A visit to the Weaving Gallery at the National Silk Museum reminds me of my reason for being here. I want to understand what it is that makes us create a fabric such as silk. Its production is so complex, from the growing of the mulberry tree, to the domestication of the worms, the unwrapping of the cocoon, the twisting, the diverse methods of dying and weaving….
My fascination for the loom machines grows as I enter a room containing machineries as complex and large as small ships. Thousands of threads fed by hand, one by one, in pin holes, sit perfectly parallel to each other to create a ghostly fabric. Silk to me looks so much like hair… like the white hair of my beloved grandmum… Here it’s as if God had taken a hair to recreate a skin… Some machines are threaded with natural silk threads varying from white to yellow and ocre. One is covered in bronze threads, making the silk shine like the polished wood of the loom stretching it.
But it’s in the Chinese and Western Fashion Galleries that I find an answer. Here, we can see how throughout the centuries and throughout cultures we have tried to extend the body, to reach perfection and beauty, to take the skin to either a deeper level (through addition of fleshiness and unraveling of levels, as if to give the body extra layers of flesh to be uncovered, and layers of meanings…) or a more spiritual level (through transparency, airiness, and the blurring of the body’s boundary…).
In the Chinese and Western Fashion Galleries we can see how throughout the centuries and throughout cultures we have tried to extend the body, to reach perfection and beauty, to take the skin to either a deeper level (through addition of fleshiness and unraveling of levels, as if to give the body extra layers of flesh to be uncovered, and layers of meanings…) or a more spiritual level (through transparency, airiness, and the blurring of the body’s boundary…) The search for perfection and beauty through silk makes a bit more sense now. I believe it has a lot to do with skin. Detailed weaved patterns remind me of the pores of the skin, embroidery on hats look like perfectly combed hair, deep red velvet under layers look like open flesh.
We meet with the Museum director Pr Feng Zhao. He is a big fish in China, as he is also the Deputy of the National People’s Congress. He explains: “The World Heritage Committee deems that the Silk Road has been the road of integration, exchange and dialogue between the East and the West and has made significant contribution to the common prosperity of mankind for nearly 2000 years. In recent years, Chinese president Xi Jinping initiated to build “the New Silk Road Economic Belt” and “the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, setting up a new layout for China’s overall opening-up, and promoting the peaceful development of different regions around the world.”
Before we go, I want to go and see the silk worms again to film them, and my camera is about to run out of battery. As we rush towards the house where they are kept (by a friendly old man), I cannot believe it, they have disappeared. I draw a worm on a piece of paper to ask the man where they have gone. He points at a tray on the floor, and here are their cocoons, completed. They have started their metamorphosis… and I wonder what they must look like in there…
Unfortunately, for silk production, this is the stage where they would be put in boiling water, as the opening of the cocoon would break the singular silk thread. Only a few will make it to the butterfly stage for reproduction.