Silk has been a popular trading good for the West since ancient times. The so-called silk road (or silk routes) has been established as a trade route linking the Roman Empire with China. And silk was among the most sought-after goods.
Whilst regular silk has always very popular, mud silk (or tea silk, 香云纱 xiāng yún shā), is currently enjoying a revival thanks to its rich texture and fine quality. An ancient art, almost forgotten during the Cultural Revolution, mud silk has experienced increased popularity, and fashion designers around the world have embraced this fabric for their collections (for example Narciso Rodriguez, Taiwanese designer Sopie Hong and Beijing based designer Kathrin von Rechenberg). Thanks to the dying process, some of its best features are that it is water-repellant, breathable, anti-bacterial, quick-drying and offering some UV protection making it particularly suitable for hot, humid climates.
The art of producing mud silk originated in the Guangdong Province and is almost 2’500 years old. Very little in the production process has changed over the centuries. A particular type of yam, the Shuliang yam, is finely ground and put in a clay basin until the water turns into a deep orange-brown colour. The silk is then repeatedly soaked in the dye and laid on a grass field to dry, a process necessary to repeat up to 30 times in order to obtain deeper shades. The fabric is then taken to a river and covered with a particular type of uncontaminated, iron-rich river mud, to be then rinsed in the water and set to dry overnight. At the end of the process, the fabric is black on one side and brown-coloured on the other. And the Pearl River delta is one such area with rivers that carry the special iron-rich mud that binds to the silk.
My local sources have told me that the best place to purchase mud silk is in Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), also place to the China National Silk Museum (中国丝绸博物馆), as I wasn’t successful finding mud silk on my most recent trip to Guangzhou. So on my next trip to Shanghai, I will find a way for a detour to Hangzhou.