In 2016 I traveled from Xi’an to Kashgar to follow the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road. Silk was only a small fragment of this vast network but as China’s most guarded secret it is the one material with the most mystery and legend.
It was in the city of Hotan (Hetian) in China’s Xinjiang province that I got to experience the magic of silk road silk. Once a separate kingdom on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, a prince from Hotan courted and married a Chinese princess in 440 A.D. Legend says that the princess smuggled out silkworm eggs in her hair and Hotan has been in the silk business ever since.
Visiting a family-run a traditional silk weaving workshop was a major highlight of my time in Xinjiang province and I regularly think about the families who do this important work.
Here is what the process looks like from start to finish.
Silk worm eggs require a mild temperature and once hatched, the worms feed every 30 minutes on fresh mulberry leaves for a month until they are big enough to spin a silk cocoon. In ancient times, only natural dyes were used to dye silk threads but today modern dyes are also used. In Hotan this is the only place still spinning and weaving silk the traditional way.
The ikat designs that are dyed and woven are a meaningful source of identity to the people of Xinjiang, an ethnic minority called the Uyghurs. The patterns are created by grouping sets of warp threads into bundles and tying them off with plastic rope before they are dyed systematically with many bright colors.
While the women tied and untied the warp threads into specific patterns, their children played in the studio and a baby lay sleeping in a hand-carved wooden crib. Silk is a family business in Hotan and it is with great hope that their children and grandchildren will carry on this ancient tradition.
Once the carefully dyed warp threads are painstakingly assembled onto the loom it is time to weave. Compared to caring for the cocoons, spinning the silk, and tying and dyeing the warp threads, the weaving process feels fast!
Xinjiang can be a difficult place to travel to but meeting the artists who are keeping this beautiful silk textile tradition alive was worth any hardship I can think of.