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May 29, 2010

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Rich tapestry of Yangjing weavers

THREAD by thread and stitch, around 20 grandmothers are weaving an enormous and intricate wool tapestry recreating the famed ink-wash scroll "Along the Riverside During the Qingming Festival."

The tapestry being woven in a shabby workshop in the Yangjing Community was commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and will be hung prominently in a government reception hall.

The women have been at it for almost six months and expect to complete the magnificent work shortly. Their wool canvas is 11.7 meters by 3.47 meters.

Over the past five years, 18 weavers have produced 38 large wool tapestries about China's cultural and historic heritage. During the process, a 53-year-old weaver collapsed and died.

Five of the woven masterpieces are being displayed in the Urban Footprints Pavilion at the World Expo.

Other works are hung in 11 halls of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, including the Shanghai, Hunan Province, Hong Kong and Macau halls.

The extraordinary work in progress is based on the original national treasure painted by Zhang Zeduan in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). It depicts 814 people, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, nine sedan chairs and 170 trees.

Weaving, especially wool, is becoming a lost art and Yangjing Community, where high-quality homespun was famous for centuries, is preserving the heritage and teaching skills of weaving to young women.

Today these weaving veterans work in simple conditions, surrounded by skeins of wool in a simple space cooled only by noisy electric fans in the summer heat.

"I've been weaving for more than 58 years," says 69-year-old Xu Longdi, who has been weaving since she was only 11 years old.

"My fingers are still nimble and my eyesight is good," Xu says.

Yangjing Tapestry is considered a Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritage and next month will be elevated to a national list.

Shanghai Lihui Tapestry Art Studio is an old factory piled to the ceiling with wool dyed in many colors. The rooms appear to be filled with mountains of wool.

"The rent in this old factory is cheaper," says Director Bao Yanhui, who has been working arts and handicrafts for 40 years.

Bao was the director of Hongxing Wool Tapestry Factory, which was opened in 1954 but closed in 2002 due to the slack market.

"During our heyday before the 1980s, even a cook or driver or porter in my factory could weave. They were men, but they wove well," Bao recalls.

Italian weavers

Out of his love for tapestry and a desire to rejuvenate the handicraft, 62-year-old Bao set up Lihui studio six years ago and hired more than 10 retired weavers from his old factory.

The team now is comprised of around 20 artists, with an average age of 53 years, and each with more than 30 years of wool weaving experience.

They not only can replicate classic patterns from paintings but also create original tapestries depicting landscapes, folk custom and cultural heritage, urban sights and other subjects. The quality and creativity of their work won the studio many orders, making it viable business again.

According to Bao, wool tapestry weaving was introduced to the Yangjing area as early as in 1840 by Italian missionaries, who taught local women in Pudong how to weave wool. Before that, Chinese women had only woven silk, he says.

The students surpassed their master, however, and the clever Yangjing women invented a new tapestry technique making Yangjing weaving unique.

Bao calls it sorting and splitting. "We call it thread sorting and splitting," Bao says. In the old days, a single strand was made by four threads of one color, while the Yangjing people invented a way to create a strand with threads of four different colors, giving it varied hues and subtlety.

Several years ago Bao demonstrated the technique to Italian weavers when he visited Italy on an exchange visit. His counterparts were astonished.

"They couldn't believe this Western skill was improved in China," he says proudly.

Another feature of Yangjing tapestry is that the old weavers today still dye the wool themselves. They import tons of natural wool from New Zealand and dye them into thousands of colors from the three primary colors -- red, green and blue.

Even a black has more than 10 types. And there are more than 400 kinds of reds.

The imported wool is especially strong and has longer fibers so it's harder to break the threads during weaving.

Most of their wool tapestries are huge and it usually takes many weavers at least three months to complete.

The largest work so far is "Autumn View of Mt Song," covering 106 square meters and requiring 28 weavers who toiled almost eight months. It weighs 150 kilograms and contains more than 8 million stitches with 2,500 different colored threads. Reds, oranges, pinks and purples alone represented 600 different hues.

"Night View of the Bund of Shanghai" (1,050x150cm) depicts the dazzling skyline along the Huangpu River.

Other major workers include "Chairman Mao with People of all Ethnic Groups" (830x350cm), "A Resplendent Night in Macau" (705x270cm), "Shanghai's Better Future" (390x212cm)and many others.

Today the community is preserving and passing on the skills of woolen tapestry making. "Like many other folk arts and traditional skills, Yangjing tapestry needs urgent preservation," says Bao.

One of the talented young weavers is 18-year-old Zhang Anqi, who studied wool weaving for a year with masters and now has joined the team creating "Along the Riverside During the Qingming Festival."

For amateurs who want to learn about tapestry weaving, the Yangjing Community has opened a tapestry class in the community school every Thursday from 1-3pm.

For further information, please call 5860-0697ext 822.


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