Ancient Craft Revived

A visit to an Atlas silk workshop in southern Xinjiang

By Wang Fengjuan

In the streets of Hotan in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, beautiful Atlas silk, also known as Etlas silk or Idili Silk, can be found everywhere from girls’ dresses to shop decorations and cushions on curbside chairs. Atlas means “tie-dyed silk” in the Uyghur language, and Atlas silk is a handmade fabric popular in Hotan and Kashgar prefectures of Xinjiang. Regarded as a “living fossil” of the traditional crafts along the ancient Silk Road, Atlas silk weaving was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage of China in 2008.

Long after the reverberation of camel bells along the ancient trade route faded into history, the brilliance of silk lingers on. Silk fragments unearthed from the Shanpulu Ancient Tombs and the ruins of the ancient city of Niya, two archaeological sites in Hotan, were identical to modern Atlas silk in terms of weaving techniques. Known for bright colors and patterns, Atlas silk was once in danger of becoming a lost craft. Traditional production methods and use of natural dyes are almost obsolete in today’s world of mass production.

About a 10-kilometer drive from Hotan City, the Atlas Silk Workshop is an exhibition area created by Jiya Guzili Atlas Silk Co., Ltd. to showcase the fabric production for tourists. Visitors are first greeted by a high wooden archway, lush green vines, and sounds of weaving machines.

A Visit to Skilled Weavers

Production of Atlas silk fabric requires high-quality raw materials and natural dyes to go through a complex process involving tie-dyeing of warp threads, beam warping, and weaving. Upon entering the Atlas Silk Workshop, visitors are struck by a scene that could be a thousand years old. White silkworm cocoons are soaked in warm water in an iron pan on a stove about a meter in width, and beside the stove, a woman unwinds filaments from the cooked cocoons. Threads as long as 800 to 1,000 meters can be removed from a single cocoon. Next to her, another worker spins a reeling machine to weave threads from multiple cocoons together to create a single strand of silk.

A worker unwinds filaments from cocoons at an Atlas silk mill in Jiya Township in southwestern Xinjiang on November 3, 2016. (WEI HAI)

In the dyeing section, 36-year-old Eli Memet ties silk yarn with black plastic tapes. Tying and dyeing are two critical steps to color the silk. Knots are tied in sections that need blank space, and then silk yarn is dyed in layers according to a designed pattern. A ninth-generation inheritor, Eli has been practicing tie-dyeing of Atlas silk for 22 years. “When I was a kid, my father and a dozen of his apprentices used to make tie-dyed silk in our house,” Eli recalled. “They chatted and laughed while working. I would sit next to the tying racks and watch them produce silk in varied patterns while enjoying their stories.”

Today, Eli is a tie-dyeing master with a portfolio of more than 150 designs of Atelier silk patterns in diverse lines, shapes, and colors. Compared with dyeing by machines, the traditional method creates a more obvious layering of colors and blurs the edges of color blocks to enhance beauty.

Workers in the Atlas Silk Workshop tie silk yarn with black plastic tape before dyeing it. (WANG FENGJUAN)

Two different styles of Atlas silk have evolved. The fabrics produced in Hotan City and Luopu County are mainly in black and white with rough, simple patterns featuring well-arranged lines and shapes. Brilliantly-colored Atlas silk products, mostly in emerald green, sapphire blue, and pink, are often found in Kashgar City and Yarkant County. Stripes of patterns in different widths run parallel on the neatly-knitted fabric.

After dyeing with natural materials, silk yarn is ready to be woven into cloth. A sixth-generation inheritor, 60-year-old Anhtumhan Wuhrehim started to learn Atlas silk weaving when she was 13. She remembers waking up every morning to the sound of her mother weaving. Her mother would use the most beautiful fabrics she wove to make dresses for Anhtumhan and her siblings for festive occasions. “I never get bored while weaving,” she said from a loom as her feet worked the pedals and a hand held a wooden shuttle. “After more than 40 years of practice, I have memorized various patterns such as peacock tails and rainbows, so I don’t need to refer to drawings.”

Passing on the Skills

In the past, it took a month to produce a piece of Atlas silk cloth because every step of the process from cocoon cooking to silk reeling, tie-dyeing, and weaving, had to be completed by hand, according to Tureli Mesum, an eighth-generation inheritor and owner of Jiya Guzili Atlas Silk Co., Ltd. Today, production has been greatly accelerated thanks to help from weaving machines while traditional methods of reeling and dyeing continue. More efficient silk making has also been realized by delegating each step to a different worker.

“Throughout my childhood, half of our house was always being used to make Atlas silk,” Tureli revealed. “I grew up watching uncles and aunts spinning, dyeing, and weaving silk all day long alongside my father, and gradually I acquired all of the necessary skills.” His bedridden father still cares about protection and preservation of the traditional craft, and the Atlas Silk Workshop he established continues to serve as a window into the authentic production process of millennium-old Atlas silk.

Many firms involved in the Atlas silk industry today use machines to spin, dye, and weave fabrics, but Tureli’s company carries on the traditional silk production methods and hand weaving. His company was founded in 1984 and remained a family mill for small-scale production before government support enabled its expansion into a larger enterprise in 2003. In 2014, an old production facility was transformed into the current Atlas Silk Workshop exhibition area.

Hand weaving is more costly and less profitable than machine weaving, but handmade Atlas silk fabrics have higher density, better air permeability, and longer durability.

From Xinjiang to the World

Marketing the traditional craft with modern approaches is a major concern for Tureli. “We must keep pace with the times in terms of pattern design, marketing, and business operation even if we continue to follow traditional methods of silk production,” he explained. To this end, a series of measures have been adopted including online promotion on popular social media platforms such as TikTok and WeChat, release of new designs, and development of more natural dyes. In 2016, during the 13th National Winter Games of China held in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, Tureli earned more than 200,000 yuan (US$30,860) by producing and selling 1,000 ties and 1,200 scarves made of Atlas silk featuring the event’s logo and mascot.

A woman looks at an Atlas silk cloth in a mirror at a shop in Hotan City, Xinjiang. (SHADATI)

In Hotan, a major Atlas silk production center in Xinjiang, teenagers join adults in fabric weaving after learning the skill as a family legacy. Jiya Guzili Atlas Silk Co., Ltd. has created job opportunities for farmers in the surrounding areas. The company’s Atlas Silk Workshop receives 200,000 tourists a year, setting a shining example of poverty reduction through tourism development in Hotan Prefecture. Free government-sponsored training courses have been organized in recent years to ensure weaving skills are passed on and help boost local employment. Jiya Township of Hotan City is now home to nearly 2,000 professional Atlas silk producers equipped with 2,000 plus looms. With a combined annual output of more than 500,000 rolls of fabric, each producer earns an average annual income of 20,000 to 35,000 yuan (US$3,086 to 5,400).

Over the years, continued efforts have sought to release the market potential of Atlas silk and increase its commercial value. One such event has been the “Idili Silk from Tianshan to the World” show. At several editions of the event, well-known designers presented a series of original works that blend traditional ethnic elements with fashionable design.

The millennium-old craft is enjoying a renaissance of sorts now that Atlas silk products are leaving looms in southern Xinjiang bound for export to Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. In addition to growing market popularity, the traditional fabric has also become a new source of inspiration for the fashion industry and popular on the runway. “Atlas silk production has substantially benefited my fellow countrymen, and I hope the fabric will reach out to even more people across the world,” Tureli said.

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