Khan Atlas “Uyghur silk fit for a king…”
It would have been strange to have travelled through China and along the Silk routes and not encountered silk and silk manufacturing. Inevitably I saw quite a few demonstrations of the art of silk making, but one of the best was in Hotan.
Hotan (or Khotan) is in Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, and is on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. It took us four days and three nights of desert camping to cross the desert so we were more than pleased to arrive in the city of Hotan. They say of the Taklamakan that “you go in, but you don’t come out” – well we made it out!
Hotan is on one of the most ancient parts of the Silk route and people in this part of the world have been creating fabrics and carpets made from silk for centuries. Hotan has been famous for the quality of the fabrics and carpets it produces, and I’ve read that the oldest carpet found in China was found not far from the city. I remember being told that silk came to Hotan when a princess smuggled in mulberry seeds and silk worm larvae as part payment of her dowry – China guarded it’s silk secrets fiercely, but as a princess she could not be searched.
Silk manufacturing is still an important industry in this Uyghur community, and there a number of factories where you can see silk being made by hand in the ancient tradition from cocoon to weaving the colourful silk. The factory I went to was the Atlas Silk Workshop.
The word ‘Atlas’ apparently means ‘silk’ in the local language and I was able to watch silk being tied by hand in age-old patterns. The multi-colored patterns, created by a tie-dye or dye-resist process are used in Uyghur women’s dresses. The silk from Hotan is referred to as the ‘Khan Atlas’ or ‘King’s Silk’.
So how is it done?
The delicate threads of the cocoons are loosened in a vat of hot water and are then spun together onto reels (up to 10 cocoons at a time). The photograph at the beginning of this post shows a wider view of the process, whilst below you can see the threads being loosened and another Uyghur woman reeling silk.
Once the silk has been extracted it can be tied and dyed using a tie-dye or dye-resist process. To get the multi-coloured patterns the silk may be dyed one colour at a time. Afterwards the silk is twisted to drain out the water as can be seen in the following photographs.
Once the threads are placed into patterns the thread is loaded onto the machines for the weaving to be done. The image below shows a carpet being weaved on a big loom by several people at once.
Here are more photographs from the Atlas Silk Workshop in Hotan: