gold, silver and bronze coins

Coins from the countries in the west and the central Asia have been found on the Silk Road in China, among which are the gold coins of Byzantium and sliver coins of Iran (Persia). Also, a lot of Chinese bronze coins were found too.

Silk Princess (Princess of Khotan)

The princess of the eastern country (indicating China) got married with the king of Hotan Kingdom. Upon the king’s request, the princess hid some silkworm eggs in her crown, thus escaping from the eyes of the guards at the frontier pass and bringing them into this kingdom. Therefore, the princess is called Silk Princess, who was regarded as the local Goddess of silkworm.


The Silk Road after the Opening up of the New Routes

After the New Routes to Asia had been opened up, the merchant ships from western countries thronged in and took away a considerable amount of gorgeous silk on an unprecedented scale. It is one of the important factors behind the prevalence of Chinoiserie. At the end of the 19th century, the European reeling and weaving machines were put into practice in China, which once again demonstrated the two-way interaction of cultural exchanges.


Madame P in dress

Madame P was the lover of Louis XV, King of France. She was infatuated with the Chinese culture and became the initiator of Chinoiserie in Europe in 18th Century. It was she that started the craze of embroidery in Pairs.


Silk & Ancient Social Life

Over the past several thousand years, silk garments were worn by emperors and the aristocracy as well as by the common people. The traditional clothing and accessories of the northern nomads and the Han nationality created a “historic nation of clothing and accessories,” which became a symbol of the culture of the Chinese nation.


Clothing from the Warring States to Han Dynasty


In light of the theory “qian is heaven, kun is earth,” in early times Chinese people wore “yi as tops and shang (skirts) below.” From the Warring States period to the Han dynasty, she yi (one-piece robes with the top and bottom sewn together) was worn by both men and women. Shenyi usually took two forms: quju, with a slanting opening, and zhiju, with a straight vertical opening. The loose robe with an embroidered body, jin–silk trim and wide sleeves was popular among the aristocrats of the time.


Costume of the Jin Dynasty and Tang Dynasties265-907ACE)

The Jin and Tang dynasties are the most brilliant chapters in the history of ancient Chinese costume. The Jin and Tang dynasty absorbed exotic fashions from the traders who plied the Silk Road. Of great influence was hufu, a style of dress characterized by narrow sleeves and long trousers, which before long replaced traditional Chinese robes. Chinese costume, especially women’s wear, attained an unprecedented elegance at the time.


Costumes of Liao Dynasty (916-1125)

The one country, two systems policy was adopted during the Liao dynasty founded by the Khitans: on one hand, they kept their traditional nomadic features, and a typical Khitan costume consists of a long robe with left opening, narrow sleeves and central vent on the back, a pair of boots, a waistband and a leather bag hung on it; on the other hand, some people were also allowed to wear traditional Han-style costumes.


Costumes of Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368)

The Song and Yuan dynasties witnessed another major integration of costumes among different nations. Traditional costume style of the Han people was fundamentally preserved in the Song dynasty: men usually wore gowns with round collars, while women wore skirts with matching jackets. Such style was partially changed in the Yuan dynasty founded by the Mongols: people in the north wore shining gilded robe made of Nasiji and leather boots, while most people in the south still wore Han-Chinese garments.   


In ancient times, the nationalities living in the northwest of China was called hu, thus their clothes were called hu costume, which has a distinct difference from the loose clothes with broad belts of the Han people. Hu costume features narrow sleeves, short shirt, long trousers and leather boots, etc. During 3rd-6th centuries, hu costume came into central mainland and became a significant part of the ancient Chinese costumes, prevailing in Sui and Tang dynasties.

Link: Hu Style in Tang Dynasty

As the most powerful empire in 7th-9th century in the world, Tang dynasty attracted the attention from the whole world. Particularly, many hu people from countries western to China came to Changan (todays Xian) with their music, dancing, food and clothes, creating the hu Style, which had a great influence on the local social customs. Hu costume became the most popular clothes at that time. Cone-shaped hats, trousers with stripes, long clothes with falling collar and narrow sleeves could be seen everywhere.


In the 10th-13th century, Northern Song and Southern Song were confronted respectively with Liao and Jin, two regimes of northern minorities. Hence their fashion styles also had their own characteristics. Besides its own traditional robe with left opening, the Khitan Kingdom also allowed officials of Han nationality to wear Han costumes.


Made of damask with small patterns, the pair of short pants with socks, packed with silk floss, has no crotch but gallus. The triangular-shaped brief is made of thin silk opened on two sides. Pants with socks and brief should be worn together to match with each other, the former, named diao dun, was very popular in Liao and Jin dynasties. However, when the north and south were against each other, it was once forbidden in Song dynasty.


In Jin dynasty (11th-12th century), Nuchen people kept the traditional costume style with circular collar and narrow sleeves. After overthrowing the Liao dynasty and conquering the north territory of Song dynasty, Jin dynasty established its own system of clothing and accessory with reference to Song dynasty.


Purple robe decorated with Arabic motif (replica), Jin dynasty (1162), Acheng, Helongjiang

It is a typical daily wear of first-rank officials in the Jin, round collar, narrow sleeves, border woven with gold threads on shoulders and hemlines. Its patterns consist of pearl lines and decorative Arabic characters, thus creating a strong Islamic style.


The clothing style of Song Dynasty is elegant. Men usually wore gowns with round collar, and women wore short jackets or coats and matching short robes or Chinese-style jackets with buttons down the front outside. Meanwhile, this elegant style was also confronted with the influence of from the northern minorities.

It was made of extremely thin gauze embroidered with treasures (gold ingot, swastika, coral, rhinocerotic horn, wheels), lozenges and flowers, embodying elegant and neat pattern. It was popular in Song dynasty and usually worn under long skirt.


It was a popular robe in Yuan dynasty for man with overlapping collar and narrow sleeves. The most distinct feature is the braids made of silk and paralleled on the waist, usually in 15cm  20cm wide, which makes it easy for riding and hunting. The style was remained popular after Yuan, so called yesa in Ming dynasty.


The boot cover was used outside bootleg, same shape as the bootleg with two silk gallus, which were connected to the waist belt. As the material for the cover, silk tapestry with floral designs, like water lily, peach blossom and plum blossom, were woven on purple ground.


Clothing of Ming Dynasty

After unifying China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of Ming dynasty, demanded his people to change their customs back to Han style and established a new system of clothing and accessory in 1320. The major clothes in Ming dynasty were gowns of loose sleeves and officials began to differentiate their ranks with Mandarin squares.

This suit of female dress shows the typical style of a woman living in the Yangtze Delta in the early Ming dynasty: embroidered small flowers intersperses the simple short-sleeves top; the long-sleeve top with lining made of plain gauze with patterned tabby can also be seen; although the gauze skirt is plain, there are golden embroidered peonies on the satin shoes. This kind of combination of long sleeve inside, short sleeve outside was frequent from the Yuan dynasty to the early Ming dynasty. The silk for bound feet is a real reflection of womens foot-binding at that time.


Link: A history of foot-binding

Originated in the court of South Tang dynasty of the Five Dynasties and becoming popular in Song dynasty, foot-binding is a symbol of womens obedience in feudal society. Shoes for bound feet look like a bow and thus are called bow shoes. Early bow shoes are narrow and slim with the maximum width only 5-6cm, and later they developed into a triangular shape with a pointed head, the smallest ones are only 3 inches, so called 3-inch jinlian, meaning golden lotus and indicating the small feet. In Ming and Qing dynasty, foot-binding is a necessary criterion for a beauty and also a condition for marrying.


Official Robe With Mandarin Squares With Peacock Pattern

This is a typical Ming official robe. The main material for the robe is damask with flowers and treasures, but the textile for Mandarin square is brocaded satin, which represents the highest technique level in Ming dynasty. The Mandarin square in the front is made of two half pieces with a picture of two peacocks along side with some clouds and flowing water, which depicts a scene of a peaceful garden. According to Ming regulation, the peacock motif was used by a 3rd rank civilian official.


Clothing of Qing Dynasty

After the monarch of Qing dynasty invading into the Shanhai Pass, they compulsorily pushed the costume style of Mandarins and Emperor Qianlong set up a system of Man costumes different from that of Han people costumes. However mens daily wears still mainly are robes and magua, a mandarin jacket worn over a gown, and women of Manchu wore qifu long enough to cover their feet. Han women had no need to obey this system and could still follow their original style of shirt and skirt.


What an emperor wears is not just clothing and accessory, it is also an identity of feudal hierarchy. The emperors of Qing dynasty had 6 sets of clothing and accessory for different occasions, i.e. gunfu, ritual dress, chaofu, court robe, jifu/longpao, dragon robe, changfu for common situation, bian fu, for leisure time, xingfu for outing, yufu for rain days.

Table Costumes of Qing Emperors


Chaofu embroidered with clouds and dragons (replica), Qing Dynasty, Qianlong reign1644-1911

This caofu dress uses highest-level bright yellow satin and the small cape and sleeves use azurite color satin. 44 different-shaped golden dragons are embroidered on the small cape, two shoulders, front, back, waist, bottom and hoof-shaped sleeves with golden strings. Meanwhile, the twelve symbols for emperors only are embroidered on different parts of the robe.


Link: the Meaning of the twelve symbols

Sun, moon and star mean three lightings; mountain symbolizes sedate; huachong pheasant means colourful; zongyi is for bravery and wisdom; algae mean lustration; fire means luminosity; rice means nourishment; fu (second tune) and fu (third tune) means resolution.


This is a dragon robe of Qing dynasty. On the flowing water pattern ground, there is a combination of cloud pattern, crane and eight immortal motifs. The whole robe was brocaded with nine dragons, two on the shoulders, three aligned on the front and back respectively. The bottom is woven with mountain and sea pattern.

This is a dragon robe worn by empresses in summer, made of azurite satin, the style is a kind of Chinese-style jacket with buttons down the front, round collar, and flat sleeves. There are 8 golden dragons embroidered in gold thread, respectively on the shoulders, front, back and bottom. The lower border is decorated with vertical strips and the Eight Buddhist Emblems.

Mang dragon robe is similar to dragon robe with round collar, right front opening, hoof-shaped cuffs. But its pattern is mang not dragon. It is usually worn on ritual occasions and in the side of the robe decorated rank badges.

The difference between dragon and mang dragon

Dragon is a divine animal created by Chinese people. The Chinese call themselves the offspring of dragon. Dragon is also widely used on garments. In Tang dynasty, dragon pattern had 3 paws, while 5-paw dragon was set to be used only by the royalty in Yuan dynasty. Since Ming dynasty, the emperors gave some senior officials the dress with mang dragon, which has one paw less than the real dragon in order to show the prestige of dragon. Therefore, the difference between dragon and mang is on the number of their paws, dragon with 5 paws but mang with four paws.


The armours colour for Qing military soldiers was consistent to the flag colour of the banner they belonged, so that it was called banners armour. The armour made of silk was for a ceremony use, instead of real protector from fighting.

Link: Eight banners of Qing dynasty

Qi means banner, which was a social organization of both military and regime of Man nationality. Initiated in 1601, there were four banners: yellow, white, red and blue, each having 7,500 soldiers. In 1615, it was reset as eight banners in Manchuli. Late in Qing dynasty, members of the eight banners, so called qi people, all relied on allowance to survive.


Combination of changshan, robe with hoof-shaped cuff, and magua, short coat, was the main dress of men in Qing dynasty, which was used for riding and hunting first. The short coat was usually light and worn over the long and dark robe resulting in a style of short outside but long inside, and heavy top but light bottom.


Manchu women usually wore straight long robe with loose waist, embroidered purfle, especially butterfly patterns can often be seen around the borders of sleeves, hemlines, and openings. Usually, lady with higher social position wore longer qifu with a high bottom pot bottom shoes.


 Formation of Cheongsam

Cheongsam has been popular to date due to its exposure of female beauty. It was developed from the qifu of Manchu people, into more fitting and slim Cheongsam after absorbing the western fashion style. It was the standard womens wear in 1930s and is regarded as the national wear of China.


In early Qing dynasty, Han Chinese women followed the costume style of Ming dynasty, and they usually wear loose jacket with belted skirt. In late Qing dynasty, it was popular not to wear skirt but only loose trousers. In particular, there were a couple of special designs, such as several added sleeves, several lines of colourful brocade trimming around the neckline, sleeves, hemline and the edge of the trousers.


Chinese people have the extensive and intimate relation with silk. They not only wear luxury silk clothing, but also make many adornment small items in their daily lives, which reflect the graceful civilization of ancient china.


It is the most common small piece of embroidery people taking with them for holding small items. Popular in Qing dynasty, pouch was the gifts by the royalty as well as a keepsake between lovers.

It is a older for tobacco, popular in Qing dynasty. Its shape may be strip, vase or gourd.

Tied around the waist belt, it is for containing money and similar to modern waist pack.

In ancient China, name card is called ci, hence giving a name card usually called tou ci. Card-holder actually is for cards and letters.

Cases for holding folding fans are embroidered with fine patterns or poems. Men hang it on the waist belt. Folding fans came to China from Korea and became popular in late Qing dynasty.

Glasses came to China in Xuande reign of Ming dynasty and became popular in early Qing dynasty. The ellipse-shaped glasses case is not only a container for glasses, but also a sign of identity by bureaucrats and literati in Qing dynasty.

Also called ear warmer, earcap is a kind accessory against cold and protecting ears. In Ming dynasty, it was listed as an item of official wears and forbidden to use by common people.

Pinafore is a round piece with a placket behind the neck.

It is a small, usually in square, piece of embroidery at both sides of pillow.

It is a kind of female headdress around the forehead, protecting head against cold. The embroidery was usually made on black velvet or satin with pearls or emeralds.

Its a folk custom to make kids shoes embroidered with a motif of tiger head, chicken, pig, frog or rabbit, among which tiger head shoes are the most common ones.

Since Song dynasty, it is common for Chinese female to bind their feet, so their shoes are bow-shaped, usually called jinlian, meaning lotus, which is a prove how feudal rites treated traditional Chinese women.

There are two types of holder for fragrance, one sealed and the other with opening, from which the fragrance can be taken out or put in easily. The earliest one was found in Han dynasty.

There are several types of money holder. One is purse, usually square with a lid of ruyi fungus shape. The other is called dalian, a purse with two bags, which hang on the waist belt.





About 5000 years ago, our ancestors began to domesticate wild silkworms found on lush mulberry trees outdoors. Ever since then, sericulture, the techniques in raising silkworms, reeling the silk threads and weaving the fabrics has passed on to this day.

The silkworm has intrigued us with lots of questions:

What is inside its body?

How can it feed on green leaves but reel out threads?

Why does it encase itself inside the cocoon?

Let us examine and appreciate the various things involved in the world of the silkworm.



The silkworm is a complete metamorphosing insect. There are four stages in its life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and moth. Its body changes drastically in shape and appearance from stage to stage.

The life of a silkworm begins in the form of an egg. Slightly flat and oval shaped, the egg looks similar to a sesame seed. At the right temperature (above 20 C), the silkworm will hatch from the egg.

The newly hatched larva is dark brown in color, like that of an ant. As it grows the color of its body changes from brown to cool white. There are several times during its growth from a baby larva into an adult caterpillar when the silkworm will stop eating for long periods of time and become motionless. This indicates that it is in "sleep" (molting) and is ready to shed its skin (exuviation) for growing. Generally, a silkworm sleeps 4 times and goes through 5 larval stages in an approximately 30-day period before it is fully mature. At that time, the chest chamber has become semi-translucent, indication that the time has come for the silkworm to spin its cocoon.

After encasing itself inside the cocoon, the caterpillar transforms into a pupa (chrysalis). During the next ten days or so, its internal organs begin to change dramatically. The pupa turns into a moth inside the cocoon.

The moth is the adulthood stage of the silkworm. By emitting an acidic solvent known as cocoonase that weakens the wall of the cocoon, the moth breaks out. Once out of the cocoon, the female sends out a sex pheromone to attract the male. After mating, a female usually lays 400-500 eggs, fulfilling the task of reproduction.


Mulberry trees were associates with the Sun in Chinese mythology and planted close to dwellings with a sense of worship. The cultivation of mulberry trees dates back as early as the Shang and Zhou period. Since then, a wealth of experience and techniques have been accumulated and many species of mulberry trees suitable for growth in very different climates have been developed.

Mulberry trees are deciduous arboreal plants. They can grow very tall in nature. Ancient silk farmers had to climb into the trees to pick their leaves. Therefore, the trees were pruned and into a certain shape and height, cultivated to bear more leaves, making it easy for harvesting their leaves.

The cultivation of mulberry trees is as old as sericulture itself. In different climates and geographical conditions, many species of mulberry trees have been developed, resulting in trees with various kinds of shoots and leaves of different shapes. Generally, mulberry trees can be divided into 4 categories: the Shangdong species, the white species, the mountain species and the Guangdong species. Most of those grown in East China are low-stemmed mulberry trees, which can be further divided into fist-form and nonfist-form types according to the way branches are trimmed.

Researches conducted by scientists have revealed four major factors, which  led to the silkworm's choice of food: alluring smell, sense of bite, sense of swallow and repellent factor.

 Alluring Smell:

A number of volatile substances are found in mulberry leaves that attract the silkworm to find the mulberry leaf.

Sense of Bite:

Found only in mulberry leaves are some unique substances which induces interaction in the lower jaw of the silkworm when the leaves are chewed. If the lower jaw of a silkworm is cut off, it will lose the ability to identify the mulberry leaf and will feed on leaves of other trees as well.

Sense of Swallow:

Cellulose fibers in mulberry leaves improve movements in the digestive tracts of the silkworm by sending the food down to the rear ends and thus help its digestion.

Repellent Factor:

The lower jaw has bitterness sensors that are activated when leaves other than the mulberry are taken. This explains why the silkworm finds mulberry leaves pleasant to taste and tends to avoid leaves from other trees.

1) Do you know that leaves from the following plants are also good for food for the silkworm?

Mulberry Family: Osage Orange Leaves

Chrysanthemum Family: Lettuce, Dandelion

Elm Family: Wild Elm

Rose Family: Pear Leaves, Roses

2) Manufactured Substitute Foods

During the 1960s scientists developed nutritious manufactured substitute foods based on the needs and eating habits of the silkworm. There are a number of benefits to the introduction of manufactured foods. The production of silk is no longer limited by seasons. Industrialized nursing and feeding reduces labor costs and environmental pollution.

Have ever seen a mulberry fruit? Ripe ones are dark purple with a sweet taste. Ever noticed the flower of the mulberry?

Mulberry flowers are unisexual. Each male or female flower has a central axis onto which a cluster of several dozens of small flower heads are grown. Such floral formations are known as sorosis  Mulberry is edible and has herbal uses.

To meet the demands of silk production, farmers need more and better seedlings of the mulberry tree. Different methods to reproduce the seedlings have been developed such as sexual propagation through seed breeding and species hybridization, nonsexual propagation through grafting, cutting and layering. In addition to these traditional methods, more advanced biotech methods such as tissue culture are used for large scale production in mulberry tree nurseries.

At the early stage, our ancestors relied on wild mulberry trees to raise the silkworms. As sericulture developed, cultivation of the mulberry trees expended into many areas. By the 17th century, thanks to foreign trade, four major silk producing regions were formed, namely Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Sichuan and Guangdong. Among them, silk farmers in Sichuan utilized non-tillable land to grow four-sided mulberry, while in Guangdong, ecologically efficient mulberry-based fish ponds were establishe


The body of the silkworm is pretty much like a tiny processing workshop where the spinets on the mouth have the leaves roughly processed by chopping them up. The intestines digest the leaves and absorb the nutrients. The blood transports the nutrients with large amounts of amino acids, which, when passing the silk glands or tracks is and absorbed. The amino acids are also synthesized into serific protein. At this stage, the matured caterpillar appears basically white like a tube full of silk. By gently tossing its head from side to side, it spins the cocoon by reeling out a filament from its spinets on the mouth.

When time comes, a survival instinct leads the silkworm to spin the cocoon in order to protect itself when transformed into a pupa from a larva. Also too much intake of amino acids can be poisonous. Therefore the extrusion of silk is a way of adapting to a different environment. The construction of the cocoon is a huge project for a silkworm to complete, one that requires 3 days of exhausting labor by spinning a continuous filament over 1,000 meters long (almost a mile).


The silkworm also has respiratory organs for breathing. However, its respirators are not located on the head but on both sides of the body. They are called air pores.


At the larval stage, the silkworm has 6 single-lens eyes on each side of its head. At the moth stage, it has two compound eyes each of which contains 3000 tiny lenses or stemmata sensitive to the intensity of light.

Physical features of the male and the female are most apparent at the pupa stage and the moth stage, when the female has a large abdomen whereas the male has a smaller abdomen. The female has a faint "X" mark on top of the 8th abdominal section whereas the male has a tiny dark brown mark right above the anus at the 9th abdominal section. Also apparently different are the shapes of their external genital organs.

The skin of the silkworm is a waxy layer that would not grow. It has to be shed (a process called molting) when the silkworm grows and needs a larger jacket. Before molting, the silkworm secures the skin shell down by emitting small amounts of silk on the feet. After the new skin is formed, it sheds the old one off.

Cocoons produced in different geographical area are different in shape and color. Chinese cocoons are oval, ball-shaped and spindle-shaped. Japanese cocoons have a contracted waist. European cocoons have a slightly contracted waist. Most cocoons are white. However, there are also yellow and green ones. With the help of biotechnology, good quality colored cocoons have been developed.

Under the microscope, a filament from the cocoon consists of two smaller filaments (known as brins) gummed together pararell to each other. A cross-section of the smaller filaments reveals that they are triangular in shape. These two filaments are made up of fibroin protein, the principal constituent of silk, and the gummy substance wrapping around them is the sericin protein.


natural and synthetic fibers. Natural fibers are those that grow or are formed in nature. Biologically, they are divided into plant fibers, animal fibers and mineral fibers. Silk belongs to animal fibers. Synthetic fibers are formed by chemical or mechanical means.


Silk contains 18 different kinds of amino acids and protein. It is a natural porous fiber. Known as Queen of fibers, it exceeds any other fiber in absorbency, warmth, feel and shine. Under the microscope, a single silk thread reveals two parallel filaments with triangular cross sections, bonded together on the outside by a substance called sericin. The filament itself is made of serific protein.

Egg-cards are used to hold the seed eggs in silk production. A single card, counted as one unit, normally yields 18,000 silkworms. In the spring, such a group of silkworms are expected to consume some 700 kilograms of mulberry leaves before they are fully mature. (Consumption will be a little less for the summer and the fall crops.) With an average cocoon weighing about 2 grams, a card yields about 35kg of cocoons. Cocoons are baked, reeled to make raw silk. One ton of raw silk requires 6860 kg of cocoons. An average piece of clothing uses 2.5 meters of silk fabric, about 200g. A ton of silk makes 5,000 pieces of clothing.

1 Female moth=500 Eggs

10kg Mulberry leaves500 silkworms

500 silkworms1000g Cocoons

1000g150g Raw silk

150g Raw silk=1.8m2 silk fabric


Sweet Home of the Silk Farmer

Enough choices in clothing and plenty of food used to be the ideal life for the Chinese. The traditional economy was based on a model in which the man tilled and the woman wove. Such a scene could still be found in "South of the Yangtze", where acres upon acres of mulberry trees stretch to the horizon and specially constructed silk nursery buildings populate the area. Eagerly awaited harvesting seasons of the cocoons are always festive.

All kinds of rearing equipment and implements such as these are placed inside the rearing rooms. These shelved frame-stands are made of wood and bamboo with occasional iron bars. The rearing trays are woven of bamboo strips.

Feeding Stand and Rearing Net

The feeding stand is used as a temporary support to the trays while they are pulled off the shelves for feeding fresh leaves to the silkworms. The rearing net is used for lifting the larvae when they are about to sleep, or just wake up from a sleep (newly exuviated) or a clearing of their droppings is needed. Usually, the nets are made of cotton cords or nylon. Sizes of the mesh openings vary anywhere from 0.3 to 1.3.

These are small and convenience tools for lifting and handling newly-hatched larvae and young caterpillars.

These tools are used to chop mulberry leaves down to different sizes depending on the age of the silkworms to be fed. Very young larvae need to be fed with thin slices, known as "leaf threads" in some localities. Those at the 3rd and 4th molting are fed with pieces cut to square or   triangle shapes.

These tools provide housing for the silkworms to spin their cocoons. Placed on the mounting frame with economy of space in mind, the folded straw mounts have lots of room inside each for the silkworms to build their cocoons.

Ritual Ceremonies and Various Activities Honoring the Gods of Silk

Since ancient times, silk farmers put great importance on ritual ceremonies honoring the silk gods. December 12 on the Lunar calendar is the birth day of the Silk Goddess. Many folks in the country flock to temples of silk gods, hold ritual activities and prey for a good year of silk nursing. Some make special stuffed raviolis for sacrifices. (Such customs lasted until the 1950s.)

During the Chinese New Year's period, there used to be "polite" beggars distributing 蚕花, often accompanied by lion dancers. They would carry a colorfully decorated statue or portrait of the silk god and go from door to door, playing instruments and chanting in words of blessing. Farmers would happily donate foods. Most families would have a printed tablet representing the silk god placed on the altar in the kitchen.


Around mid April, the season for silk production kicks off and almost all silk producing families start to close their front doors (only side doors were used for entrance) and stops visiting each other for the rest of the season.

There are lots of taboos in and around the silk nursery due to the fact that the silkworm is easily disturbed. First of all, general cleanliness is required. Smoking and burning of hair is a big no-no. Crying and yelling is prohibited. Strangers, including guests are not welcome. Wet leaves and those still warm in temperature have to wait until dry and cool before the silkworms are fed.     

During the mounting period, doors and windows are covered with blinds.  

A ceremonial bunch of vegetation usually consisting peach branches, broad-bean plants, canola plants or leaves of garlic is hung over the frames for "protection from the devils."


Friends and relatives start to visit each other soon after the cocoons are collected and stored. They round off the season by bring each other gifts and holding another round of ritual ceremonies.



After the silkworm completes the cocoon, humans use a process called reeling to obtain the silk fiber. Raw silk fibers are further processed into weave-ready yarns which are then interwoven as warps and wefts on looms to produce silk textiles of all kinds. Whatever is involved in the above process, with all the technical details, is known as the art of weaving. To make the fabrics more beautiful, colorful dyes and design patterns of all kinds are used for either dyeing or printing. Nowadays, weaving and dyeing has become increasingly efficient and elaborate. We are capable of producing super-thin gauzes like the wings of a cicada and splendid satins. But let us remember that all these achievements are preceded with countless innovations by our ancestors who invented the primitive back-strap loom, the treadle plain-weave loom and then the drawloom.


The process of Dyeing &Weaving illustrated by the Painting "Weaving"Xia Hou of the Ming


How were our ancestors able to make such beautiful silk textiles? In his painting "Weaving", Xia Hou of the Ming provides vivid illustrations that give us answers to the various steps involved in the manufacturing process. They include: reeling, spooling, doubling, twisting, winding, drafting, weaving, degumming, and dyeing.



Before weaving, all yarns need to be prepared into two groups: warp threads and weft threads. Preparation of warp threads includes the following steps: spooling, sizing, doubling and twisting. The warp threads are then drafted onto the loom while the weft threads are wound onto a bobbin which is placed into a shuttle to begin weaving.



Pulling out the filaments from several cocoons and twisting them together into a single strand, this process is called reeling. Further bounded by sericin, a strand or grege thus formed is known as raw silk thread. Each thread of raw silk is usually a twist of 7 to 8 filaments from the same number of cocoons.


In ancient China, any instrument with a wheel was referred to as a "machine". The reeling wheel on the reeling machine was referred to as Yue (reel). The reel is turned by hand or a treadle powered crank. Filaments from the cocoons floating in a water pan are drawn through a guiding-eye, combined over a roller and then wound onto the reel. In this manner, a hank of raw silk is made.


The Starting End

To begin reeling, you need to find the starting end of the long filament from each cocoon first. Which seems to be a daunting task with a pan full of cocoons with unidentified ends? However, a silk worker can pick up the ends of all the cocoons in a pan easily, aided by a cocoon-brush.



Threads on the reels are in large hanks. They need to be transferred onto smaller spools so as to make the job easier when a silk worker is preparing them for the warp and weft threads. This step is known as spooling.

tools for spooling

Tools for spooling are simple. A hank of silk is mounted on a larger reel made of four sticks of bamboo. It is then wound onto a revolving spool.

The transfer from a large reel to a spool may involve only one or two plies, but they seem endless.

On a weft winder, the spool of silk is further separated by winding it onto bobbins, ready to be used as weft yarn.

The weft winder consists of a silk-reel, a spindle and a bobbin. With the spool set aside, one end of the yarn is attached to the bobbin. As the silk-reel is turned by hand, the yarn is wound onto the bobbin.

There are many different kinds of silk threads. A single fiber reeled from a cocoon is called a filament. A combination of several filaments is called raw silk yarn or grege silk. A gathering of several raw silk yarns is called a plied yarn. After twisting, a yarn is called a twisted thread. Combining twisted threads makes them into a string, cord or plied yarn. Depending on the methods used, a variety of formations are possible such as coiled or wrapped yarns. To add more effects, special materials such as gold and silver threads and feathers are woven into silk fabrics.

Turning a yarn or fiber in a certain direction to make it into a spiral shape, usually done with a pair so the two tend to hold tight to each other. Such a process is called twisting. Direction of the twist is expressed with the slant found in the letters Z and S. Z-twist stands for left twist while S-twist stands for right twist.

There are two basic approaches in the manufacturing silk fabrics. One is to weave with raw silk and then finish the fabric off with dyeing. The other is to weave using degummed and colored yarns. Degummed colored yarns, also known as pile yarns, are generally used in patterned weave.

Two or more twisted yarns combine to make a plied yarn. If the number of twists is basically equal among each ply, the yarn is considered a regular plied yarn. In the case of a smaller yarn coiling around a much thicker center core, it is known as "coiling dragon pole". Such technique was first found during the Ming. When the yarn at the center is completely covered by another, it is called a wrapped yarn.


For visual effects, metallic threads such as gold and silver have been incorporated into silk textiles. The two main types are flat strips and wrapped threads. As is indicated by its name, the flat strip has a flat surface. The earliest known example of a silk fabric with flat gold strips is a piece unearthed from a Tang Dynasty Tibetan tomb located in Dulan of Qinghai Province.

The craft of gold thread making

A small piece of gold is sandwiched between two sheets of paper and slowly pounded with a hammer into foil. To avoid breakage, the foil is placed onto a substrate such as an animal skin, membrane or a fibrous paper. It is then cut into threads.Currently, it is estimated that one gram of gold yields 700square meters of foil which makes 700000 meters of gold threads.


Wrapped Gilt Threads

Wrapped gold threads are also known as gilt cords, where the gold thread wraps around a central core. In the West, animal material was mainly used as backing.


Peacock Threads

In the classic novel "Dreams of the Red Chamber", there is a description of Qing Wen mending Bao Yu's fur cloak using threads made of peacock feather. This kind of threads was also used for high-end fabrics during the Ming and the Qing. One of the dragon robes excavated from the Ming Tombs in Beijing was woven with threads made of peacock feather combined with gold threads.  



Silk fabrics are made on looms by interlacing two groups of yarns at the right angle, namely the warps and the wefts. Great fabrics are preceded by the invention and improvement of the looms that make them. The three mechanical motions, shedding, picking and beating are the fundamental steps involved in weaving. The level of design in the shedding mechanism indicates how advanced the system is.



Plain Weave Shedding

On a plain weave loom, the warp threads are divided into two groups with all the odd numbered threads in one group and the even numbered ones in the other. The two groups are then separately drafted through two wired frames called heddles. When one of the heddles is lifted while the other is lowered, an opening is created between the two groups of threads now on different layers. This opening, called a shed, allows the shuttle to go through it carrying the weft over. The action that keeps bringing the two groups of warps to different levels is called "shedding."

Patterned Weave Shedding

A pattern draft is a preliminary diagrammed version of a patterned fabric. Applied exclusively by Chinese weavers who operated by hand, it was an ingenious practice, where structural design of the fabric was carried out on paper first and then translated into material with the use of heddles. The design, much like that of a computer program, controlled the way patterns were formed in the weaving process. In his book "Exploitations of the Works of Nature" Song Yingxing praised the pattern designers as "the smartest."

Just like a graphic image can be displayed using only black and white, the patterns of a fabric can be shown in a diagram using two groups of dots representing the warp and weft. A black dot indicates warp over weft and a white dot weft over warp. Different arrangements of these dots result in various patterns. On paper, these arrangements are called drafts.


An intersection of a vertical and horizontal line on the draft indicates an interlacing of a warp and a weft. A vertical line over a horizontal one represents a lifted warp over weft and vice versa.


The way a horizontal line travels across all the vertical lines represents the weave pattern of a particular weft pick in relation to the shedding order of all the warp ends. The shedding order is rearranged, as each weft pick shots across the warp ends, according to the information provided by the draft. When all the individual weft picks in a design complete one cycle and start to repeat, the pattern is already woven into and shown on the fabric. This information on the traveling pattern of each pick and its corresponding shedding order of the warps is stored in memory and released to the weaving mechanism each time the same fabric is needed, of course showing the same design.


The shuttle is a vehicle that carries the weft through the shed. Usually it is cone-shaped with smaller ends and a wider middle section hollowed out for the thread-carrying bobbin.



Fantastic textiles are made possible only by the elaborate looms that weave them. The continued improvements and pursuit for perfection in the development of the loom marked some of the greatest achievements of human wisdom. Primitive weavers used back-strapped looms with hand-lifted shedding. Later came the treadle plain-weave looms. To repeat a particular pattern, various heddle devices were added to store the figuring information. Before the Industrial Revolution, looms constructed by the Chinese were always among the best in the world. This also contributed the fact that for long periods of time China remained as the world's leading producer of silk.

Smart (ji-qiao)

The ancient form of the Chinese character ji (for machine) is a pictograph of a slant loom with hanging heddles. Later on, "ji" was used to refer to mechanical devices of all sorts. Quite a few adjectives in the Chinese language are derived from this character such as nimble minded (ji-zhi), smart (ji-qiao) and quick witted (ji-min). The "loom" represented wisdom in ancient China.

Treadleless Looms

Treadleless Looms are the earliest looms known to mankind. Archeological findings prove that these early looms were back-strapped, operated with heddle rods and without foot treadles. Descendants of these primitive looms can still be found in various parts of the world today.

The Primitive Back-strap Loom

The earliest looms use a heddle rod to create a shed by separating the warp threads into two layers. They produce plain-weave textiles. Usually with their cloth beams strapped to the back of the weaver with a belt, they rely on the human body to keep the warps straight for weaving. Hence the name. Archeological discoveries from the Hemudu Culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, provide physical evidence that our ancestors were using this type of loom some 7,000 years ago.

Warp-weighted Loom

With a tilted frame, such a loom has a warp beam on top and all the warp threads hanging from the beam are weighted down by weights at the ends. They were in use for weaving wool during the Greek Period, as early as 6th Century B.C...

 Two-bar Ground Loom

With the warp tired to the warp-beam on one end and wound onto the cloth-beam on the other, these looms have their beams fixed to the ground. Heddles are used for opening the shed as well as pick-up sticks for patterns. Looms with these features can be seen through reconstructed models of weaving workshops from wall paintings in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.

 Two-bar Vertical Loom

The two-bar vertical loom shares the same working principle as the two-bar ground loom except that its warp threads are stretched perpendicularly to the ground. Examples of these looms can be seen in wall paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs.

Treadle Looms

The employment of foot treadles replaced the hands in operating the heddles for changing sheds in plain weave. This marked a major technological advance in the development of the loom. The earliest treadle looms appeared during the Warring States Period in China. Several variations were developed in terms of body type and construction, such as the reclining model, the slant model and the horizontal model.


Reclining Looms

The use of a foot treadle in operating the heddle for alternating the sheds is the most distinctive feature of a reclining loom. Another improvement seen on this loom is that the warp beam is fix on the frame, even though the cloth beam is still strapped to the back of the weaver. This model first appeared during the Han Dynasty and spread to Southeast Asia around 3rd Century AD.


Slanted Looms

Many examples of slanted looms are found on Han Dynasty relief stone carvings, indicating that they were widely used during that time. Featuring two treadle boards that control one heddle shaft, a slant loom has a tilted body.


Leveled Looms

A leveled loom uses two treadle boards that control two heddle shafts. As one shaft is lifted, the other is depressed. This alternating shedding movement is facilitated by an oscillating lever fixed on top of the frame. These looms appeared around the 13th Century.


Leveled Loom, European Version

European leveled looms are similar to their Chinese counterparts. Developed around the 13th Century, they also employ two treadles that control the movements of two heddle shafts.


Patterning Looms

In weaving more complicated patterns, it became necessary to make the loom perform the same recurring action. Heddles and drafts were used to store patterning information. With the arrival of multi-heddle and multi-treadle patterning looms and drawlooms of all kinds, man's capability in patterned weave is greatly enhanced.


Multi-heddle and Multi-treadle Patterning Looms

In pattern weave, one heddle cord dictates one weft pick in how it travels. The larger the pattern, the more heddles are needed. These looms that employ multiple treadles to control the figuring heddles are known as multi-heddle patterning looms. They were widely used during the Warring States and Qin periods around 221 BC.


Lesser Drawloom

The lesser drawloom has a straight frame with an upright platform for harnesses in the middle section. Also known as a harnessed loom, it has a huaben-draft mounted on top of the platform to store patterning information. Two persons are needed to operate this loom. One sits by the side of the platform to pull the drawstrings that lift the desired warp threads to open a pattern shed while the weaver does the weaving. Developed during the Tang, this looms remained popular since the Song.



Greater Drawloom

To store the figuring information of a large pattern unit, drawstrings representing tens and thousands of wefts are arranged in circles that are hung in the back of the loom. Looms with that number of harnesses can produce fabrics with huge patterns such as the dragon robes. Two persons are required to operate the loom, with one sitting on top of the loom to pull the harnesses that lift the corresponding warps to open the shed, while the other inserts the shuttle and beats the weft. This type of greater drawlooms was already in existence by the late Tang period.


 Zilu Loom

The zilu loom is similar to the vertical two-bar loom in structure, but slightly slanted. It has heddles to the front of the loom and a set of figure harness attached to its side. Patterning is done as the fabric is woven. However, no pattern information is stored but rather abandoned after the pattern is finished, a practice that resulted in patterns with repeats only in the weft direction but no warp repeats. This is a distinctive feature shared by all weft-faced samites produced in the Middle East during China's Tang period.

Persian Drawloom

The Persian drawloom is also a patterning loom with a huaben-draft. It usually has several divided drafts hanging from a cross bar on top. A drawboy sits on top and pulls the drawstrings in an order while the weaver works the shuttle and beats the weft. The Persian drawloom is derived from the Chinese lesser drawloom.


The French Drawloom

The French drawloom is another version of the Chinese drawloom. The pattern harness is attached to the side of the loom, making it unnecessary for the drawboy to climb onto the top. He can operate while standing by its side. The weaver does perform the same operation as on other looms.


Developed in 1801 by French man Jacquard, this loom is equipped with a Jacquard patterning harness and a flying shuttle. The patterning harness relies on a system of punched cards to control the patterning while the flying shuttle greatly increased the speed of weaving. The invention of the Jacquard loom signifies the arrival of the modern era in the development of the loom.


Loom with iron and wood construction

At the end of the 19th Century, reeling machines were introduced into China, marking the beginning of the modern era in China's silk industry. Around 1915, Hangzhou and several other cities imported looms powered by electricity, turning a new page in China's Contemporary weaving technology.



Apart from its wearability, elegance in pattern design and variety in fabric structure, silk also enjoys a wide-spread reputation for its luster and splendor of color. Since the Shang and Zhou periods, the Chinese in their pursuit of beauty have established a coloring system of their own by utilizing mineral pigments and vegetable dyes found in nature. These unique dyeing techniques have contributed greatly to the continued renewal and aesthetic perfection in the art of silk textiles.


Mineral Coloring

Printing on fabrics using mineral pigments mixed with some kind of adhesive or hand painting on fabrics using minerals ground into powder was two basic primitive techniques known as mineral coloring. Used mainly for small patterns on large grounds, both techniques have been in use since Neolithic times.  



White pigments are abundant. One of the most commonly used was limestone; chalk mixed with adhesive was used at a later period. Mica was also used for white and vanadium was used for leaden and silver gray.




Reds, mainly consisting hematite and cinnabar was used by most primitive tribes for the worship of the sun. The main contents of cinnabar is HgS. Its use is not limited to painting. It is also used for dyeing. Evidence of silk textiles dyed with cinnabar can be found in fabrics unearthed from Qingtai Village in Yunyang, Henan. The practice was popular during the Shang and Zhou periods, but was gradually abandoned after the Han.




Arsenic sulphide can be further divided into orpiment and realgar. They were first used as pigments in the Western Zhou period. A warm and reddish yellow, Arsenic sulphide has great color intensity and purity. It was later replaced by gold.



Most greens have elements of oxidized copper. Copper mining started early in China, which led to the discovery of many copper dyestuffs. such as Kong Qing (CuCO3Cu(OH)2)verdigrisgenerally known as malachiteand Shi Qing.( 2 CuCO3Cu(OH)2)



Ink was the main mineral black. Later black was obtained by burning lacquer and pine. The soot collected was then mixed with resin or other types of adhesive and herbs for luster.


Vegetable Dyes

Vegetable dyes refer to those organic compounds that are water soluble and can be applied to a fiber either directly or with the help of agents to show color. Except for a few animal dyes, most of the dyestuff used by the Chinese in ancient times were vegetable dyes, which mainly came from the flowers, leaves and roots of various plants. Generally known as vegetable dyes, they are the main contents of coloring substances in ancient China.


  Madder ( rubia cordifolia) 

Commonly used during the Warring States period through Qin and Han times, madder is the earliest recorded red dye in China. It is a mordant dye. When applied directly on a fabric, it is yellow. When such intermediaries as straw or wood ashes or alum are added, a variety of reds are yield.


Sappan (caesalpinia sappan) 

Also a mordant dye, sappan was originally produced in Southeast Asia and South China. It was introduced into the heart-land by the Wei and Tang periods. As a result of large increases in its imports, this particular substance has had a tremendous impact in the Chinese coloring system.


Safflower (carthamus tinctorius) 

Legendarily brought back by Zhang Qian from Central Asia, safflower is best applied in an acidic solution. Dried flowers, or in bricks, were being made out of this substance as early as the Northern Wei dynasty for commercial application; it was widely applied during the Tang. Since then, it has remained as one of the most important red dyes in China.


Cape Jesmine  (gardenia jasminnoides) 

Used for yellow in the Han dynasty, cape jesmine is used for its flower which contains two substances. One of them is , a mordant dye, and the other is saffron, a direct dye.


Hispid arthraxon and its derivative colors

The "Book of Verses" has this: "Picking greens all day, not enough to fill the basket." Greens here refer to hispid arthraxon. Recognized and used as a dye at a very early stage, it contains  Using FeSO4 as an mordant, it yields dark green. When using straw ashes, it yields yellow.


Buds of the pagoda tree (sophora japonica)

Using the buds of the pagoda tree  to obtain a yellow dye started in the Tang dynasty. It needs an intermediary.


The main coloring element in the smoke tree is a sulfuric dyestuff, which is an intermediary dye agent.


Using the substance indigo obtained from leafy plants of the genus indigo to dye fabrics may result in a richer blue, hence the proverb "Blue comes from the indigo plant but is bluer than the plant itself." Originally a direct dye, indigo started to be applied using the reduce dyeing since the Wei and Qin periods. Commonly used plants include strobilanthes cusia, indegofera and isatis tinctoria .

Purple grass

Purple grass has been used as a dye in as early as the Spring & Autumn and Warring States period. Dark red can be obtained from mixing it with ashes of the Chinese mahogany tree, which is a typical intermediary dye agent.

Most black vegetable dyes contain pyrogallol tannin substances. Intense blacks are obtained from combining tannin with iron mordant. Commonly used tannin materials include barks of the hazel tree(corylus heterophylla ), Mongolian oak (Quercus dentate ) and roots of the dye yam (dioscorea cirrhosa ).

Chemical Dyes

In 1856, a British student (W. H. Perkin) invented Marveine, a synthetic dye made from benzene found in coal tar. Ever since then, cheaper, more consistent and brighter colored chemical dyes gradually replaced natural dyes as synthetic fibers of all sorts are manufactured. Modern dyeing industry took off. By the end of the 19th Century, Western chemical dyes were introduced into China.



For hundreds of years, Chinese ethnic minorities from all regions of the country have created woven and printed textiles with distinguished ethnic features through their accumulated experience, unlimited imagination and excellent design skills. These creations not only added beauty into people's lives but also have become an important part of the cultural heritage for the nation. The exhibits here represent existing looms still in used in production by weavers of various ethnic groups and folk artists. Models of ancient looms that were long lost in history but have now been reconstructed by researchers are also on display.


Reconstructed Looms

For long periods of time, China led the world in silk textile weaving technology. Its various inventions such as the plain treadle loom, gauze loom, multi-heddle and multi-treadle loom, drawloom for samite were the world's most advanced looms. As times changed, they were gradually replaced by more advanced models. The looms now on display in this section, previously seen only in classic books, have been successfully reconstructed, thanks to the untiring efforts by several generations of scholars.

Multi-heddle Loom (used for Han jin-silk)

Registered 2002 research project funded by the National Bureau of Cultural Relics. After persistent research into the figured weaving techniques of the Han dynasty, researchers concluded that production of warp-faced Han satin was easier without the use of a patterning harness. Han weavers relied on skillful arrangements of the patterning sequence. All the patterning information for the warps was stored into the heddles on the upper half of the shaft and patterning was done by hand.

 Jin-silk with the inscription "The King and duke bonded by marriage, forever benefiting their future generations" (replica)

This fragment, according to the inscription "The King and duke bonded by marriage, forever benefiting their future generations", is believed to be part of a textile presented for a wedding by the rulers of China proper to one of their nobles in a distant region. Bearing a pattern of animals with rolling clouds typically found in warp-faced satins of the Han and Jin periods, this piece is classified as a national treasure. Weave structure: 1:3 warp-faced compound tabby with a dark blue ground, 4 colored warp ends (crimson, white, yellow and green) among which the yellow end and green end alternate in different areas.


Pebbled-Treadle Loom

This type of loom, known as the "pebbled-treadle loom", was very popular during the Qing dynasty and could be found all over China. Some of these looms still exist today in the Shuangliu region of Sichuan province. The treadles on this loom have rough surfaces dotted with raised bamboo bolts resembling the stepping stones in the local creeks, hence the name. A distinctive feature of this loom is that each heddle shaft is controlled by one treadle. Therefore, the more complexed the figure in the textile, the greater the number of shafts and treadles employed.


Slant Treadle Loom

Invented in China, the slant loom is equipped with treadles. It was widely used in the Han dynasty. Based on extensive study of numerous Han stone relief carvings, and especially aided by a glazed Han ceramic loom, researchers concluded that it was a two-treadle single heddle plain weave loom that already employed the principle of tension compensation. This type of loom, long vanished in the course of history, has now been successfully reconstructed. It was the kind of loom that quite possibly reflected the true level of technology at that time.   

So far, as many as 17 pieces of Han dynasty relief sculpture stone tablets have been identified as carrying scenes and images of looms. Nine of these pieces are in Shandong province,  six in Jiangsu and one each for Sichuan and Jilin. The looms depicted indicate the level of weaving technology known to the average family during the Han.

Glazed Ceramic Loom Model, Collection of Mm. Krishna Riboud, France

Collected by French scholar Mm. Krishna Riboud, this green glazed ceramic miniature loom model, measuring 30cm(h)x 25cm(l)x 17cm(w), is the only existing example of the Han reclined loom in 3-D form. Location of its excavation is unknown. The reconstructed model of the reclined loom in our museum is largely based on this ceramic model.


Vertical Loom

Vertical Loom, similar to Han's oblique loom, is a type of treadle loom with a central axle .It uses two treadles controlling one heddle shaft through the central axle. Here the loom is reconstructed according to the illustration of the book Zi Ren Yi Zhi by Xue Jinshi ,the Yuan Dynasty .


Zilu Loom

Weft-faced fragments unearthed along the Silk Road in Central Asia show the following distinctive features: weave structure of the fabric is a weft-faced compound twill, with a width of about 1 meter. Figures in the warp direction repeat only in the weft direction. It is assumed that these fabrics may have been produced on looms quite similar to the Zilu loom still in use in Iran today.

Weft-faced fragments & Floral roundels

Floral roundels was most popular pattern of the Tang weft-faced fragments. The design is actually a composite image of the flower, combining leaf and flower, blossoms of all four seasons, and merging frontal view with profile. Actual patterns can be classified into four types. The first is petal-shaped, the second is bud-shaped, the third shows a profile view of the flower. The fourth is scenic with birds, bees and butterflies.

Brocade Loom

A typical model of the greater drawlooms, this type was used in the Nanjing area of Jiangsu province for producing various brocades. Its features include the capability to produce large and circular patterns, the capacity to store large amounts of warp-patterning information and the ability to make patterns with a huge repeat such as the dragon robe. The drawboy sits on top of the harnesses and pulls the drawstrings towards the back of the usually tilted loom.

The Greater Drawloom & Cloud Brocades

Cloud Brocade refers to any of the various weft-faced brocades produced traditionally in the Nanjing area on a greater drawloom using colored yarns. For a very long period of time, from the Yuan and Ming through the Qing dynasties, production of Nanjing Cloud Brocades was managed by the imperial courts. Among the products, the brocaded patterns made using the hatch method was the most famous.


Zhang Velvet Loom

Used for the production of velvet textiles, this type of loom features a special pile-rod and warp-feeding device. The pile-rod causes the fabric to loop. The warp-feeding device employs dual warp beams where one beam carries the pile warps and the other carries the ground warps.



Since the Tang dynasty, the area known as "South of the Yangtze” has charmed the world with its lustrous growth of mulberry trees,  sericultural resources and exquisite weaving techniques. Silk itself as a fabric, airy and translucent, pure and light, best reflects the kind of soft beauty unique to the region. Nowadays, with widely applied advanced equipment, combined with traditional techniques, a new generation of quality silk textiles is being made that carry distinguished local features. These textiles look contemporary and serve both decorative and practical purposes.


Indigo dyed textile

The distinguished indigo dyed cloths are a local tradition. Started as a lost wax process, it has a long history. In recent years, this type of cloth that used to be common thing for the folks in the countryside has entered the metropolitan areas and become a favorite for many uses including anything from fashion to daily items.


Stamp Rock

Smoothing is a finishing process where the fabric is pressed using a very smooth pebble rock to add luster. The pebble rock or stamp rock as it is also called, is a special tool for that purpose.


Kesi Loom

The Kesi loom is a horizontal treadle loom. The two heddles are operated by two treadles respectively, hence the name single motion double heddle loom. It is used exclusively for weaving kesi fabrics. A special hand-held wooden comb is used instead of the weft beater. Along the same warp end, multiple small shuttles may be used at different sections to weave in different colored weft picks.


Silk Tapestry (Kesi)

 Kesi is a tabby woven using a tapestry technique where all the warps run the entire length of the piece being woven while the multi-colored weft yarns are inserted with small shuttles only in areas called for by the design, and then cut where not needed, a distinctive feature known as "full length warps with discontinuous wefts." The technique originated from weavers using animal hair in Central Asia. Since the Southern Song Dynasty, a number of great weavers have made themselves known by reproducing masterpieces of Chinese art on paper in the form of silk tapestry. Among them, Shen Zifan and Zhu Kerou were masters of the craft. Nowadays, kesi is mainly produced for kimono sashes for export to Japan, with occasional pieces made into screens and hanging scroll paintings.


Huzhou Shuanglin Loom Contributed by Shuanglin Silk Weaving Mill, Huzhou

This type of horizontal lesser drawloom is commonly used in the Shuanglin area of Huzhou. Operation of the loom requires two persons. Using high quality Jili silk produced locally as raw material, these looms specialize in producing very light figured twill and tabby fabrics. Once off the looms, these fabrics are treated in various vegetable dyes and then smoothed out with pebble rocks. These fabrics are used mainly for mounting Chinese painting and calligraphy.

 The lesser Drawloom of the Ming

In his book "Exploitations of the Works of Nature", in the chapter on garments Song Yingxing1587-1666, a Ming dynasty scholar, left us a wealth of detailed information in text and illustrations depicting the kind of lesser drawloom used during late Ming dynasty.  

Looms Used by Ethnic Minorities

China's ethnic minorities are hard working and highly intelligent people. Many of them live in China's border regions such as the Zhuangs in Guangxi , the Dais in Yunnan and the Uygurs in Xinjiang. They maintain the custom of passing on weaving techniques to the next generation. Strongly featured and incredibly colorful, the satins and brocades produced there hold a special place among the various woven and embroidered textile works produced in China. The looms on which these fabrics are produced indicate a direct hereditary relationship with ancient looms, especially patterning looms. Many existing looms in these areas provide important physical evidence for the study of ancient looms.


Primitive Back-strap Loom, Yunnan

In today's mountain villages inhabited by the Lahu people of Yunnan, surviving primitive back-strap looms still exist. Usually the warp beam of this type of loom is hung over the beam of a wooden house. Using such simple tools as ropes, knife, heddle sticks and a cloth beam, a Lahu woman can produce colorful figured fabrics on a back-strap loom.


Bamboo Cage Loom

The polychromatic silk textiles of the Zhuang people in Guangxi are made on this type of loom. The shedding mechanism on this loom is a bamboo woven basket shaped like those for transporting piggies, hence the name. As a special feature, this loom employs approximately 100 patterning sticks of bamboo (serving as temporary weft picks) and about the same number of heddles (used for the warps) in formatting a pattern and storing its configuration. After each beating of the weft, a bamboo stick is pressed in a predetermined order to move the heddles which in turn regulates the corresponding warp ends to create the shed. After each shuttle movement, a bamboo stick is turned to the back of the cage while the weaver moves on to the next step of the patterning circle.

The Four Famous Brocades

Sichuan Brocade

Produced in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. is a polychrome silk with a warp-faced compound weave.reached its zenith in the Han and Tang dynasties. Among the products, the pure red pieces are best known. .

Song Brocade

Mainly produced in Suzhou, these figured weft-faced compound satin, became popular during the Ming Dynasty.

Yun Brocade

Produced in large quantities during the Ming and Qing dynasties, these silk textiles have lusterous patterns resembling colorful clouds.

Zhuang Brocade

Well known for their folk arts and crafts, the Zhuang Minority use fine cotton and multi-colored silk yarns to make their brocades. The figures are usually strong in color contrast, and the pieces are mainly used for quilts, bed coverings, skirts and hand bags.


Tai brocade loom

The Tai brocade loom is a traditional device used for fabricating Dai polychrome figured silk. Its yarn woven curtain-shaped pattern draft controls the figuring. After every shuttle is finished, the earings are transfered to be keft in the lower part. The number of the earings in the pattern ranges up to 100.

Khotan Ikat Loom

A real classic still in use today in the Khotan region of Xinjiang. Before weaving, the warps are tie-dyed. When loading the colored warps onto the beams, the colors are left offset and aliased instead of being perfectly aligned, resulting in patterns that are not uniform, a unique style in silk textiles known as the ikat style. Textiles produced on this loom has a distinctive Central Asian look. They are Uygur women's favorite choice for making dresses and skirts.    

Balance  Treadle  Loom

The structure of the loom is very simple with two treadles controlling two heddles. This loom was quite popular in the Qing dynasty

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