Weav­ing Shut­tles – Spin­ning His­tory

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Lei Hu Pho­to­graphs by Wang Kai & Bu Ensa Pic­tures pro­vided by Xiaox­i­angsanxun Trans­la­tion by Pavel Toropov (GBR) --

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.

A Seeker

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.

Shut­tle’s DNA

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.

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