History and Technique of Yun Brocade
Nanjing Brocade is an eminent representative of China's traditional culture. The name Yun, meaning clouds, is a tribute to the beauty of the fabric, which is itself testament to China's finest silk-making technology.
Silk weaving on the Zhuanghua wooden-loom goes back almost five millennia, and hand-woven Nanjing Yun brocade has a history of over 1,500 years. Traditional Nanjing Yun brocade hand-weaving technology is based purely on human memory. It is a skill that has been handed down orally over generations for 3,000 years.
Nanjing Brocade evolved from Song Dynasty (960--1279) cai (colorful) silk fabrics. It came into vogue and developed rapidly when the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty(1271-1368) came to power. There was a gold mining boom during this period, and the fact that the uniform of Yuan government officials was traditionally interwoven with gold thread, created a demand for a brocade of this quality. The fabric consequently became predominant among silk products, praised as a "rare silk fabric made by the finest weaving technique." Brocade was the favored fabric of feudal kings, aristocrats and the Mongolian, Tibetan and Uygur ethnic minorities. The Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties all designated brocade as a royal tribute. Rulers of all three dynasties set up official fabric bureaus in Nanjing specifically for the administration and monopoly of brocade production and marketing, which promoted the fabric's development and popularity.
Brocade production reached its peak during the Qing Dynasty Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722) and Yongzheng Emperor (1623-1735) reigns, when the sound of looms at work in the many fabric trading households near the Qinhuai River could be heard day and night. During the Qing Dynasty, four ancestors in three generations of Cao Xueqin, author of Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China's classic novels, were appointed executive officials to the Jiangning Fabrics Bureau.
Nanjing Yun brocade is woven on a traditional Dahualou draw-loom, 5.6 m long, 1.4 m wide and 4 m high, through the coordinated manual operation of a thread puller and a weaver. The draw-loom is made up of 1,924 parts. The thread puller sits on top of the loom and lifts the warp while the weaver, sitting under it, weaves the weft with gold and colored threads.
The thread puller pulls the thread according to a threading sequence, in a similar way to computer keyboard typing. The weaver applies his skill of "passing longitude and cutting woof" -- the woof consisting of connected fine colored filaments. He twines the materials and weaves the pattern into brocade of golden and colored threads. The woven piece of work before him could be regarded as his computer screen. No machine has yet been devised to replace this manual technique, yet thread puller and weaver are able to produce no more than a 5-6-cm length in one day.
As Yun brocade was for centuries the fabric chosen for Emperor dragon robes and official dress, no cost was spared in perfecting its weaving techniques. Brocade designs feature bold patterns, beautiful shapes, both muted and gorgeous colors, particularly gold and diverse color combinations. The craft of Yun brocade thus perfected hand-weaving and color matching techniques, achieving a zenith of craftsmanship. Wooden-loom hand-weaving technology is the sole active remainder of imperial silk weaving excellence. The technique of incorporating gold, colors and peacock feathers to produce a three-dimensional effect in relief for household fabrics in the imperial palace constitutes an expression of Chinese aesthetic and cultural sensibility demonstrating a combination of science, technology and aesthetics. The main cultural and artistic attributes of Nanjing Yun brocade are its depictions of symbolic auspiciousness in exquisite patterns that balance gorgeousness and subtlety through perfected weaving technology. The school and style of Yun brocade is unique in China and the world.
The outstanding characteristic of Yun brocade is the brilliance it achieves through interwoven gold and silver threads that satisfied even royal demands. As Yun brocade was a feature of the imperial court over centuries, its technology was constantly refined regardless of cost. It is hence no wonder that Yun brocade surpasses all others.
There are four main categories of Yun weaving techniques. One is that of "gold weave," whereby gold is pressed into foil, cut into thread-like pieces that are twisted into threads and woven on looms. The other three comprise, Ku silk, Ku brocade and Zhuanghua silk, which were tailored into Emperor robes, queens' dresses and shawls, clothes for concubines, and covers for daily use articles in the imperial court such cushions, mattresses, pillows and quilts. Brocade was also given as a royal tribute to foreign kings and ambassadors and to imperial ministers of merit.