Contextual Material

Sebastian De Line

A Short History of Guangdong Gambiered Silk

The process of making Guangdong gambiered silk dates back at least 2,000 years and remains essentially unchanged to this day. The silk’s distinctive texture—breathable, satiny, antibacterial, naturally water-and-stain resistant—and appearance—glossy brown or black exterior and an orange-brown or brown tone on the facing side—are the result of a labor-intensive and multistep process that can take many months to complete. The first step is to dry, grind, and cook down ju-liang (dioscorea cirrhosa lour), a medicinal root that gives the fabric an orangish tone. Next, raw silk is soaked in the dye, a process that may be repeated up to thirty times to achieve the desired depth of tone. The silk is then laid out on grassy fields to dry in the sun. The dyed, dried silk is then dredged in the iron-rich river mud from the region’s subtropical river delta. For certain colors, the silk may be buried in the mud and left for as long as two months. The silk is then rinsed in river water and set out again in the sun to cure. As a final step, a thin layer of anthracite coal is applied, which seals the fabric with an organic varnish. While the gambiered silk dyeing method was a traditional craft, it gained prominence during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) with Chinese elites as well as abroad, when it was traded with European and South Asian countries. In the 1930s, gambiered Guangdong silk was popular across the country, especially in Shanghai and Beijing, and sold well in Hong Kong and Macao. Around the time the Republic of China was founded in 1949, silk fabric with twisted eyes was first developed. Textiles with small jacquard flowers were called Zhang Sha, while those with large jacquard flowers were called Yun Sha. Both types of silk fabric became gambiered Guangdong silk after being dried. This image is a sample of gambiered Guangdong silk with small jacquard flowers, date unknown. Image:

By the 1950s, the production of gambiered silk declined as artificial silk textiles hit the market. The labor-intensive techniques required to make gambiered Guangdong silk were supplanted by cheap mass production. In the 1980s, with the implementation of market reforms in China, gambiered Guangdong silk was revived again as a luxury commodity, slowly regaining popularity at home and increasingly exported abroad. In recognition of its craftsmanship and cultural value, the technique of making gambiered Guangdong silk was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China in 2009. It also appears occasionally in the collections of high-end designers (Narciso Rodriguez’s 2010 show featured a gambiered silk coat, for example). This image shows Gambiered silk on the runway, Mainland China, 1980s. Text: Jill Winder. Image: