Venerable Canton Gauze Goes Glamorous

Text and photographs by Shepherd Zhou

Workers tend to the drying silk.

Like most other days, at 8:00 a.m. Liang Zhu arrives at his ShundeCity factory in GuangdongProvince. As of late, the 70-plus-year-old senior citizen regularly sees his name in local newspapers and other media."I never got so much attention,"Liang comments. That attention is due to the time-honored silk produced in his factory, gambiered Canton gauze.

In the morning, workers apply black mud evenly on the bolts of dyed silk. These smooth-to-touch black muds come from unpolluted river reaches. Having an appropriate proportion of ferrous sulfate, the mud is perfectly suited for making gambiered Canton gauze.

Gambiered Canton gauze is a unique summer-weight material that became popular in the 1940s and 1950s south of the Five Ridges - the area spanning Guangdong and Guangxi. The region is the source of the top-quality silk, a pure and natural material. Easy to wash and moisture permeable, handmade costumes derived of gambiered Canton gauze breath well, do not adhere to the body, and are thus cool and comfortable in summer. The fine material never creases, even under constant pressure, and is often the first choice of the wealthy for their summer clothing.

Recognized in historic texts dating back to the reign of Ming-Dynasty Emperor Yongle (1403-1424), gambiered Canton gauze has long been exported to other nations as a precious commodity. In the time of Emperor Yongle, the market price for a bolt of the gauze was as high as 12 taels of silver, and was thus the most expensive silk in Chinese history. In the 1930s, gambiered Canton gauze was a major commodity in such large cities as Beijing and Shanghai.

In the barrels are crushed yams for dye. Natural dye is drawn out from the steeping yams.

In 2003, at the 3rd China (Shenzhen) Int'l Brand Clothing & Accessories Fair, garments made of gambiered Canton gauze produced by a Shenzhen enterprise gained even greater recognition for the material, winning the favor of a number of Chinese and foreign enterprises. During the four-day fair, more than 140 corporations showed interest in a chain partnership, among which Beijing is home to more than 40.

The manufacture and processing of gambiered Canton gauze is quite complicated and time-consuming, requiring good timing, geographical convenience and human cooperation.

Female workers roll gambiered Canton gauze into bolts.

In the course of processing, drying the silk after being soaked with yam juice dye is the most essential step. Restricted by conditions of sun and temperature, the drying process can only take place from April to November. Of these months, the period from about July to the first 10 days of August is wasted, for the temperature is too high to bask the silk. If drying is done within this period, the silk will become too stiff and fragile. After November, when strong winds from northern China roll into the south, again the drying work must be ceased. Thus, Liang says:"Our business lives by the weather."

A bolt of silk is processed into gambiered Canton gauze through bleaching and dyeing up to 30 times, and a five to seven-day exposure to the sun. Since the procedure is quite complicated and energy-consuming, today at Liang's factory there are only two people who have mastered the entire drying process. And it takes about 10 years to bring a worker from the level of apprentice to qualified master. Liang insists that original and basic methods be applied to process gambiered Canton gauze."I will always abide by that policy,"he says.