Weaving > Silk on the Silk Route

This section is a summary of what I learnt about weaving silk in Central Asia on my trip along the Silk Route in Spring 2013. It is fairly detailed as it is intended as a record for me as well as being information for others. We visited three silk factories, one in Samarkand, one in Khotan, Western China and one in Suzhou, near Shanghai. The first two are more interesting as they were very small outfits where everything was done on the same premises - and in nearly but not quite the same way.

This section is not about the production of silk or the growing of silk worms except to say that, in Cambodia and China, this is a year-round activity whereas in Uzbekistan and Western China, there is one 'crop' per year because the area has very cold winters and the mulberry trees have no leaves over winter. The silkworms are allowed to hatch out as the first new leaves appear on the mulberry trees. As they get older, they can eat older leaves. The mulberry trees are grown by the roadside. They start cutting down near to the village and gradually move outwards. The mulberry trees, when cut down, look like coppiced poplars.

One thing that did surprise me was that the fresh leaves on their branches were just laid on top of the previous day’s branches so that when the silkworms were at their largest (five inches long), the pile of branches was more than two foot high.

The fabric we saw being woven was called 'atlas' and is a tie-dyed cotton warp and a silk weft. We saw two different 'factories' one in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and one in Khotan, Western China both devoted to weaving this fabric and the weaving methods were not quite the same. The tie dying however was exactly the same.

But first the warp has to be wound and very long lengths were wound on a very large mill (Figure 2 photo copyright Debbie Richardson who has very kindly given me permission to use it). At the extreme right, a small reed can be seen which carries the yarn being wound on. A number of threads are being wound on at the same time.

Note that it will be difficult to get the pattern to be continuous over the end poles. So the usable length is about two metres and that is the length they sell.

The warps are very long (200m) and both the factories had very inventive ways of weighting the warp on the loom.

Both factories used natural dyes. Some are shown in Figure 5. Madder root, walnut shells, pomegranate skins give red to brown while the asparagus heads give a good clear yellow. We never got a definitive answer about mordants. The factory guide said they used no mordant. But it turned out that the cotton came in, already in washed skeins so I wonder if the supplier mordanted the yarn.

There was also a substantial indigo vat. They got their indigo from India while all the other natural dyes were local.

In Samarkand, the warp is threaded, sleyed and tied on at the front, the very long remainder is stuffed in a pillowcase, hung up and weighted.

Here they used fly shuttles and got up a fair speed. The warp was threaded on three shafts and the pattern was a two and one twill. The weft was either black or white very fine silk. This meant that the back and front of the fabric were different colours since the front had one of weft to two of warp and the back had two of weft and one of warp. I was so taken with the whole procedure that I did not get my act together and count threads which I did later in Khotan. There they used a finer cotton for warp which I would set at (say) 45 epi but they used a 25 dent reed and there 5 or 6 threads in each dent - so very crammed! Khotan also used six shafts and a 5+1 broken twill. So the colour differential between back and front is astonishing (see photo below). Khotan did not use fly shuttles but they did use male weavers (and some female). There was an old man weaving whose speed without a fly shuttle was quite equal to that of the fly shuttle users in Samarkand. Both these factories had about 10 looms.

This is a typical Central Asia pattern and colourway. The local women wear a lot of this. I cannot imagine me wearing this colourway but I bought it to cover books with, particularly the mulberry bark paper I brought home from Samarkand.

We also saw a silk mill in Suzhou, near Shanghai where modern Chinese Jacquard looms were used and was less interesting. Silk weaving was on an industrial scale here. However the Silk Museum at Suzhou was another matter altogether. I took a load of photos before anyone stopped me. Although we were told at the entrance that we could take as many photos as we wanted, the weavers themselves stopped us. One large room in the Museum held at least four drawlooms.

The looms we saw were very like Figure 11 which is 16th century. There is a weaver and a 'drawboy' sitting up at the top who pulls on the second set of treadles and strings to give the pattern. And we saw one such loom in operation. The boy at the top was not exactly lightweight but he had far more work to do than the weaver. The strings to the warp were tied in bundles and he selected a new configuration every third weft and yanked the new configuration into place. The other two wefts were a ground as none of the extra treadles was lifted. Quite slow weaving as it took a good half minute to weave two ground and one pattern picks. Early drawings show a young boy as drawboy but clearly this is a job for a carefully trained helper. The weaver just sat in place and threw the shuttle occasionally!!

All in all an informative trip and quite astonishing how many people from the isolated villagers looking after their silkworms to the elderly and very expert man weaving his silk are still involved in the production of silk fabric.