Feb 21, 2019
A damask loom, a gauze loom, a kesi loom, and a Zhangzhou satin loom… models of these looms used by the ancients can all be found in the studio of Zhu Jianming’s home. At several-fold magnification, these miniatures would make authentic working looms.
Zhu Jianming 朱剑鸣 got to grips with ancient looms in 1988 while involved in preparatory work for the Suzhou Silk Museum. That year, he was working with these looms every day and he began to realize that the exhibition hall could hold only a few of them, given their considerable size. He then made a 30-cm-long model of an ancient loom purely out of his own interest. In 1990, UNESCO commissioned the Suzhou Silk Museum to look for a kind of xiabu or linen-crepe loom. Zhu and his colleagues located one in Jiangxi Province. Many years on, he found a similar Suzhou backstrap loom in Suzhou’s old town area. It was at the home of an elderly lady and, long unused, it was about to be dismantled by her family.
The simple backstrap loom is the oldest loom. This treadle-operated loom has no frame. One end of the cloth beam is attached to the weaver’s waist, whose feet press on the warp beam at the other end in order to tighten the weave. Using a shed stick, the weaver separates the warps at alternate threads to create two levels, and uses a heddle rod to lift the warps to form a shed, thereby allowing the bone shuttle to pass the weft thread through the shed, and the weft is firmed up with the help of a weft beater. The most valuable achievements of the backstrap loom are the use of the liftable heddle rod on a cloth weaving loom, the shed stick and weft beater. Simple though it is, the loom enables movements in three directions—upwards and downwards opening of the shed, weft insertion from left and right, and forward and backward tightening of the weave. It is the primogenitor of the modern loom.
Recalling the past, Zhu sighs with emotion: “If they are not valued, many traditional looms will be destroyed.” Inspired by his love of traditional Chinese culture, Zhu gradually developed an idea, wishing from the bottom of his heart to explore deeply into this brilliant part of Chinese culture and carry forward its tradition. Looms are not merely tools for weaving, but are cultural objects rich in regional character, since different looms are closely associated with various local silk cultures. Ancient technological treatises such as Traditions of the Joiners’ Craft and The Exploitation of the Works of Nature became Zhu’s regular reading. Despite the difficulties that the ancient language presented, he managed to decipher and grasp the ideas in these books.
Over the past 20 years, Zhu has reproduced some 100 ancient looms. Today he is a designated inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of Suzhou’s loom-making techniques.
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.