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A “national treasure” kinda Chinese fabric, gambiered Canton gauze or xiang yun sha is unique to the nation’s Guangdong province. Its trade once criticized as a breeding ground for capitalism and its traditional methods of manufacturing now nearly lost, not all hope for artisan fashion has been abandoned…

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“Shuffle, shuffle, ruffle, ruffle” when the women of the Republic of China (1912-1949) passed by, they were often surrounded by a silky sound of fabricated friction. The sound of xiang yun sha (香云纱| xiāng yún shā or “fragrant cloud yarn”).

Available in black and brown depending on the technology of the times, this fabric once welcomed only by China’s upper classes wanting to reflect luster and lucre, to this day remains a luxury that is hard to come by.

Xiang yun sha in 2008 was included on China’s “National Intangible Cultural Heritage List” and recognized by the public as a traditional culture and fashion product. Hear, Hear?

  • Disclaimer: Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, we must add that natural xiang yun sha actually comes in one color, but because its surface is black and the back is brown, it’s nowadays considered bi-colored.
Xiang yun sha, courtesy of RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved

Xiang yun sha, the production process. Courtesy of RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved

A “national treasure” kinda Chinese minority fabric, gambiered Canton gauze or xiang yun sha is unique to the nation’s southern Guangdong province. This silky fabric — the birth of which could not do without the sunshine and soil south of the Nanling Mountain range, the intensive labor of skillful workers assisted by facilitating natural conditions — is first dyed with the extract from the dyeing yam, a plant unique to the area, and then processed with mud rich in minerals dug up from the riverbeds. Finally, then, the fabric is dried in the sun. #TemperTeachings

Authentic xiang yun sha patterns bear a striking similarity to the traditional wood carvings spotted across the house windows in the villages south of the Nanling Mountains. However, the traditional method of manufacturing xiang yun sha, one mastered by just a handful only, is nearly lost today because the weaving technique is too complicated.

Yet not all hope for artisan fashion has been abandoned…

RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved

RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved

Expensive

People who are greedy for novelty may think that xiang yun sha comes in only two colors and thus has a somewhat boring breath to it. Only those who understand its precious production process can fathom just how every single piece of fabric is in itself a work of artisanal art.

One piece of xiang yun sha requires 13 manual drying techniques, from prepping and color sweeping, to mud dipping, and repeat. There is no standardization of this particular technique as it relies on the traditional form of being passed on from generation to generation. As for the final result, well, it is all based on that Fingerspitzengefühl accumulated through years of experience.

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In addition, due to solar intensity requirements, xiang yun sha production is feasible a mere five months out of 12 as weather conditions must prove suitable. Moreover, the emphasis on the silt used in the “mud dipping” section geographically speaking restricts its production to the Pearl River Delta. Only there, the river mud is xiang yun sha worthy.

A matter of being in the right place at the right time, xiang yun sha absorbs the true essence of Mother Nature and human artisanship. Born from mud, in China, the fabric’s character is one deserving the attributes of “noble and clean”, not stained by silt, and never shaken by external forces. As the only fabric in the world that is dyed in and polished off with actual soil, in a modern society where machine production has become the norm…  This is the ultimate pursuit of high-quality, hand-made, heritage-honored sustainability.

Preach.

RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved

RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved

Contradictory

During the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976) and the ideological movement of “Breaking the Four Olds” (四旧| sì jiù aka pre-communist Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas), xiang yun sha, a fabric, fell victim to stigmatization. The market for its trade was criticized as a breeding ground for capitalism and the people who produced the fabric were regarded as supporting capitalism. Xiang yun sha was deemed the representative costume of the bourgeoisie.

The ecological and commercial chain, from production to sales, subsequently faced comprehensive restrictions and went into a downward spiral. After decades of turbulence, xiang yun sha in 2008 was put on the “National Intangible Cultural Heritage List” and recognized by the public as a traditional culture and fashion product.

However, the impact of history lingers. Millennials, the mainstay of today’s consumer market, for example, have no idea of “who, what, when, where, let alone why”.

Xiang yun sha hasn’t changed, but the times have.

Kathrin Von Rechenberg, 2020. All rights reserved

Kathrin Von Rechenberg, 2020. All rights reserved

Fascinating

Fortunately, this traditional Chinese fabric still finds resonance with today’s fashion designing community. TEMPER invited German-born, Beijing-based Kathrin von Rechenberg, founder of her eponymous RECHENBERG brand to share with us her fascination with xiang yun sha.

Temper: You, the fabric, and “love at first sight”. Tell me more, tell me more!

Rechenberg: The first time I laid eyes on xiang yun sha was back when I was studying clothing customization in Paris. A Taiwanese designer classmate introduced it to me and invited me to join her personal brand. So I flew there on the day of graduation. To Taiwan, that is. After that, I returned to work for a French haute couture brand for a period of time and found that I still had a passion for xiang yun sha, so I in 2000 decided to venture out to Beijing. After gaining a more in-depth and detailed understanding of the fabric in China, I set up my own brand dedicated to this traditional craft.

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Temper: Why the fascination?

Rechenberg: In my mind, xiang yun sha possesses a sense of vitality and is born with a soul. It needs sunlight, running water, plants, and soil to make it, which is a perfect combination of natural and man-made. There are so many variables in the production process that the color, texture, and length of each piece differ.

The wonderful thing about it is that it will grow, and its color will change as the collection time grows. Like red wine, the longer it sits, the better it tastes. So every time I get in a new batch of fabric, I will not use it immediately. Instead, I will wait for seven, eight, or even 10 years, until it “matures” and has its own flavor to it.

After being made into garments, the xiang yun sha can “grow up” once again, each time it’s worn, the upper body renders the fabric softer and more skin-friendly. Unlike other fabrics, the “fading” of xiang yun sha cannot be simply equated with fading. Its fading is more like fusion with the wearer’s body, which will change according to their habits and ultimately will achieve a “oneness” between human and clothing.

Kathrin Von Rechenberg, 2020. All rights reserved

Kathrin Von Rechenberg, 2020. All rights reserved

Temper: How long does it take to produce one a xiang yun sha garment? Do you provide customized services?

Rechenberg: If all the fabrics are ready, it will take about a week. We usually customize the fabric and send it off to the traditional dyeing and weaving factory in Shunde, Guangdong province, for dyeing, finishing, and drying. When finished, it will return to Beijing. The waiting time may be several months or longer, depending on the local weather and the number of orders from the factory.

Personal brand clothing is all handmade, so to some extent, it is “customized”. I can also make it on demand, but some customers prefer ready-to-wear clothes.

Of course, I learned many special tailoring methods when I was studying in Paris. But when dealing with xiang yun sha, I chose to abandon those complicated decorations and tailorings, not even adding pockets and buttons, just to show off the naturalness and purity of this fabric. I will use a well-designed tailoring method, but this is not obvious from the surface.

In appearance, all you can see is “simple and natural”. In general, compared to the stacking up of elements, I prefer to reduce the traces of manual labor and only keep the necessary tailoring design to highlight the charm of the fabric itself.

Xiang yun sha: elegant, introverted, and a name that is imaginative. Due to its exquisite craftsmanship and scarcity, the fabric remains a melancholic memory of days long gone.

Can it ever again come full fashion circle, can it ever regain its formerly eagerly sought-after “luxury” status?

The proof shall be in the, well, mud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Xiang yun sha, courtesy of RECHENBERG, 2020. All rights reserved
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Natalie Luo