Yorke Antique Textiles

A collection of antique and vintage textiles from around the world

Item Details
18th century, dated 1789
A spectacular and large silk kinran brocade Buddhist altar cloth featuring repeating rows of roundel dragons and cloud motifs of silk surrounded by gold background. This uchishiki is backed by a cotton lining that is inscribed with Kanji characters that reveal that the textile offering was dedicated at a temple the 6th year of the Kansei reign, indicating a date of 1789, making this the oldest dated Japanese textile that we have come across. This was a difficult textile to photograph: the flat, wide gold threads that make up the background are highly reflective, so that the textile has a different appearance depending on how much and the angle of light striking the cloth. The panel is of five-panel construction, lined on the back with a single hand-spun and woven cotton cloth. The handle of the brocade is similar to a light canvas, due to the presence of the gold threads. The textile's condition is very good considering the age, with slight fraying in parts along the fold areas, and one unobtrusive 1 cm hole near the center. The black threads are in poor shape due to oxidization, yet this does not seem to have affected the strength or appearance of the textile. 80" x 80". Giving an uchishiki to a temple was meant to be a prayer for the departed one, to be purified, and to become the spirit of an ancestor and subsequently be reborn again into this world. We will discuss the designs first, followed by a discussion of the gold-thread technique. Although fearsome and powerful, dragons are equally considered just, benevolent, and the bringers of wealth and good fortune. Indian dragons were brought to Japan through China with the arrival of Buddhism: these dragons were considered protectors of Buddhist law. In Japan, the character for "dragon" is used often in temple names, and dragon carvings adorn many temple structures. The Dragon is the Guardian of the East, and is identified with the season spring, the color green/blue, the element wood (sometimes also water), the virtue propriety, the Yang male energy; supports and maintains the country (controls rain, symbol of the Emperor's power). The breath of the Dragon changes into clouds from which come either rain or fire. It is able to expand or contract its body, and in addition it has the power of transformation and invisibility. There were several types of dragons: in the instance of this panel, we are likely dealing with 'Unryu', the Cloud Dragon. The construction of this altar cloth is based on a dark burgundy plain-weave fabric, practically made invisible by the laboriously-inserted supplementary weft design threads of flat gold-leafed paper and silk thread. The polychrome silk supplementary threads form the dragon and cloud designs, with the gold threads the background around these designs. The Japanese gave the name 'kinran' to this type of gold-threaded brocade. Kinran fabric was initially imported from China beginning in the 13th century. The first Japanese-produced kinran was woven in the famous Nishijin textile-producing district of Kyoto in 1592, and during the two subsequent centuries, the Chinese kinran techniques were refining and sometimes improved upon by the Japanese. Kinran seems to have initially been created for use for making costumes in the Noh theatre, and as Noh costumes were made specifically for theatrical purposes, it was possible to develop weaves and colourful designs without having to take into consideration their practicality. Eventually, there evolved a larger local market for kinran fabric, including their use in Buddhist temples as kesa and altar cloths. By the mid-Edo period, many Nishijin weavers of Kyoto worked for a particular patronage; some wove for the court, some for daimyo, some for Shinto shrines, some for Buddhist temples, and some for the Noh schools. In the Buddhist temples, kinran altar cloths such as this one would have shimmered impressively in the flickering light of the altar candles. The process of creating this textile was an extremely time-consuming and delicate task. The gold threads consist of an overlay of pure 24-carat gold hammered foil lacquered to a very fine tough paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree. The resulting gold leaf paper, typically covered with arrowroot starch, was cured for a day or two prior to being hand-cut into tiny strips. These strips of 'hirakinsha' (flat gold thread) are woven in as the weft on a hand-loom. The results, as in this case, are stunning. The gold foil, being pure, never tarnishes, and the best mulberry paper, being soft, never crumbles.
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