2,000-year-old Chinese silk gown replicated successfully

Beijing – After years of effort, craftspeople have made a replica of the world’s lightest silk dress – discovered in a tomb and more than 2,100 years old – and it will go on display in central China in place of the original, it has been reported.

Two susha danyi (plain, unlined gauze gowns) were found in 1972 in the tomb of Xin Zhui, marquise of Dai, who was buried in around 148BC during the Han dynasty.

The see-through dresses, described in an ancient text as being as “thin as a cicada wing” and “light as smoke”, were stolen from the Hunan Museum by a 17-year-old in 1983. One of the dresses, weighing only 48 grams (1.7 ounces), was destroyed by his panicked mother, who anonymously returned the other one, which weighed 49 grams. It was slightly damaged.

The museum was keen to reproduce the surviving dress after it lost its sheen and became less elastic during years of being exhibited, and in 2016 it commissioned the Nanjing Yunjin Research Institute, which specializes in traditional Chinese brocade, to make a replica, the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald reported.

The measurements were provided by the museum from the original records when the dresses were uncovered, the report stated.

Previous attempts to make a replica failed, with the reproductions being much heavier than the original, which was made of plain, unlined gauze. Excluding the weight of the collar, cuffs and yijin – a piece attached at the front of the gown – which were made of tough silk, it would weigh only about 20 grams.

Last week the museum announced the new replica had been completed after two years of experiments and would be used in future exhibitions.

Yang Jianshun, a Yunjin brocade expert with the institute, told the newspaper the task was very difficult and his team had to be innovative in finding the right kind of silk and designing the right kind of loom.

The team built a narrow loom similar to those used in ancient times, and used a wooden shuttle rather than an iron one so as not to leave any marks on the fabric.

The ancient silk measures just 10.2 denier, whereas modern silk is heavier at 14 denier, being produced by today’s fatter silk worms that go through five stages of moulting.

Drawing lessons from past failed attempts, the dress’ makers found weak silkworms that went through only four stages of larval moulting to produce thinner silk.

“The silk is very thin, about one fifth of the usual silk, and was almost invisible to the naked eye,” Yang told Jiangsu Television Station. “We could only feel it with our hands. It was very easy to break, too.”

The amount of silk used and the force placed on it had to be carefully controlled. “It took one hour to weave a centimetre of cloth,” Yang was quoted as saying.

The original dress was digitized as a one-to-one scale image to ensure that the final replica looked exactly the same in terms of its pattern and the number of stitches. After negotiating the challenges in making the dress, the team wondered how to make it look 2,000 years old, given that neither chemical nor natural dyes would achieve the desired color. The solution turned out to be soaking it in black English breakfast tea. (SCMP) Foto: Xinhua