Weaving Shuttles – Spinning History
In Chinese there is an expression: “weaver’s shuttle goes around, days go around”, describing the effortless, rapid passage of time. Nowadays, in the high-tech age, you rarely get to see a weaver’s shuttle anymore, but one woman has lovingly put together a collection of 8，000 weaving shuttles, giving us a chance to experience those memories long gone.
Lying on golden threads, the weaving shuttle in the photo has a shape similar to a canoe. Just like the canoe, the shuttle serves as an important tool in human history.
My six year search for traditional textiles has taken me to every corner of China and I have come across every major type of brocade and embroidery the country has: suxiu or Suzhou embroidery from Jiangsu, kesi - a form of silk tapestry, yunjin, also known as cloud brocade… then, in Central China, there was xiangxiu – Hunan embroidery, and in the Southwest shuxiu– Sichuan embroidery and dongjin, the brocade of the Dong ethnic group. Each type is different, unique.
Looking at these different styles of fabric made me think – they might all be different, as different as the landscapes of the locations they come from and the character of the people that live there, but, whatever these differences might be, all these fabrics were made by the same movement of the shuttle, thread by thread.
The pair of weaving shuttles in the photo is called “dumpling shuttle.”the Chinese characters carved on them mean “may my children be blessed every day, and make progress in their studies.” Even today, Chinese people still hold to their ancient belief that happiness and a good life derive from honest and hard work, and the shuttle is undoubtedly representative of this belief.
Every time I looked at one of those magnificent pieces, I thought: If I collected several hundred of different weaving shuttles, from different parts of China, what sort of cultural mosaic would I piece together? But I am, after all, just a journalist, and a task of collecting weaving shuttles, hundreds of them, was surely beyond me.
Then I suddenly heard that a weaver, a lady called Zheng Fenlan, has spent 14 years collecting 8000 weaving shuttles from all over the world. I set off for Hangzhou immediately.
Passing down a lifestyle
Zheng Fenlan has a textile museum of Tubu, literally “native cloth” or “homespun cloth”, called Xiao Xiang San Xun, a name that, in Chinese, the local dialect does great poetic justice to. I had always imagined that, if my travels in search of stories would ever take me to a person like this, a weaver who stubbornly clings to the most traditional of methods, I would find her either in the most remote of mountain hamlets or in a dark, rundown alley in an old town. I would never have imagined to have found her in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a huge modern city.
In her museum Zheng Fenlan sits down behind an old fashioned weaving loom. This loom is over a hundred years old, and was passed down to Fenlan from her great maternal grandmother.
Zheng Fenlan (on the left), a collector of weaving shuttles, has found some rare shuttles made by the She people who lived in villages in southern Zhejiang, each shuttle is over 100 years old.
“This loom is from my hometown. My mother passed it on to me, who, in turn, got it from her own mother. In the old days a well-to-do family would pass down jewelry, gold and silver, material things, as a dowry. Where I am from, the mother gives a weaving shuttle to the daughter as a dowry, and what we pass down is a skill.”
If we go back 30 years we will find Zheng Fenlan still living in her ancestral place – a small mountain village called Chuan’er, in Zhejiang’s Jinhua City. The wooden houses in the village were built along the banks of a stream and her mother’s loom is positioned by a window overlooking this very stream.
The three shuttles in the photo carry distinctive ethnic features: the “golden” one with a slender body is made of copper and was obtained in Guizhou; the one on the upper right is an ox horn shuttle that comes from Chongqing; and the material of the one on the lower right is also made from horn, but it is yak horn, and the shuttle itself was found in Xinjiang.
To Fenlan the memories of her mother’s weaving are connected with sleep. During the afternoon nap time her mother would weave in the light of the midday sun, in the evening, when Fenlan was ready for bed, her mother worked by the light of a
kerosene lamp, placed at the top of the loom. The trak-trak- trak of the loom’s pedal, accompanied by the sound of the shuttle was Fenlan’s favorite lullaby.
After a nap or a night’s sleep Fenlan would, through a sleepy haze, see her mother take a newly-made piece of cloth from the loom. Fenlan would then jump from the bed and drape herself in the newly spun fabric, thinking what kind of clothes this piece was destined to become.
Zheng Fenlan’s mother, Zheng Xiaohua, who is the inheritor of native cloth weaving skill, passed her skills down to her daughter, who then became the youngest inheritor of this skill in Hangzhou. For Zheng Fenlan, weaving is not just a skill, it is a way of life; moreover, it is a way to keep a culture alive, passing it from one generation to the next to safeguard.
In the old days women had to master a range of skills, not only to be able to earn a living, but also in order to demonstrate how accomplished they were, and weaving was always part of that female cultural environment.
My work has taken me to the ancient town of Fenghuang (Phoenix) of the Miao people, famous for their textiles. The Miao have something called huadai, which means “flower belt” in Chinese. The beautiful huadai, a type of traditional embroidery adorned with colorful patterns, usually flowers, are a Miao woman’s life– long companions. During childhood it is an education – a skill to make them is taught by the mother, helped in this task by the girl’s older sisters. During the teenage years the girl might give her sweetheart a huadai that she has made as a token of her affection. When she becomes a mother a huadai is used to carry the baby on her back. The shuttle that a Miao girl uses to make the huadai makes a record of her life; it changes with the girl, sharing her joys and sorrows, rendering them into fabric.
This is a relatively large weaving shuttle called a “blade shuttle.”usually this type of shuttle is used by the Yi people in Hainan but Zheng Fenlan found one thousands of kilometers away in Xinjiang, in a village near the snowy Mount Muztag.
In the village where Zheng Fenlan obtained her “blade shuttle,” she learns a unique local weaving skill from an elderly lady, who was the last owner of the shuttle.
No matter whether it is simple cloth or intricate embroidery, both are made by the same tool – the weaver’s shuttle, and both are passed down from mother to daughter. What is passed down, however, is not just a tradition of weaving, of making textiles; it is an art and a way of life.
Zheng Fenlan can close her eyes and describe in detail the shuttle which her mother used that was then passed onto her. It was what is called a boat shuttle (this type resembles a boat), and, like a boat, it has sailed down the current of time, from generation to generation. There are many old objects, relics that are part of one’s life, but for Zheng Fenlan a weaving shuttle is special. It is special because it is an eternal object, ever since textile making appeared, millennia ago, the shuttle has remained practically unchanged.
In a location called Shizhaishan, in Jinning County, Yunnan Province, a piece of bronze ware was excavated on the cover of which there was a cast image of a group of female slaves, sitting on the ground, weaving. The image is of a 2000 year-old waist loom (a type of loom attached to the weaver’s waist) perhaps the earliest type of loom that appeared in China.
In Sihong County, Jiangsu Province, a carved stone from the Han Dynasty was found. It depicted, in addition to a clear image of a loom, two shuttles wit hollow centers and pointed ends, not that much different from the family shuttle passed down the generations in Zheng Fenlan’s family more than 2000 years later.
“Weaver’s shuttle goes around, days go around”, a Chinese saying goes. To the ancients the movement of the shuttle was fast, just like the passage of time, but “fast” means is rather relative. A piece that took a whole day for a weaver to make using a manually operated loom can be now done in a minute with a modern one. The looms are now electrically operated, and shuttles are not even used anymore, they are replaced with air jets and water jets, producing perfectly manufactured textiles of uniform density. However, these mass-produced textiles seem bland, characterless, lacking in any art or human quality compared to those produced using traditional looms.
Using a weaving shuttle, one can easily lead wefts through warps, yet today, as modern technology develops, few people have the patience and - most importantly - the skill to weave handmade cloth. Photo/ Qianshan Maodou
Looms have evolved, from contraptions tied to the weaver’s waist, into giant modern monsters, and shuttles have changed with them. And so Zheng Fenlan has started to collect them, these old shuttles, about to be forgotten and discarded altogether by people.
When her 8000 shuttles are lined up on the floor, they would make quite a sight. Each one has its own story to tell. One such story started 14 years ago. At that time Zheng Fenlan went under the nickname Ben Ben, and was a traveler, roaming far and wide, across, China. One day her wanderings took her to a small village, deep in the mountains of Guizhou.
She set up camp in the yard of an old woman. The resourceful and charming Ben Ben quickly won over the old lady, who not only killed chicken for them to make a meal, but also invited her to stay the night in her house. In the evening Ben Ben was woken up by the trak-trak-trak sound of the loom, and when she opened her eyes she saw, in
the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, the old lady sitting by the window, foot pressing the loom’s pedal, a shuttle flying in her hands. It all seemed a dream. It was as if Zheng Fenlan was a child again, back in the small wooden house in her home village, listening to her mother playing her favorite lullaby.
Discovered in Dongyang, Zhejiang, the pair of weaving shuttles in the photo is called “couple shuttles.” From their surfaces, we can deduce the long years they came through. The “brawny” one on the left is the “husband,” just like a boat tracker on the riverbanks of Jiangnan. (Jiangnan is a regional term that includes Zhejiang, the site where the shuttles were obtained). The other “slender” one is the “wife,” representing the elegant young ladies in the very same Jiangnan region.
“I had left home a long time already, and our family weaving tradition to an end. That sight of the old lady weaving immediately took me back to the time when I was a child. I asked the old lady for that shuttle, saying that it brought back the memories of my childhood.” The old lady refused to sell it, according to her it was a family piece, a dowry given to her by her mother.
This place was far from home, she was with a people from a different ethnic group, and the shuttle was of different shape, but it was the same to her – it made Zheng Fenlan remember her mother; their own shuttle was also a family tradition, also given to her mother by the maternal grandmother, and that made the old lady’s shuttle even dearer to her, it made her want that shuttle even more.
She stayed in the old lady’s house for three whole days, washing her clothes, preparing food, talking to her. Finally, as she was reluctantly walking out of the village, something made her look back, and she noticed the old lady waving, calling her back.
“She then took out a shuttle from under her overcoat, and, as she gave it to me, I burst into tears. The old lady said that it was for me, she had seen that I really felt something for that shuttle, and so it was ok to give to me, I would take good care of it.”next year, when Zheng Fenlan tried to contact the old lady again, she had already passed away.
After the Zheng Fenlan got that first shuttle there was not holding her back. Her wanderings acquired a purpose, she would only go to remote, little-visited places as it was there that she was most likely to get hold of weaving shuttles. Those places, deep in the mountains, still had people, just like that old lady, who preserved the tradition of hand weaving. For example in a place called Tongren, in Guizhou Province, she came across a bright shiny shuttle, so shiny that it looked like it was made out of silver. Zheng Fenlan liked it so much that it is now the most cherished item in her whole collection.
An ancient type of waist loom was preserved by the Yi people living in the Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan. Undoubtedly a “living fossil,” the loom (and those who maintain it) carries secrets of ancient Chinese weaving skills. The old lady in the photo is demonstrating how to use this ancient tool, as if replicating a scene from thousands of years ago of a lady weaving.
Zheng Fenlan takes out an exquisitely made shuttle – it is a specialized shuttle, used for weaving silk, and it came from Junko Kubo, a Japanese friend of hers. In 2009, when Junko was closing up her silk business in Hangzhou she put an ad in a newspaper: “Giving away a silk – spinning loom, used for two years, to a local”. There was a condition, though; the local person must come from a textiles background. Junko thought that only such a person could truly appreciate the loom.
A friend of Fenlan’s saw the ad and immediately called her. Fenlan got in touch with Junko, but she would not immediately agree to hand over the looms, she asked to come to Fenlan’s workshop to have a look first. After having done so, she not only gave the two looms to Fenlan, but also made her a present of her mother’s long-serving shuttle.
To make a weaving shuttle
If you are no expert, you might regard a weaving shuttle as a simple thing, a crude tool. But they are anything but simple and crude.
There is an unusual shuttle in Fenlan’s collection - it is head-pointed, shaped like a rocket with a U-shaped tail, and has a pointy front. There is also nowhere to attach a bobbin. This bizarre shuttle is used for making fishing nets. The thread is bound directly onto the shuttle, and the net maker then hooks the thread together making a mesh, eventually producing a large fishing net.
Sometimes shuttles come in pairs or sets. This is because only relatively simple patterns can be woven using a single shuttle, but using a pair of shuttles, or two shuttles of different types, you can make striped and checkered textiles. The more shuttles, the richer the pattern.
The “dumpling shuttle” is common in China’s Central Plain, as the dumpling is among the most popular foods in this region.
China’s Jiangnan (the southern area below the Yangtze River) is a region of rivers and lakes, similar to Venice. So, weaving shuttles in this region usually take the shape of vessels and boats, for they are cultural symbols of Jiangnan.
Zheng Fenlan found 11 yak horn weaving shuttles near Mount Muztag in Xinjiang. To make these shuttles, a craftsman needs long years of practice and exquisite skills.
The varied types of shuttles might be aesthetically pleasing, but, as I have noticed, there are very few real works of art amongst weaving shuttles. This is because the main demand is for a shuttle to be practical.
Not so long ago, Zheng Fenlan came across a classic, beautifully made shuttle. She called it the Shuttle of Wisdom. It is made from boxwood and comes from Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province. Both ends of the shuttle have black inlays and it is made out of cow’s hoof. The craftsmanship is exquisite and it feels great in your hand. The material, cow’s hoof, is smooth and it makes the movement of the shuttle smoother, easier when spinning cloth. This shuttle is a combination of both beauty and practicality, or, as Fenlan called it, “wisdom”, on behalf of the maker of the shuttle.
Don’t be fooled by the small size and the simple design of shuttles, making one is no simple task.the making of each shuttle is a journey. Most of the shuttles on Zheng Fenlan’s collection are made from wood, hold one in your hand and you will realize that the shuttles several decades or even centuries old have no cracks. I heard an old craftsman once say that old, mature wood is the best for making shuttles, and if young wood is used, it must be dried over fire first.
The connection between a weaver and a shuttle is very intimate, born from hours of holding a shuttle in your hand when working, and from the hand working process that goes into its making. For this reason weavers are very reluctant to change shuttles and a shuttle often becomes a weaver’s life- long companion. It is therefore the crux of making a shuttle – making it last a life – time.
The old shuttles, therefore, have a sheen, a gloss, bestowed by the years of gliding across the woven fabric, from decades of contact with human hands.
All weaving shuttles have one common function—leading the weft while weaving. Yet their appearance and style vary according to specific purposes. Among the weaving shuttles in the photo, the first one is an ox horn used to weave linen that comes from Chongqing; the second one was found in Guizhou and the wheels on its two ends allow a weaver to work more efficiently; the third one is from Jiangnan and is used to weave cloth belts, its bobbin is removed for convenience; the fourth one, a relic dug out from underground, is made from animal bone; the fifth one is used by fishermen in Hunan to weave large nets, so it looks more like a giant needle; the sixth one is from Zhejiang and, like the third, it is used for weaving belts but local She people made it out of boxwood, giving it a more elegant body; the seventh one is the shuttle on a German-made semi-automatic loom, representing modern weaving technology.
If you want to make something great, you need great tools. Many shuttles come with a bin or a bobbin that holds the yarn. The bobbin sits inside the body of the shuttle like a swimming bladder inside a fish.if the bobbin is not up to standard, it will affect the movement of the yarn and as the result the cloth that you spin will come out uneven.
The makers of shuttles do not have much creative space for their design, as shuttles are simple objects, but they still manage to infuse their products with aesthetics and art, and the older the shuttle the more exquisite the work that has gone into it.
Zheng Fenlan is sitting cross-legged on the floor. She is in the center, and all around her, radiating out, are arranged all imaginable types of weaving shuttles, forming a large map.
She picks out a shuttle, first studies its shape for an instant, and then says what it is called. Then Fenlan tells me where it comes from, what type of fabric it is used to make, even giving the approximate time period when it was used. Like a fortuneteller, able to see into a person’s past just by looking at their face, Fenlan is reading each shuttle’s story, its history and journey from its shape.
The origin of shuttles can be told from their form – a “boat shuttle”, hollow, with both ends pointed, looking exactly like a small boat, is from the region south of the Yangtze; a “dumpling shuttle” its shape perfectly reflecting its name, is from region of Central Plains…
A shuttle also tells you a lot about the place of its origin – the shuttles made by the herders of the northwestern steppes are carved from horns of cows and goats, the shuttles of the Miao people of the southwest are made from pure copper and the silk-weaving shuttles from Suzhou are crafted from the best mahogany…
The structure of a shuttle also gives away a lot about the productivity level of the region where it is made. Zheng Fenlan got a so- called “wind and fire wheels shuttle” which is equipped with two small rotating wheels, allowing for faster movement of the shuttle during weaving, and therefore accelerating production. (In Chinese folklore Wind and Fire Wheels are the tools of a Taoist goddess Nezha which allowed her to move extremely fast; Nezha is now the patron goddess of professional drivers in China.)
Fenlan’s collection also includes one “immovable object” a shuttle from a German electric loom manufactured between the two world wars. This shuttle is a symbol of the evolution of weaving shuttle from a simple handmade tool to a part of a machine.
Zheng Fenlan has collected more than 8,000 weaving shuttles. They are tools, but they are also symbols and carriers of culture and witnesses to historical periods of various regions and people.
Each shuttle is also a fossil, a witness to a period of history of a region and a people. Each piece on Fenlan’s collection is carefully catalogued, noting a great deal of information - its origin, the material it is made from, the person who donated it, the type of loom it was used with, what fabric it was used to make…
A shuttle is used for the production of textiles and you can say that it is the DNA of the fabric that is made using it. Like a geneticist who painstakingly assembles a genetic map, we can also crack the DNA code of a shuttle by naming each “gene” – the material the shuttle is made from, its shape, the place where it comes from…
The 8000 shuttles that Zheng Fenlan has collected are now safe, rescued from being forgotten and lost, but the story does not end here, and neither are these shuttles laying idle. Close your eyes and you will hear that they are they are still busy at work, weaving together a great story of memories and people’s lives, all you have to do, is listen.