Suzhou Silk Museum
Along with its enchanting canals and elegant gardens, Suzhou is also renowned for its exquisite silk. The city has been at the center of China’s celebrated silk trade since at least the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), and there’s no better place to discover this luxurious fabric and its history than at the Suzhou Silk Museum.
About the Silk Museum
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 back in the 27th century BC — 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 tell genuine silk from counterfeits.
The newly renovated 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 contains 102,000 square feet of stylish galleries, working silk-making facilities, a hands-on children’s museum and a world-class silk shop.
Explore the Galleries
Setting the tone for the entire museum, the Introductory Hall features a Silk Road theme that extends all the way into the Central Court and Backyard Garden beyond it. Start your self-guided tour in the Ancient Exhibit Hall and witness the development of silk production from the late Neolithic Age to 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 could be produced by worms. 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.
History of Suzhou Silk
Historically, Suzhou has been associated with royalty and wealth, and as such, the city has long played a leading role in the saga of China’s silk trade. The fabric was originally reserved for Chinese emperors, but once its use spread to the the entire ruling class and then to the gentry, silk cultivation became an integral part of Suzhou’s commerce. The city’s fortunes only grew as the fabric spread throughout China and then to the rest of Asia and beyond. See the golden age of Suzhou’s silk industry come alive in the museum’s “Ming and Qing Street” installation. Replicas of long-standing silk stores offer a glimpse into the silk trade’s glory days.
Finally, the Suzhou Silk Museum’s Neoteric Exhibit Hall and Modern Exhibit Hall bring the story of the city’s silk industry into modern times. These galleries feature the exquisite craftsmanship of contemporary Suzhou silk, recent trends in silk dresses and a display of international prizes that Suzhou silk products have raked in.
After your gallery tour, stroll over to the museum’s store, where elegant silk garments, scarves, handbags, fans, duvets and bedsheets, among other attractions, are available for purchase. With the knowledge you’re sure to pick up in the museum, you’ll have a keen eye for top-quality silk products, whether you buy your own personal Suzhou masterpiece on-site or at one of the city’s many factories and boutiques.
- Make sure you’re actually at the Suzhou Silk Museum and not at the factory next door. The museum features a modern design with a large art installation that looks like drying strands of silk in the courtyard leading up to its entrance.
- Check out the cocoons that are sold as facial exfoliators in the museum shop. They make a wonderful natural, organic skincare product.
- To see the city’s silk culture in action, head to Suzhou No.1 Silk Factory on Nanmen Road, where you can witness every step of the silk-making process from breeding and selecting cocoons to weaving fabric and making garments.
- Combine your visit to the silk museum with the North Temple Pagoda, just up the road, or double your museum pleasure by also visiting the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum, a five-minute drive away.
- If you’re visiting Suzhou anytime from late September to mid-October, make sure to check out the China Suzhou International Silk Festival.
Location: Gusu District — No. 2001, Renmin Road, Suzhou
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Last entry: 4 p.m.)