K’o-ssu – also written kesi – or Chinese silk tapestry, is a complex traditional Chinese weaving technique which had its heyday during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. Today there are less than 100 people working across China in this area. Frequently used to make clothes for imperial families and to reproduce famous Chinese paintings, nowadays this little known craft faces extinction due to lack of demand. However, there are signs of renewed interest, and to learn more about this precious technique, Nicely Made in China travelled to “textile town”, Nantong in Jiangsu province, to visit a young K’o-ssu maker, Mr. Wang Haoran.
Mr Wang could you please describe the technique of K’o-ssu and tell us how it was used in ancient China?
Unlike other weaving methods in which the vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) threads extend back and forth completely across the loom, K’o-ssu is done on a simple plain-weave loom using a technique in which the warp threads fully extend but the weft threads do not. In other words, the warp threads go through the fabric while the weft threads interweave to produce colors and patterns. When a finished piece is viewed against the light it seems like it has been carved with a knife, just like its Chinese name indicates. K’o-ssu was considered a luxury in ancient China. During the Song Dynasty, it would take a woman a year to weave a K’o-ssu wedding dress for herself. The fabric was also used to make prayer flags for religious ceremonies, front covers for Buddhist manuscripts and emperors’ scrolls. It was later applied to home textiles and clothes.
How did you get involved in the K’o-ssu business?
I was born into a K’o-ssu family. My grandfather Mr Wang Yuxiang was a K’o-ssu master. But during the 70′s, 80s and early 90s, the domestic market was not developed. The family business concentrated on subcontracting, making kimono waistband (obi) and cassocks for Japanese partners. In 2007, my grandpa established Xuanhe K’o-ssu Crafts Research Institute and started to use Xuanhe as a brand name for K’o-ssu products. Influenced by this family tradition, I developed an interest in K’o-ssu. I started my own research on the topic when I was at college, but only found limited resources in the libraries. The best books were from Hong Kong and Taiwan as nothing was published in China about K’o-ssu until 2009. I joined the family business immediately after graduation, and last year I established my own workshop.
Why did you start your own workshop?
I established my own workshop so that I could make some changes. I want to do more than just produce the fabric, and I do not want to see K’o-ssu being labeled as an intangible cultural heritage. I strongly believe that irrespective of how K’o-ssu is displayed in museums, if it has no connection to daily life, it will be further marginalized. Running a business such as this is like looking at the setting sun. If we want the sun to rise again for K’o-ssu, K’o-ssu needs an infusion of fresh ideas and I need a team of designers to help me find the right niche. Having said that, my idea is not to mix traditional products with modern ones. Instead, I choose to design items around some of the ancient traditions that have survived, such as the tea and incense ceremonies, guqin and Kunqu opera. For example, we have designed a sachet in which to preserve incense which can be used anywhere.
What other products are you developing?
I used to write a column about traditional Chinese home textiles for L’Officiel Art magazine, during which time I discovered that although traditional mahogany furniture (Ming and Qing style) is still very popular, the traditional home textiles are forgotten. In Nantong, the Dieahiqiao home textile market is bigger than the whole of the downtown area but it is dominated by Western furniture and decorations while traditional Chinese home textiles are absent. I have decided therefore to revive traditional home textiles by combining them with K’o-ssu and embroidery.
Who is the product designer? How many employees do you have?
I decide the size, pattern and style of the products, then I ask a painter to make the drawings. In this sense I am the designer. We also have an assistant designer, a painter, a manager and three craftsmen, the youngest of whom is 20 years old. The oldest is 34 and has17 years’ experience of making K’o-ssu. Although it is difficult to attract young workers, I intend to build a young team – currently the average age is less than 30.
Please tell us more about the production process of K’o-ssu.
The production of K’o-ssu is relatively slow and not very lucrative. A model in the form of a painting is placed underneath the flat and even warp threads, and a brush is used to outline the forms onto the warp. Various colored threads are prepared according to the hues in the original drawing. In general, a complex K’o-ssu product such as tangka needs more than a hundred different colors. A simple piece needs 30 to 40 different colors. When all the threads are at hand the weaving process can begin and different techniques will be applied according to the complexity of the patterns. The final stage is to clean the thrums (the fringe of warp threads left on a loom after the cloth has been cut off) at the back and to frame the piece or to add a lining.
Have you cooperated with any famous brands?
In 2010, I initiated a project for XuanHe K’o-ssu Crafts Research Institute which involved designing and producing a dress for China’s top luxury brand NE-TIGER. The dress combined seven K’o-ssu techniques and was included in the permanent collection of the Capital Museum of Beijing.
Who are your customers?
We only do bespoke clothes and art pieces. We also work with private clubs. Customers order through their clubs when they see a product that they want. For now, we do not sell through any retailer. My workshop is open to the public and I plan to make it into a traditional lifestyle experience centre. The Ming and Qing style Chinese furniture in the workshop will be used to exhibit traditional textile products. Our retailer shops will be located in cities where historic buildings are well preserved and where people value history and tradition.
Address of the workshop:
Hanchen-Jinglun Craft Research Institute, No. 25-2 Fengqigan Alley, Chongchuan District, Nantong, Jiangsu Province, China.
Name: 翰宸经纶堂 Address: 中国江苏省南通市崇川区冯旗杆巷25号附2
The website is under construction.