The art of weaving in China today stems from over 6,000 years of diverse history, culture and legend. Though studies suggest that early clothing was made out of hair or hemp, the Chinese are mostly recognized for their discovery and production of silk. Silk, which comes from the silkworm found on mulberry trees, is a shiny fiber that can be woven into various textiles, such as Jin the heaviest and richest form, Luo which is light, Ling an ultra-thin silk with patterns, Juan unprocessed silk frequently used in the mounting of calligraphy, and Sha a light, transparent, criss-cross pattern often used to make costumes for officials. Prior to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) the wearing of fine silks in China was restricted to a very small portion of the population. Imperial orders forbade silk clothing for all but noble families, court officials and others of high standing.
Along with the production of silk was the manufacturing of cotton. Though silk was popular in Western Europe, it was cotton that had the greatest effect on the lives and dress of the average Chinese. Popular legend credits the advances in cotton production to the peasant woman Huang Daopo. Born in the late Song Dynasty near present day Shanghi, Huang fled to Hainan Island to escape poverty and an oppressive family life. Over a thirty-year period she was introduced to highly advanced techniques in cotton weaving and dyeing by the Li tribe. When she returned home, she brought with her the knowledge she had gained and accelerated many aspects of cotton processing.
As cotton continued to grow in popularity among the Chinese so did the development of dyeing techniques. The invention of synthetic dyes in England in 1856 further encouraged the creation of textile art. Wax dyeing is a traditional handmade floral printing art form that was developed by the Chinese. For this process hot wax is placed on cloth to form a pattern. Once the wax has dried the cloth is dipped into dye which is usually a blue color. Once dyeing is complete the wax is removed by boiling the cloth in water thus revealing the fashionable pattern. Imported lotus purple and synthetic indigo were particularly liked by the Chinese in the early twentieth century.
Today mordant dyes are popular among the Chinese, especially the rich, and are produced by boiling color compounds to bond with fabric. Among the most cherished tones in Chinese folk textiles are reds, pinks, and mauves which are made by boiling the wild munjeet plant or safflower. Browns are produced by drying the green outer layers of the walnut, or acorns from the chestnut oak, with a mordant of iron sulfate. Turmeric, a plant of the ginger family, is used to create yellow when it is mordanted with potash. Blacks, purples, and greens are most often prepared by mixing the primary colors or by several dyeing baths.