Imperial Chinese robes

I finally got round to visiting the exhibition of imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City in Beijing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s located in the part where they usually have the fashion exhibits, so the light is quite dim and you need to get up close to the cases to admire the detail.

The emperor had five categories of formal wear: official, festive, regular, travelling and military. Of course, the embroidery and craftsmanship is exquisite, with traditional Chinese motifs of waves, clouds and dragons in goldwork and hues of ever paler pink, blue and green on imperial yellow silk. The emperor even had a pair of yellow silk embroidered riding trousers resembling dungarees!

The robes of the empress and imperial concubines featured a wider range of patterns and colours, including the purple and gold robe embroidered with cranes and golden clouds that adorns the posters and publicity for the exhibition (see above), peonies, and a beautiful simple pattern called cracked ice and plum blossom. Annoyingly, I can’t find a photo of it on the V&A website, but Portland Classical Chinese Garden has a stone walkway in this pattern. Also, to my eye it looked quite Japanese, so it’s interesting to see that it also features on Japanese porcelain.

Imperial dragon robeBut what was most astonishing was the condition of the fabrics in the exhibition. The dragon robe shown above is nearly 280 years old, but it looked absolutely pristine. According to the V&A blog, “The well-being of the robes was the duty of the Imperial Household Department staff. In days before the invention of air-conditioners and humidifiers the robes were protected from fluctuating temperature by sturdy wooden cupboards and chests. Insect-repelling incense was placed inside the furniture, and palace eunuchs regularly aired the clothes to prevent the build-up of mildew.”

I could do with some of those eunuchs around here.

Felted rose hat

The alpaca hat I knitted previously was a little big, mainly because I didn’t knit a proper tension swatch before starting (tsk! tsk!).

So I thought I’d use it as a guinea pig to try felting in the washing machine. I stuffed it into one leg of a pair of old tights, and put it in the machine with a normal washload (mixed coloured, 40C).

The result? The hat didn’t shrink as much as I expected – it’s only marginally smaller than the original. The alpaca (from Toft) has gone quite fuzzy, but you can still see the texture of the stitches, but the rose, knitted in Rowan Cashsoft DK (57% extra fine merino, 33% acrylic microfibre, 10% cashmere) looks entirely untouched. The green leaf, in Debbie Bliss Donegal Luxury Tweed Aran (85% wool, 15% angora), looks slightly felted but is nowhere near as fuzzy as the alpaca.

Felted alpaca hat
The alpaca felted much more than the rose and the leaf

After the experiment, I  picked up Gina Wilde’s inspiring book, Shibori Knits: The Art of Exquisite Felted Knits, in which the author cautions against using all-wool fibres for felting, as they tend to get very fuzzy. “Fuzziness may be your personal aesthetic,” she writes, “but it is not the aesthetic for which these [shibori] designs are written. The fuzzy yarns hide the subtleties shibori provides.”

Even though this wasn’t a shibori knit, her point about fuzziness is well taken. For nuno, it’s obviously easier to felt all-wool fibres and yarns – you can get subtlety in the texture by adding small amounts of non-wool fabrics and yarns, and through shrinkage. But for knitted items, it’s better to use yarns that aren’t all wool, mohair or alpaca if you want to avoid fuzz.

Nuno felt

Last night in class we used carders to combine different colours of merino into rolags (rolls of multicoloured wool). Carding adds greater subtlety as well as giving access to a wider range of colours.

Then we used the rolags to make  nuno felt. Rather than just using wool on its own, nuno felts wool into fabric. As the wool shrinks but the fabric doesn’t during felting, you get some interesting textures as the fabric crinkles.

We made two samples each, using cotton muslin. For the first one we added small amounts of wool in regular patterns, leaving most of the muslin uncovered. This shows the crinkling effect very clearly. The method we used was the same as last week, except that we laid the damp fabric on the bubble wrap first before arranging the wool on top. After folding the other layer of bubble wrap on top, we also massaged the wool gently through the bubble wrap so that it wasn’t displaced too much when we started rolling.

Once the wool was reasonably firmly fixed (the muslin started to crinkle and fibres had started to work through to the underside of the fabric), we used an old-fashioned washboard to help speed up the final fulling. To do this, we put the washboard in a bowl at an angle away from us, and rubbed the fabric vertically down. The extra friction from the board makes felting much quicker. You can also shape the fabric in this way, by rubbing certain areas to make them shrink more.

Purple nuno felt
First nuno effort

For the second go, we covered much more of the muslin with wool. We also had the option of adding other extras, like yarn, glittery sprinkles, or scraps of other fabric like hessian or silk.

Yellow nuno felt
Nuno on yellow muslin with merino, yarn and hessian

I discovered that, although my experiments with felting yarn on its own had been quite successful, it’s trickier to get it to felt to muslin on its own. It’s better to lay it on top of or beneath a thin layer of merino to help it bond.

Next week we’re going to make a scarf or other complete item, using cotton muslin or another fabric of our choice that we provide. So this morning I thought I’d experiment with a piece of black lace to see how easily it felts.

Nuno lace
Black lace and merino nuno

The answer is: it depends. The triangular areas of merino in the corners of the fabric above have felted reasonably well, but the circles still lift quite easily. Maybe I need to felt it for longer – but it is quite hard work! I don’t have a washboard at home, but I have found that wrapping the bubble-wrap bundle around a rolling pin makes rolling a bit easier.

Finally, I went back to using yarn, this time mostly attached with a layer of merino. This worked better, so I think I’ll use this as the basis for my scarf next week.

Nuno felt with merino and yarn
Most of the yarn in this piece is held on with a layer of merino