Suzhou: the City of Silk
Centre of Silk Production
In addition to its stunning gardens and flowing canals, Suzhou has been at the centre of China’s illustrious silk trade for centuries. Delve into the ancient techniques and fine craftsmanship of Suzhou’s most famous export.
Because of its historical association with riches and royalty, Suzhou has had a major part to play in the prosperity of China’s silk trade. Silk was, of course, the material of choice for the garments of the ruling classes and, since the arrival of the gentry, cultivation of silk has been an integral branch of Suzhou’s past.
Cultivation and trade of the fabric in China as a whole dates back over 5,000 years. Silks were originally reserved for the personal use of the emperors of China and as gifts to favoured guests, but it spread gradually through Chinese culture both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia. Because of its texture and lustre, silk rapidly became a popular extravagance all over Eurasia, leading to the development of an established trade route called the Silk Road.
Early on in its invention, demand was so great that emperors tried to keep the method of silk production a secret to maintain a monopoly on the market. However, by 200 BCE it had reached Korea and subsequently stretched to other areas, but the prestige of having a garment made from the finest Chinese silk endured for centuries.
The Jiangsu Province is well known as the silk capital of China and, during the Tang and Song dynasties, it was the centre of silk production. This continued into the Ming and Qing dynasties, when silk weavers in Suzhou made most of the high-grade material especially for the royal families.
Explore the Story
No visit to Suzhou is complete without investigating the provenance of its silk and the best place to start is the Suzhou Silk Museum. Divided into a number of sections, it traces the path of silk from its discovery to present day. The Introductory Hall tells the tale of how silk fabrication started in China, with carvings depicting its trade and development. In the Ancient Exhibit Hall, you can view examples of precious silk relics, models and pictures from its origin in the late period of the Neolithic Age to its production in the Ming and Qing dynasties.
However, it’s the Silk Weaving Workshop that physically transports you to silk’s humble beginnings. A variety of ancient looms demonstrate traditional silk-weaving technology, offering you a rare chance to experience the greatness of Suzhou’s centuries-old silk industry. Weaving girls in ancient costumes demonstrate the old methods on the spot, producing elegant cloud brocades, green silks and lush velvets. Even the most casual observer will be amazed at what they witness.
You will also find a replica of a time-honoured silk market, where you can discover what it was like to shop for silk in a bygone era. Its traditional Suzhou flavour is bound to make an impression, with its detailed account of the origin of this luxurious fabric.
Suzhou remains a hub of the national silk industry and to see how specialised local expertise has advanced production methods, take a tour of the No.1 Silk Factory. Founded in 1926 as a state-owned factory, you’ll get an insight of how established practices of harvesting silk have been blended with modern methods. Workers still unravel the cocoons by hand, making the manufacture as delicate as it was 1,000 years ago.
You can also find countless fabrics designed in the style of Suzhou embroidery, which has gained international attention. Multicoloured and vibrant, it is regarded as a pearl of Chinese art because of its vivid depictions of animals, landscapes and flowers. Contemporary artists continue to advance the genre and you can see it made before your very eyes at the Suzhou Embroidery Museum, where workers illustrate their amazing skills and craftsmanship.
If you happen to be in Suzhou from late September to mid-October, you might even spy the goings-on of the China Suzhou International Silk Festival. The celebration consists of a series of special events, including large economy and trade talks, as well as local customs such as the Tiger Hill Temple Fair and the Tianping Red Maple Art Festival.
Get the Dream Garment
Studying the saga of silk may leave you with a hunger to own a special robe, so you’ll be pleased to know that each museum sells a wealth of its own examples – and there are still plenty of silk stores around the city centre where you can acquire one.
Any brides-to-be on the lookout for the perfect dress are certain to be surprised, as Suzhou contains numerous goldmines of glittering bridal wear. Nearly 80% of the world’s wedding dresses come from Suzhou – and they are available at wholesale prices from one of over 1,000 wedding stores in the city. Dresses start at 500 RMB (£50) and top-of-the-range examples still ring in at a bargain-busting price of 2000 RMB (£210). The fee includes a veil and gloves, but even if you want to choose your own perfect accessories, you can get slightly better quality goods for around 20 RMB (just over £2). All of these prices are open to negotiation, so a little haggling can go a long way.
Whatever silken souvenir you manage to take back with you, to be in possession of an exclusive piece of Suzhou silk is to hold a piece of China’s history in your hands. It’s a must-have for any intrepid voyager who wants to embrace the inner spirit of the city wherever they travel in the world.