Spinning the story of the history and culture of folk weaving
By Lu Feiran
IN today’s modern world, you simply walk into a shop and buy clothing or bedspreads without giving a thought to the processes that created fabric from cotton bolls or sheep’s fleece.
Hua Lunqi, 71, remembers a time when that wasn’t the case. In the mid-1950s, when he was living in a village in what is today the Minhang District, he recalls almost every family having a loom or spinning wheel in their homes.
Wives and daughters made their own fabrics, often getting together in weaving or spinning bees to chat with others as they worked. The women designed their own patterns, created their own textures and chose colors for the cloth that was used to make clothing and other household items.
Hua still lives in Minhang. He said he hasn’t seen a loom or spinning wheel for more than two decades, but he was not willing to let go of those fond memories. So he became a collector of handmade fabric.
“The cloth represents the creativity and skills of common people, who often had no formal education,” said Hua. “If this bit of history is lost, it will be lost forever.”
Hua’s collection has become quite esteemed in terms of local cultural history. He recently donated his entire cloth collection to the Minhang District Museum.
China’s textile pioneer
Folk weaving is actually an ancient art in China. Huang Daopo, who lived in the early Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), is considered a textile pioneer.
She was born in Wunijing Town, a part of ancient Songjiang County that is close to today’s Minhang District.
A child bride, Huang was badly mistreated by her in-laws and eventually fled her marital home and went to the island province of Hainan in southern China. There she learned about cotton cultivation and textiles from local Li ethnic people.
She returned to her hometown just before the start of the 14th century and saw that cotton growing and textile making were still backward. So she began teaching local people what she had learned in Hainan.
Thus began the local textile industry, which was to prosper in the area around Wunijing. Quilts made there became famous nationwide, and Songjiang County came to be called the “the world of clothes and quilts.”
Shanghai eventually became a major textile producer in China, thanks in large part to the weaving culture that was passed on from generation to generation in its rural areas. It was, in modern parlance, a complete industry chain — from planting and harvesting cotton, to spinning the fiber into threads that were woven into fabrics. About the only thing farm families didn’t do was dye the cloth. In ancient times, that was done in dye houses located in what today is the Jiangchuan Road area.
According to the historical records of Minhang’s Jiwang Town, weaving cloth was an important source of income for rural families prior to the 1950s. Country girls began learning how to spin at age six or seven and could weave by the time they were 13.
Weavers created their own individual patterns and gave the prints names to trademark their origins. The rustic names used often seemed at variance with the actual patterns. “Tail wind” in a pattern name referred to stripes arrayed from narrow to wide; “zigzag” harked to patterns with twists and curlicues; and “fly leg” meant pinstripes or plaids with extremely thin lines.
Hua’s cloth collection documents all this history.
“The names may have been rustic and even coarse sometimes, but the actual patterns were very pretty,” said Hua. “You can find similar patterns today even in big brand name clothing.
In the 1970s and 80s, weaving was still prevalent in the outlying countryside of Minhang. Garments, quilt covers, bedspreads, handkerchiefs and mosquito nets used in the home were all handmade.
Moreover, folk weaving also played an important part in marriage. Weaving skills greatly improved a girl’s marriage prospects, and at least 180 meters of cloth was considered essential in the dowry box. The more hand-woven cloth, the higher a family’s esteem.
In fact, it was this old tradition that led Hua to cloth collecting.
In 2004, while tidying up a room, Hua stumbled across the remnants of his wife’s dowry, which included a brightly colored fabric that has been sitting there unnoticed for 30 years. Hua said he was fascinated.
“I asked my wife if there was any of the cloth left, and she said no,” said Hua. “Then I got to thinking. If no one is collecting cloth like this, all traces of it will eventually disappear and that would be a pity.”
In the 1980s, the Chinese government rescinded the ration coupons required to buy cloth. The textile market was thrown open, and people didn’t have to rely on their own hands to make cloth.
At the same time, rural standards of living were rising. Farmers no longer had to be so self-sufficient. By the 1990s, family weaving and spinning were disappearing in Minhang.
When Hua began his search for remnants of homemade cloth, he found that many families had sold their woven items to stores in the 1990s. Other fabric got lost in household relocations.
Some people gave Hua odd looks when he approached them asking if they had any old handmade cloth.
“Not many people were willing to rummage through boxes, cases and drawers to look for a scrap of cloth that might or might not be there,” he said.
Those who retained some cloth from dowries were often unwilling to part with what they considered personal family treasures. That was especially true in families observing the old tradition of passing dowries down through generations of daughters and granddaughters.
Hua said his wife was very helpful in his pursuit of old fabric. She turned to the many friends her age asking for anything they might contribute to this cultural preservation.
“Every time she met friends, she raised the issue of homemade family fabrics,” said Hua. “Many friends were touched by our desire to preserve such a valuable folk art and promised to look through their storage chests.”
His collection crusade also received support from the Minhang District Archives and the Minhang District Intangible Cultural Heritage Office.
The archives set up electronic files to record known patterns of folk-woven cloth, and the heritage office helped Hua compile a book entitled “Rural Folk Weaving.”
The Minhang District Museum, after accepting Hua’s generous donation, said it will set up a special room to display the estimated pieces in the collection.
“The museum has better facilities for preserving my collection,” Hua said. “And besides that, I want more people to be able to see and enjoy folk weaving. Only by seeing the cloth for themselves will people really come to realize its true value.”