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Diffusion and Reflection: Comparison of Mechanically Patterned textiles between the West and China

Zhao Feng (China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, P.R.China)

The Silk Road is the synonymy for the cultural relationship and exchange between China and the west. Unfortunately only few people pay attention to the silk itself, although it is one kind of most important media of the culture, and none can answer who invented the drawloom or how it was introduced from China to the west, either. This paper will focus on the development of the mechanical pattern weaving technique and the drawloom during the diffusion and reflection of the Chinese textile culture, based on the comparison of a large number of the textiles I have analyzed in both China and the west. The pattern weaving technique in this paper means a mechanical device on a loom that can control the pattern to repeat in either warp or weft direction.

1. Chinese weave and patterning technique
Many early Chinese patterned silks use the warp-faced compound tabby weave, which had appeared in Western Zhou(11th-8th century BC) and became popular during the Warring States(475-221BC). The common features of this type of patterned silks are the pattern repeats in the warp direction, not in the weft direction. It suggests that Chinese has used a special device for the warp repeat of textiles, which is a pattern memory device called pattern program.

2. Western weave and patterning technique
Most western textiles before the 2nd century CE are tapestry which use discontinuous wefts to make the pattern. The technique is very simple although the decoration looks complicated. Since the 2nd century CE, the western weavers also used compound weave which is undoubtedly the copy from Chinese silk weave. But the most distinction is the direction. The western textile uses weft faced compound weave, instead of the warp faced, so that the pattern repeats along the weft direction but not along the warp direction. It suggests that they have used a special mechanical device to control the pattern repeats along the weft direction, which could be called 1-N cord system.

3. Samit silks from the 6th to 9th centuries
Around the 5th to 9th century, a new weave called samit, weft faced compound twill, became popular along the Silk Road. Obviously, it was developed from the compound tabby. However, the difference of the pattern repeat direction still existed. The woven pattern repeated only along the weft direction on the western textiles, but in both weft and warp directions on Chinese textiles. It proves that the Chinese have finally completed the drawloom, which is a composition of two systems, pattern memory program and 1-N cord system, in the Tang dynasty after a process of diffusion and reflection of the Chinese textile techniques.

4. Development of the mechanical patterning techniques
Based on this new Chinese drawloom, all the weavers along the Silk Road set up their pattern programs and formed their drawloom in different versions, such as Persian, Indian, Moroccan, and European from the 11th to 15th century. It is the second time of diffusion of Chinese textile culture that started in the Arabic period and finished in the Mongol period. After that, the Jacquard loom was invented in France based on the European drawloom.

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