With a rich history dating back thousands of years, silk making is one of the key elements of Suzhou’s distinct cultural identity. In fact, Suzhou silk and weaving techniques including Kesi, Double-Sided Embroidery, Cloud Brocade and Song Brocade, have been recognized as elements of significant cultural heritage.
History of Suzhou Silk
Along with its enchanting canals and elegant gardens, Suzhou is also renowned for its exquisite silk. It is said that in the years of 3,000 BC, a cocoon fell into the tea cup of Lady Hsi-Lin-Shih – the wife of Yellow Emperor Huangdi. She was unable to unravel the wet pod into a single strong thread and eventually taught the locals how to raise silkworms for silk production. In fact, archaeological sites along the Yangzi River have revealed ancient spinning tools and silk thread and fabric dating back to 3630 – from the Chinese Neolithic period.
Traditionally, silk was originally reserved for Chinese emperors, but once its use spread to the entire ruling class and then to the gentry, silk cultivation became an integral part of Suzhou’s economy eventually leading it to become the epicenter of silk cultivation as the city’s fortunes grew with the expansion of global trading along the Silk Road.
Did You Know?
For nearly 3,000 years, Chinese artisans kept the silk-making processes a closely guarded secret.
Where To Discover Suzhou Silk
Trace the story and culture of silk from the legendary Chinese empress Leizu – said to have discovered silk when a cocoon dropped into her teacup in the 27th century B.C. – to the latest silk-manufacturing innovations and runway fashions. Then check out silkworms munching on their staple diet of mulberry leaves, watch silk being spun on old-fashioned looms and learn how to identify high quality genuine silk.
The Suzhou Silk Museum is housed in a contemporary building inspired by the city’s most famous export. The museum’s white-as-silk exterior is decorated with a distinctive cocoon pattern and boasts a striking outdoor art installation made from thin strands of white metal that hang from a lattice canopy like silk fibers drying in the sun. Inside, the museum is comprised of 102,000 square feet of stylish galleries, working silk-making facilities, a hands-on children’s museum and a world-class silk shop.
Start your self-guided tour in the Ancient Exhibit Hall and witness the development of silk production from the late Neolithic Age through the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ancient silk garments, tapestries and brocade, as well as reproductions of early silk patterns, bring the displays to life, while the museum’s extensive English signage puts the exhibitions in context and provides deeper meaning.
After seeing so many examples of elegant textiles, you’ll naturally wonder how such intricate fabric is produced. The answer is revealed in the museum’s Silkworm-Rearing Room and Silk Weaving Workshop — but before heading there, here’s a quick primer: Silkworm farmers collect eggs from adult silk moths, and once they hatch, the larvae feast on mulberry leaves for about six weeks. The larvae then secrete strands of silk for three to eight days as they wrap themselves in cocoons. Before the worms start transforming into pupae, the cocoons are dropped into boiling water, where the individual raw silk fibers can be extracted and spun together into thread. From there, the silk is further processed to make the fine thread used in high-end products.
Considered by many to be the highlight of the Suzhou Silk Museum, the Silkworm-Rearing Room offers visitors the simple pleasure of seeing silkworms munch on mulberry leaves. Combined with scenes of late Qing dynasty-era peasants breeding silkworms that also explain the silk-making process, it’s easy to imagine what life was like for silkworm farmers during Suzhou’s silk-production heyday. Continue to the Silk-Weaving Workshop to see silk thread become finished products. Here you can see traditional silk-weaving technology in action as women in ancient costumes demonstrate a variety of ancient looms and weave renowned silk products like brocades, green silk and velvet.
At the No.1 Silk Factory, visitors can experience the entire silk making process straight from the cocoon. This 100 year-old silk mill gives visitors the unique chance to follow the journey of tiny silkworms as they produce the fibers that ultimately become luxurious scarves, neckties, quilts and more.
This historic factory was established in 1926 and has since become a honored century-old factory in Suzhou. In fact, it was even recommended by BBC Travel as one of the best spots to visit to learn about the traditional skills of silk-making, and the culture and history behind silk in China. The factory has an extensive shop featuring apparel, accessories, home and beauty products, and more.
Did You Know?
It is estimated that the origins of approximately 80 percent of the world’s silk wedding dresses can be traced to Suzhou.
Nestled in the Mountain Villa of Secluded Beauty, one of Suzhou’s famed classical gardens, the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute was established in 1957 and serves as the studio for more than 100 specialized embroidery artists dedicated to the preservation of this intricate artform.
Suzhou embroidery is characterized by beautiful patterns, elegant colors, and meticulous stitching patterns. The institute is a fascinating attraction for travelers who love not only history and culture, but also fashion and art, and have interest in seeing its creation first-hand.
In the world of Suzhou silk, there is one name that stands out among the rest: Qian Xiaoping. As a master of Song Brocade, which originated from the Song Dynasty in 960 - 1279, Qian Xiaoping is a pioneer and master in her artform.
Visitors to her workshop can learn how she creates her exquisite designs and commission bespoke silk apparel. What better way to commemorate your trip to Suzhou than in ultimate luxury!
Insider Tips For Exploring Silk in Suzhou
Check out the cocoons that are sold as facial exfoliators in the Suzhou Silk Museum shop. They are a wonderful natural, organic skincare product unique to Suzhou.
Pick up a luxurious custom-made embroidery pieces as a souvenir at the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute.
At the end of your tour at No.1 Silk Factory, try your hand at making a quilt. With the help of workers or other guests, everyone will grab a bundle of silk from one corner and stretch it as far as possible without breaking it. It will then settle down on top of hundreds of other layers of the same stretched silk which will eventually be turned into a handmade silk quilt!
Combine your visit to the Suzhou Silk Museum with the nearby North Temple Pagodaor double your museum pleasure by also visiting the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum just minutes away.
If you’re visiting Suzhou anytime from late September to mid-October, make sure to check out the China Suzhou International Silk Festival.