Famously known as Yun brocade, Nanjing brocade is one of the most expensive and exquisite folk crafts from China. Many patterns created resemble a soft and delicate cloud which is where its name Yun, the Chinese word for ‘cloud’, derived from. It is often referred to as the favoured brocade from the “Three Ancient Brocades of China” which also feature Song and Shu brocade.
It is suggested that Nanjing brocade originated in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265); however, it is officially recognized as beginning in 417 AD during the late Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) when the “Official Brocade Office” was established in Nanjing.
During the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, Nanjing brocade was worn only by the imperial family and highest government officials. It was forbidden for any other social to class to wear Nanjing brocade. The stunning dragon robes worn by emperors were made completely from brocade featuring gold and silver threads. Each robe took at least thirteen year to complete.
Nanjing brocade reached its peak during the Qing Dynasty with three hundred thousand craftsmen specializing in the elegant folk craft. Brocade became the centre of trade for Nanjing with the industry struggling to meet its high demand. An inch of brocade from Nanjing was worth the same amount as gold. It was considered the sign of wealth and status with most wealthy families owning many brocaded clothing and hanging pictures. The proverb “returning home in brocade clothes” was an expression used to describe someone made their fortune.
Unfortunately, most of the talented skills used to produce Nanjing brocade were lost after the end of the Qing Dnasty. By the formation of the People’s Republic of China (1949), there was only four spinning jacquards left in Nanjing.
Nanjing Brocade requires two craftsmen to create one piece of brocaded art work. A large loom called a jacquard is used to spin the silk threads into magnificent brocade art. The jacquard is usually 5.6 metres in length, 4 metres in height and 1.4 metres in width. The craftsman who is positioned at the upper end of the jacquard is called the “design controller” and is responsible for arranging the threads in the order required for the design. The other craftsman, known as the “weaver”, is needed to connect the warp thread and cut off the weft thread after each section is finished. The weft is a collection of coloured, connected threads which are divided into weft segments according to the design and are woven by section onto the silk. The fine metal thread is coloured through a sophisticated and difficult tie dying technique. There are fourteen thousand threads contained in each piece of brocade which are moved by the design controller in order as specified by the design. Large pieces of brocade, such as robes and dresses, can take up to two years to finish with the average progression of five to six centermetres a day.
This amazing folk art is now considered an “intangible cultural heritage” of Nanjing. There has been a recent insurgence of initiatives to promote the art of brocade and to uncover lost skills and techniques. The Nanjing Brocade Research Centre is dedicated to reviving Nanjing brocade and reconstructing brocade fabrics from past centuries to learn the lost skills involved in this technical craft. In 2007, The National Museum of China featured an exhibition of masterpieces by Chinese craftsmen and artisans. The main feature was a beautiful brocade textile from Nanjing called “Dragon Embroidered with Golden Thread and Peacock Down”.
Today, Nanjing brocade is rarely used for clothing or robes. It is quite rare and mainly used for cushion covers, quilts and within tapestries. It is one of the most expensive and valuable folk crafts in China.
Classed as one of the rarest historical and cultural legacies in China and the world, Nanjing brocade is in danger of being lost forever as the unique skills involved are slowly slipping away. Hopefully, its distinctive techniques will be rediscovered and the world can once again experience Nanjing brocade in its glorious full form.