China were the innovators in the production of silk many centuries ago and  managed to withhold the secrets of  how the material was made. Silk  therefore only traveled to the western world through the many trade posts stretching from China  all the way to Europe, known as “The silk road”(although not actually just one road).  Silk was grown, harvested and weaved in China and in the early years were only to be worn by Royalty as it was an extremely rare material, but as China developed their techniques it soon become available to people of “social status” /”aristocrats” then to the masses. Asia is still to this day the largest producers of silk, China being the largest then followed by India and imports  travel worldwide to reach popular demands. When Europe finally  did find out how to make silk  the production increased in Italy for a long time, but as mentioned, today Asia are the largest producers, this could possibly be due to the combination of skilled a workforce and cheaper labour in the countries compared to other countries.

Silk is a natural(protein) fibre that is obtained from the cocoon of the  silkworm which is native to China (hence their innovation in this material).  The silkworm’s main food source comes from Mulberry leaves , but it is possible for different species to feed on different types of leaves and therefore produce different variations of silk raging from fine to coarser silks. Non-mulberry silks, as they are known, include Tasar, Eri and Muga silks and they have distinctive colours and properties.

Once silkworms eat the mulberry leaves and reach their full growth they then begin to spin a cocoon around themselves. After they hatch into moths the cocoons that are left behind are collected to produce silk.  The cocoons are boiled in water then spun into threads and/or weaved into silk. Silkworms have been completely domesticated and do not exist in the wild, so essentially they are only bred for the production of silk.

Silk is the strongest natural fiber that there is, it is extremely versatile and strong which makes a practical material to use in many products. It is also luxurious, delicate, smooth, shiny and simply a beautiful material  that can also be easily dyed and these properties make it extremely attractive to different industries.Having so many   incredible qualities allows  silk  to be such a popular material. In both the fashion industry and interior markets silk is used in their products from clothing to fine furnishings. Silk is a popular material for clothing (for both womanswear i.e dresses and menswear i.e ties) as it can keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer and it is extremely light and flexible, so is therefore comfortable to wear. To add to the attractiveness of silk, it can be dyed different colours to fit changing fashion trends and beads or embroidery can be easily added to the fabric.

Alongside the “boom” of silk production the Chinese artwork and crafty embroidery styles also developed. Working into the silk with fine embroidery threads produced incredibly beautiful and detailed designs whither it be of people, animals/mystical creatures, flowers or objects. As an ancient form of artwork there are four major styles that developed in China which were “Su embroidery”, “Xiang embroidery”, “Yue embroidery” and “Shu embroidery” and all had slightly different techniques. “Su embroidery” was known to be very intricate, “Xiang embroidery” used many colours emphasising tonal changes,” Yue embroidery”  was complicated and used very bright colours and “Shu Embroidery” was very neat. As well embroidery another popular art form developed  in China and applied to silk was “silk painting” as silk was “invented” before paper so it was a popular material to paint on to.

China was fortunate enough to innovate the production of silk all thanks to the silkworm native to the country and are innovators in techniques that can be applied to silk. As a textile student I enjoy using silk as I am aware of course it’s great properties and  of course it’s  popularity. I can easily add my printed design onto the fabric and work on top of them to add more texture(embroidery), all things that the Chinese developed centuries ago are still being applied today.

Silk Production in China

Chinoiserie is a French word that means “in the Chinese taste”. It is used to describe a European style of a decorative ornament, mainly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it still looks great today. Oriental scenes and images were bound onto textiles, wallpapers, porcelain and the famous lacquered painted furniture. If you owned a piece of Chinoiserie at the time you were seen as very fashionable. The thing that makes Chinoiserie different is the tremendous range of decorative details, including intricately detailed pieces with layer upon layer of pattern. Elaborate traditional signs, tassels, landscapes, bells, and numerous animals were used to create these patterns.

Back when transportation was difficult, exotic goods such as silk, carpets and porcelain reached Europe via the trading route known as the “Silk Road”, which carried goods by cart or camel. Chinoiserie decoration combines real elements with fantasy, to give a more unique design.

Back in the nineteenth century, entire rooms were covered with the Chinoiserie style, to give of the impression of wealth. It was seen to be more of a wealthy women’s taste (as lacquer was extremely expensive) and would realistically be seen in a dressing room, bedroom or drawing room, in large stately homes.

“Taking tea (perhaps the major commodity brought back from China) was becoming a fundamental part of polite society and also stimulated the growth of our ceramics industry. Potters endeavoured to discover the secret ingredients for making Chinese porcelain and developed their own forms for teapots, bowls and cups, decorated with imaginative chinoiserie motifs, whilst silversmiths created exquisite pieces such as caddies, pots and epergnes, also decorated in the Chinese style. Playful ‘Chinese’ structures, such as pavilions (with upswept roofs, bells and dragon finials), as well as seats and bridges, first appeared as features in the fashionable gardens of private and royal estates.”

Asian Art, Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650 -1930

Traditional Chinese textiles reveal that nearly every image or scene on a Chinese robe, would have a particular symbolic culture. They aimed to make to robe not to just be seen as a decorative piece but something of social standing and tell a historic story or moral message. Emperor’s robes consisted of ‘Twelve symbols’. The symbols consist of, in order of importance, the sun, the moon, the constellation, mountain, dragon, flower creature, sacrificial vessel, water, plant, flames, grain, axe-head, and the “Fu”. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), however elevated the symbol of the dragon, as the main symbol used on imperial robes.

Textile Designer with a Chinoiserie style – Vivian Cohen

Chinoiserie Birds – This hand painted textile collection was inspired by Chinese bird and cloud motifs, traditional found on the embroidered textiles. The saturated, multi-coloured palette makes this a statement piece in the collection.

Intricate Chinese textile art ranges from large silk embroidered wall hangings, table frontals to small panels or garmented. Natural images and traditional designs appear, even amongst geometric patterns.

“China is so far ahead of other countries as a production source for clothing that its dominance seems likely for many years. But it is not all easy going for Chinese manufacturers. Most recently, China has been seeing a shortage of labour, high has been fuelling salary rises and is leading to higher apparel prices. Factories in southern China talk of employees who simply don’t return from annual holidays. The new generations of young factory workers are more ambitious than their predecessors: they want a better quality of life and are keen to set up their own businesses back home in the inland and western regions of China, from where they migrated originally in search of work. Wage costs are steadily being pushed upwards, reflecting the progress China has made in recent years.

A poll in the China Daily newspaper in April revealed that 90 percent of 300 companies surveyed had raised wages in recent months to attract workers. The options for companies sourcing from China include: reluctantly accepting price increase; sourcing from cheaper regions of the country, particularly the inland; or sourcing more from cheaper locations in Asia.”

Textile View Magazine.

There are also more problems for Chinese clothing companies, especially in the region of Southern China, where the majority of clothing and footwear is made. The government is also under a large strain to allow its currency (the Yuan) to strengthen. Emerging economies such as Brazil and India are especially showing a large competitive streak.

Silk printing and weaving

Silk was one of the luxurious items which were transported along the “Silk Road”. It was seen as a prized good and is produced by various insects but the largest quantity comes from the silk worm. They feed on mulberry leaves and then when ready form a cocoon of Silk before pupating. The threads are then unwound to form a single strand of raw silk. This fine thread is the basic component of all yarn and fabric.

The silk strands are then weaved together by interlacing the warp and weft yarns to create the end fabric. There are two main types of silk fabrics: those of which the yarn has been dyed before weaving and those when the fabric is dyed after weaving. In both cases when the yarn/fabric is being dyed at boiling temperatures, it allows the gum (sericin), from the worm to be removed off of the fibre. A pattern can then be transferred onto the piece of fabric using different methods of printing.