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Ming Wilson(Victoria and Albert Museum)

In 1637, the last years of the Ming dynasty, the English East India Company bought in Canton (Guangzhou), among other Chinese produce, 24 cases of silks and satins. There was a pause of about 40 years, and the next English activity in China was at Amoy (Xiamen) in 1678. The ship was ordered to buy 12,000 pieces of woven silk.
Since then Chinese woven silk and raw silk were frequently loaded onto ships destined for England, the biggest quantity being in 1697, when two ships Nassau and Trumball were ordered to buy a total of 30 tons of raw silk, 149,000 pieces of woven silk, and 750 pieces of rich velvet.
Once arrived in Europe the Chinese silks were made into wall hangings, bed curtains and other interior furnishing items, and occasionally made into men’s and women’s garments as well. Their patterns are usually floral and very similar to silks made in France, Italy or England. Visually it is very difficult to distinguish Chinese woven silks from their European counterparts.

Since the 1980s textile researchers have been trying to find ways to identify Chinese silk. One theory is that 18th-century Chinese silk is wider, ranging from 71-79cm (28 to 31 inches) whereas European silk is narrower, ranging from 49.5 to 58.5cm (19.5 to 23 inches). This theory found support when the V&A conserved the Melville bed in 1998. The bed hangings are made of two different materials – the outer hanging made of crimson velvet and the inner hanging made of ivory-coloured silk damask. One piece of damask carries five Chinese characters on the loom-end jin xia hao ben ji 锦霞號本机, confirming beyond any doubt that it was made in China. The width is 69cm.

The width criterion, though extremely useful, cannot be used to date fragments.

Also, to seek further evidence that the Chinese loom was indeed wider it would be good if we could find some woven silks inside China so that we can compare them with those found in Europe. When I did the Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City exhibition in 2010 I included a few bolts of fabrics. All of them indeed measure 70cm or more in width, except one. But most of the examples are woven in the 19th century so they are not ideal for comparison. The one exception, a jin-brocade, is only 55cm wide. To complicate matters some scholars argued that the piece was actually made in France.

East India Company records make no more mention of woven silk after 1770, an indication that they bought only raw silk from that year onwards. However, captains of ships were allowed to buy their own private cargoes, and those goods do not appear in company records. Embroidered silk and painted silk are two categories that can be found in many British and European museums, their Chinese workmanship more recognizable but their dating not easy to establish. Their place of production most likely to be Canton. Here in the V&A we have bed covers, hangings, woman’s gowns, vestments for Christian priests and upholstery fabrics.


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