Reclaiming the Past:
Revival of Hand Crafted Silk


The concept " the Great Silk Road " is connected with the historic production and trade of goods made with silks. In more modern eras, efforts have been made in various places to revive these age old silk making skills. Since this revival has relied to a large extent on the use of women’s traditional work, it is seen as an important strategy to provide women with much needed income. Some issues, however, arise, including the competition with large scale industrial work, and conflicts over the use of traditional designs.

Use the following examples from Internet sites to explore a variety of views about:

1) ways the tradition of silk production has been revived.
   Examples of ways the revival of silk production and weaving has promoted income for women.

2) the protection of property rights of traditional designs.
   Issues surrounding the globalization and use of traditional designs and weaving

Guiding Questions:

•  to what extent does women’s hand craft work provide income generation for women in,
  1) the short term and,
  2) long term?

•  to what extent is women’s historic silk textile work no longer exclusively theirs?

1) Reviving Hand Crafted Silk

Web Example #1: Revival of Ikat

Kyrgyzstan: Woman dressed in iKat Cloth

Ikat is the process of tieing, or winding and dyeing threads before weaving begins. The pattern of a fabric is dyed into its yarns before they are placed on the loom and woven. Repeated binding and dyeings, coupled with slight shifting of the yarn on the loom, give the design’s bold forms. The earliest surviving example of ikat work was found in western China between the fourth and ninth centuries. But it was a short-lived period of cultural renewal in the 19th century that allowed Central Asia to become known for its silk production, mainly of ikat cloth. It was, and is, a cooperative process. Women tended the silkworms, and most spinners were women. Male artisans carried out the rest of the various stages of cloth production. Silk ikat embroidery was the primary place in which women had the greatest freedom in producing designs.

• iKAT: Splendid Silks Silks of Central Asia.

View the Exhibition catalog by Kate Fitz Gibbon

• Tied with Tradition:

View the Website:  Showing mostly male workers making ikat, but has history and lovely illustrations of the cloth.

Web Example #2: Revival of Suzanis

19th Century Suzani Embroidered Cloth

Suzanis comes from the Persian word for "needle," and the word refers to silk embroidered hangings or fabric coverings. The birthplace of suzanis is in what is now Uzbekistan, where cloth which survives from the 15th century show design influences from the Hellenistic, Persian, and Turkish worlds. As children, nomad and village girls alike worked on embroidered suzanis as part of their dowries. During the Soviet era, the concept of dowry was discouraged, and suzanis work with it. Recently it has been revived, becoming a commercially produced textile more than a domestic one.

Splendid Suzanis:

View the Website for:  Background on the region's history and information on the revival of suzanis work.

Web Example #3: The New Silk Road: Silk: Textiles from Laos

The tradition of silk weaving in Laos is over 1000 years old. Passed down from mother to daughter for generations, silk weaving continues today as a beautiful expression of an ancient culture. In the past, Lao women only weaved for themselves and their family, breeding the silkworms, extracting the silk, and dyeing it with natural pigments. Now as the demand for Lao silk weaving is growing, it is helping to stimulate a tiny economy with few exports.

View the Website

Web Example #4: Telling Our Story: Women Revive a Thread to Silk Road

Afghan women are again making silk-embroidered products, such as cushion covers, curtain, and prayer mats. This website describes an Afganhistan program, helped by the USAID, training women in traditional silkworm raising methods.

View the Website

Web Example #5: Status of Silk in Iran

“The silk industry employs inactive members of rural communities, such as women, children and the elderly who are incapable of taking part in agricultural activities.”

View the Website

Web Example #6: Globalization of the Silk Industry in Southeast India

Study that reveals negative effects of globalization on domestic industries by marginalizing traditional roles of women in the industry.

View a PDF file of the study

2) Who Owes Culture?

Indigenous Property Rights on Weaving and other Craft Designs and Traditions

What is typically known as “tradition” is something that appears to be “old,” but often has a recent origin or even constitutes a new re-invention. If “authentic tradition” can be constructed or reconstructed for political interests or, as so often happens, for the sake of tourism, how is tradition to be positioned with the global market pounding at the door? And who owns property rights, thus rights to some royalties, to designs and hand crafted products?

Central Question:

How can indigenous peoples around the globe have meaningful participation in the treatment of their own cultural property?

Web Example # 1: Within Ikat Weaving Production of Eastern Indonesia:
A tool to Promote Gender Equality

The Report presented at the UN Women’s World Conference, Beijing, 1995 raised issues of questions regarding the rights of indigenous communties over their knowledge and works of art.

View the Report

Web Example #2: UNESCO workshop for Artisans and Designers, Nov 9th, 2009

Participants from Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Colombia and Brazil discussed the ethics of the relationship between those who make craft products and those who develop them for markets.

View the Website

Web Example #3: Is this a Better World?

The production of Indigenous designs by overseas artisans. Posted by Kevin Murray on August 28, 2009

An Australian organization “Better World Arts,” connects two conflicting problems of ownership rights, and finds a mutual solution. Comments to the post pose additional views.

View the Website

Web Example #4: Children can be the link between craft and design

One page description of creation of a ’sister school’ relationship between traditional artisans and designers over a product made for children.

View the page

Web Example #5: Merchandise labeled as being from the Quileute Peoples
in the book and movies in the “Twilight” series.

Merchandise labeled as being from the Quileute Peoples in the books and movies from the popular “Twilight” series has not recognized the possible rights of the real Quileute Nation, a small group located on a remote reservation in Washington. In the United States, the most significant federal law that addresses the marketing of Indian cultural goods - the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, passed in 1935- is meant to ensure truth in advertising, that Hopi kachina dolls, for example, must be Hopi-made. But it does not come into play for the Quileute hoodies, jewelry and other goods sold, because there is no claim they were ever traditionally made by the Quileute.

Questions: Should the Quileute be able to have a say in and benefit from outsiders using their cultural property? What types of rights were deemed important to be protected in 1937? Can these be applied to today’s property rights issues? If not, what future action might be taken?

• Quileute Indian Tribe Reservation Charter, ratified August, 21, 1937.

Embedded in Charter are list of federally granted rights. Many pertain to economic rights.
View the Charter

• Quileute Tribe Cuff Bracelet for Sale

Advertisement reads: “It's the next best thing to cuffing yourself to Jacob. Polished brass-tone cuff features the wolf pack tribe tattoo. The Twilight Saga: New Moon logo appears on the side.”

View the Ad

• Sucking the Quileute Dry

An opinion article in the Febuary, 7, 2010, New York Times, by Angela R. Riley, Director of the American Indian Studies Center, UCLA.

View the Article

Influential Women Women and Silk Production Exploring Primary Sources
  Tang dynasty’s Wu Zetian   Making Silk   Primary Source Lessons
  Princess Wencheng   Wearing Silk  
  Sorghaghtani Beki   Reviving Silk Traditions  
  Empress Irene    

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
Click for Author Information

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