Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Antique Chinese sleevebands

The splendid Chinese exhibition, The Three Emperors 1662-1795 currently at the Royal Academy, London, will no doubt renew and stimulate interest in all things Chinese. Chinese textiles and costumes are still an underrated area compared to paintings, ceramics and the other decorative arts, but perhaps the balance will be addressed in the UK after this exhibition.
In 1644 the Manchus, a nomadic horseriding people from NW China overthrew the Ming dynasty and gradually gained control over the rest of China , doubling the size of their empire, their rule being called Qing (pronounced Ching).

The Manchus developed court costume which was a hybrid mix of their own nomadic traditions and those of the sedentary silk weaving Han people. During the previous Ming dynasty the indigenous Han women had embroidered the sleeve ends of their robes and this idea was adopted when the Manchus came to power. Both Manchu and Han woman's jackets and robes had large wide sleeves with a band approximately 7 in wide by 40 in (18 x 1.2 cm) long acting as a cuff. A section of about 4-6 in (10-15 cm) across and 20 in (50 cm) long is embroidered on this cuff. The embroidery is worked to one half of the cuff the rest being left plain. This later section is sewn to the front of the jacket or robe, the embroidered part to the back. Women tended to fold their arms in front at waist level with their hands through the sleeves, the embroidery showing down the front.

It is not known how embroidered sleevebands evolved. In order to use their hands, which would be covered by the robe's long sleeves, Chinese women would need to push up or fold back the cuff. It is fairly logical to assume that at some stage the folded back section of sleeve would be embellished with embroidery.
In autumn and winter women would wear satin or silk damask robes either lined with fur or padded with cotton, or in the spring simply lined with a silk lining. In summer silk gauze was worn, a perforated silk which allowed air to circulate. Sleeve bands come in a variety of fabrics and techniques. Silk damask, plain satin or silk are the most usual grounds. Silk gauze or cut velvet and woven silk kesi are less common. Favorite bands were often unpicked and reused on the next robe, despite sometimes not matching the colour of the main garment.

The most prized technique of all Chinese textiles was woven Kesi 'cut silk'. It took much longer to weave silk than to embroider, with the finest pieces of this type of weaving being reversible. Bands worked in this technique are fairly rare and expensive. When the weft (horizontal) threads were woven, each colour was woven in only where it was required to be visible, with a different bobbin being used for each colour rather than a continuous thread running across the reverse. Each end of silk was then deftly sewn back into that particular colour, to make the work reversible. When a piece of kesi is held up to the light slits can be seen, formed where there is a colour break. The band from my collection above has small children at lessons beautifully depicted and in clear bright shades, their features inked. This was common practice during the 19th century when it was quicker to ink in details than to weave.

Sleevebands are embroidered in a variety of stitches. The most usual are satin, split, stem, back and Peking Knots , overlaid and scale. Peking Knots also known as Forbidden Stitch were never actually forbidden by law but probably got this name because they were first worked in the Forbidden City.
Couching is where a thread, in this case gold spun round a silk core, is caught down on the surface of the fabric by another stitch, often coloured. The fineness of Peking knots varies considerably and it is only occasionally that a really minute stitch is seen. In some stitches two colours have been twisted together to great effect.

Many bands combine the stitch and background fabric to clever effect, such as the pair on silk gauze grounds. When the bands were sewn to the robe, a plain silk gauze would be used for the backing, this giving the effect of egrets wading amongst lily pads and lotus flowers in water. The silk gauze ground has been given the effect of water silk and the birds do appear to be in water. From a distance the birds appear to be painted, the counted stitches or minute tent stitches being so fine.

There are many themes used on sleevebands but one of the most popular was butterflies (symbol of longevity) sipping the nectar from peonies (symbol of spring). Together these two represent a lover tasting the joys of love. Symbolism was of huge importance on Chinese costumes and textiles but in the main sleevebands tend to have pretty subject matter relating to plants, insects and animals. The more serious Buddhist, Taoist symbols and those of the Eight Precious Things seldom appear.

Colour was highly significant in the Chinese court with specific colours being worn for ceremonial or festivals. Red was a happiness colour and worn at weddings, white for funerals and mourning. Yellow was reserved exclusively for the Emperor and Empress. Different colours were worn at the four annual sacrifices.
Sleevebands can be extremely beautiful and attractive, often amusing and are interesting pieces of social history. Framed, they do not take up much space and several on a wall can look stunning and unusual. Price depends on whether they are a pair or single, on the quality of the embroidery, condition and rarity of the subject matter, variety of stitches and general attractiveness of the piece. A single good quality band in good condition band can start at around £60 /$ 100.

Article by Meg Andrews, Antique costume and textile expert

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