Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blue Nankeen

I love cloth and fabric, and especially love the handmade kind which is such a beautiful form of art. Here in Shanghai I am lucky enough to be surrounded by fabric markets which house just about anything you can imagine, along with tailors who can sew up whatever you like in a few days' time. I've been sewing since I was a very small child, and have enjoyed making clothes and household goods as well as crazy costumes for many years.

Having access to cheap fabric and tailors here has made me question whether it's the end result of something made especially to fit me I like most, or if it is the process of making something by hand. The jury is still out. I've been fortunate enough to have every garment I've had made for me be a hit. I have friends who've had a long line of misses, which is too bad.

I heard about a place called the Nankeen Exhibition Hall in Shanghai which is where a specific type of fabric called blue nankeen is created. It's a traditional art form tracing back over 3,000 years to the Silk Road in China. Sadly, it has lost popularity with modern Chinese people, and it appears to be somewhat of a dying art.

I called up my friend Heather B and she called up her friend Carol, and together we set off to find the place. I read that it was a mix between a museum and a shop, and I'd lean more toward shop, but they did have a display of how the fabric was made, as well as freshly dyed fabric drying in the breeze.

It's tucked into a residential block, but the blue signs everywhere made it easy to find. We had to admire the fat green grapes growing from the overhead power lines, a common sight in these old neighborhoods.

We knew we'd found it when we saw the fabric billowing in the breeze. I came so close to purchasing that big print at the back. At 950 RMB (~$160 USD) it was quite tempting to take it home to enjoy a large scale piece of handmade fiber art... I may go back...

There was an exhibit upstairs that showed how the patterns are created on thick paper stencils, then a paste of soy beans and lime is mixed up and applied to the fabric with a spatula over the stencil, much like screen printing. Once dried, they dip the fabric repeatedly into indigo dye until the desired intensity is created. After the fabric dries, the soy bean and lime paste is scraped off with a blade and the fabric is washed and then hung out to dry, revealing the still-white pattern beneath.

Ancient patterns made from wood blocks...

And the fabric made using them... 

In the shop they sell fabric by the meter in a width of 37 centimeters, starting at 69 RMB (~$11.50 USD) per meter. It was a very difficult choice! I try not to buy fabric without having something specific in mind to create from it. My top two choices initially were the fish pattern draped over the display, and a circular rope looking pattern laying rolled up next to it (sorry, I didn't get a better photo), which had a very nautical feel. In the end, I got neither of those.

This is my friend Heather B with her top pick, which was also a fish theme that she was going to make into a table runner. Every piece of fabric was amazing... the feel of the cotton was a pleasure and the small imperfections of the printing which proved it was made by human hand and not a machine filled me with joy for this art form dating back 3,000 years. 

In the end, Heather B left that fabric behind and bought a large square of fabric with a similar theme which we decided could be used as a wall hanging, tablecloth, and even a shawl. They had it hanging on the wall behind glass, and it was the first thing she saw, and in the end, the pattern came home with her!

And what did I go home with? Another treasure that Heather unearthed and discarded which absolutely sung to me. It's two panels on a very thick cotton, which I've already hung on a rod and used to cover our "pharmacy" in the bedroom. I love the bold graphics! In fact, I just stood up to walk into my bedroom to look at it again. I love it so much! 

I also got a few meters of this lighter weight pattern to make a skirt. I have the perfect pattern (view B) which will show off the design of the fabric and make good use of the narrow 37 centimeter width.

And what did my new friend Carol get? Well, I can't show you. Because I got the same thing for my Mama for Christmas! Only 167 days until December 25th! The shop also sells many items made up from the fabric, like clothing and bags and all sorts of sweet household goods. There's no bargaining, and I wouldn't say the prices are cheap, but in a city filled with cheap knockoffs and junk, I'm more than willing to spend money on something with a rich history made the slow way by hand.

If you're in Shanghai (or visiting Shanghai), I highly recommend a visit here. It was just a quick stop, and it's a small place, but we still spent over an hour oohing and ahhing at the exquisite handmade beauty. And if you do come? Give me a call. I'll totally go back with you!


  1. Okay, IF we ever come out to visit you are going to take me there. That is so fascinating how they make the fabric. And I love blue & white. I would love to see the skirt when you are done with it!!

  2. Thank you for this post + providing a map! I'm going to Shanghai soon and am excited to look this place up.


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