Feb 21, 2019
Suzhou boasts a group of veteran makers of Suzhou silk who, painstakingly attending to the minute details in every step of the production process, are crucial figures for passing on Suzhou’s unique silk making techniques from one generation to the next. Their decades-long dedication and perseverance best explain the meaning of craftsmanship. Among these is Li Dexi李德喜, known in the trade as the “Patriarch.” He has been devoted to improving silk-making knowhow for 45 years. From a humble start as a spinner, he became the most knowledgeable weaving expert in traditional Chinese silk-making, and a representative of top-notch technique in this field.
In 1970, the 19-year-old Li was assigned a job at Suzhou’s Wuxian County Second Weaving Factory, working as a spinner. He sought every opportunity to learn from work, and took special study trips to Hangzhou and Wujiang, learning from three masters in Wujiang alone. Two decades saw him working in every key post in the factory—as a spinner, card tender, maintenance worker, and then to equipment section director, and deputy factory director. Looking back on his silk education, Li described it as love at first sight: He was head over heels from the day he passed through the portal into the silk art world.
When overseas demand for silk boomed in the 1980s, the inadequate number of wide looms meant the factory could not cope with demand. To free up this bottleneck, Li, working on the equipment section at the time, upgraded the looms from single width to double width, which led to much increased output. His innovation won a top prize for technological transformation from the Suzhou government.
In April 2014, Li completed a commission for the Palace Museum, namely the reproduction of 14-item relics including “cotton quilt with moon-white peony-patterned silk cover,” preserved in the Shoukang Palace of the Museum. These relics, involving ling damask, luo gauze, silk, satin, and brocade, entailed extremely complicated production techniques. A curtain alone was woven with luo gauze, hemp, printed luo gauze, satin, em-broidered luo gauze, and sha gauze. On top of that, each reign period of the Qing Dynasty had its own features. Complex gauze weaves are a good example of these differences: The Qianlong period had sesame-ground sha gauze, the Tongzhi period had green sha gauze, and the Jiaqing period had water-green peony sha gauze. Li spent months working day and night to identify and comb through all available documents and information before finally deciding to reproduce the fabrics of the Qianlong period. Then came a slew of technical problems… These he tackled one by one over a period of six months.
As the evaluation from Palace Museum experts put it: The reproduction of this group of silk relics embodies the best of contemporary Chinese silk-making technology and represents the highest level of traditional silk-making expertise in China. Li’s response demonstrates the dedication of a true craftsman: “To put one’s heart and soul into something, to go all the way and more, always brings its reward.”
People who know Li know that he likes to challenge himself. The harder a thing is, the more likely it is to inspire his creativity.
In 2015, just as Li was about to retire, Wang Yarong, an expert on restoration of ancient Chinese textiles, came along with an eye-popping commission: to reproduce a top national relic from the Famen Temple—“goldwork embroidery on a red gauze ground,” dating from the Tang Dynasty. This fabric has goldwork embroidery on a multi-end warp-ribbed complex gauze base, which is even more complicated than four-end complex gauze. As this dense warp- and weft-patterning weave is very hard to produce, no one had ever succeeded in reproducing it. The Archeological Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences searched for years in Suzhou before finally finding their man—Li Dexi.
Li’s research led him to the conclusion that “one extra stitch would make the fabric rough, and one stitch short would leave a hole.” After two years of hard work, experimentation and overcoming one difficulty after another, Li completed the reproduction of this national treasure, after its 2,500 years of seclusion.
During his 45-year career, Li has created dozens of new pure silk products to suit market demand. While preserving and carrying on the national treasure of ancient sha gauze weaving, Li also developed a new type of gambiered Canton luo gauze with patterns, and for this he won a gold award for creative Chinese products. He also helped another enterprise improve the air-jet loom, effectively solving the problem of a high broken ends rate. This enabled the pure silk Song brocade fabric produced on the air-jet loom by that enterprise to win a gold award for 2016 New Silk Products of Jiangsu Province.
In 2016, at the age of 63, Li started a new company, the Suzhou Zhisheng Silk Sci-tech Center, which doubles as the ancient fabric archeological research base of the Archeological Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Despite its reputable name, many regard the Center as a loss-making trader, since its sole source of income is earnings from reproduction. This means that Li has to subsidize the daily operation of the Center from his own pocket. Yet Li takes a different view: “The prospects for passing down silk-making techniques do not allow much optimism. If, in the years I have left to me, I can use the experience amassed over four decades to make a contribution to the trade and so ensure the passing of silk-making techniques to future generations, then I’ll be happy and satisfied.”
Li has trained more than 40 apprentices in his career: Eight of these have become key professionals in the trade, with two mastering 80 percent of his weaving skills. As a veteran silk maker, Li is very happy to pass on his expertise to his colleagues and team without holding anything back. When people come to ask how to solve knotty problems, he can always get to the bottom of the problem and give them the answer in the shortest time possible.
About the Column
Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.