Collecting Chinese Sleeve Bands

by Meg Andrews

Chinese paintings, ceramics, furniture and works of art are all avidly collected, but textiles are still a little known or appreciated area. There is now more demand for rank badges and beautiful robes, but there are still areas which are neglected. Sleevebands can be extremely beautiful and attractive, often amusing and very interesting pieces of social history. Framed, they do not take up much space and several on a wall can look stunning and unusual.



Section of robe showing how the majority of the band's front is plain, whilst the back would be covered with embroidery. Manchu and Han woman's jackets and robes had large wide sleeves with a band approximately 7 in wide by 40 in long acting as a cuff. A section of about 4-6 in across and 20 in long is embroidered on this cuff. The embroidery is worked to one half of the cuff the rest being left plain. This later section is sewn to the front of the jacket or robe, the embroidered part to the back. Women tended to fold their arms in front at waist level with their hands through the sleeves, the embroidery showing down the front.

When the Manchus conquered China in 1644 (Qing dynasty) their costume was a hybrid mix of their own nomadic traditions and those of the sedentary silk weaving Han people. During the previous Ming dynasty the Han women had embroidered the sleeve ends of their robes and this idea was adopted when the the Manchus came to power. It is not known how this tradition came about but a fairly logical explanation is that when eating or perhaps embroidering or painting , the sleeves would be folded back and pushed up the arm, which is what we would do today. In time the folded back portion of sleeve was then embellished.

In winter and autumn women would wear satin or silk damask robes either lined with fur or padded with cotton, or in spring simply lined with a silk lining. In summer silk gauze was worn which was perforated silk and therefore cool. Sleeve bands come in a variety of silks and techniques. Silk damask is the most common background fabric, silk gauze, plain satin or silk next most popular. Cut velvet and woven silk kesi are less common, being reserved for special occasions. Quite often the bands do not tone with the main garment. Favorites were unpicked and reused on the next robe.



Detail of kesi band depicting two boys, late 19th c.

Kesi 'cut silk' is the most prized of Chinese textiles, now and during past centuries. It took much longer to weave silk than to embroider, this type of weaving being reversible. Bands worked in this technique are fairly rare and expensive. When the weft (horizontal) threads were woven, each colour was woven in only where it was required to be visible, with a different bobbin being used for each colour rather than a continuous thread. Each end of silk was then deftly sewn back into that particular colour, to make the work reversible. When a piece of kesi is held up to the light slits can be seen, formed where there is a colour break. A band from my collection has small children at lessons beautifully depicted and in clear bright shades, their features inked. This was common practice during the 19th century when it was quicker to ink in details than to weave.

Detail of a wave border using kesi weave

There can also be a great variety of stitch techniques on bands, some using only one type, others with a variety. A band dating from the mid-19th c. with fifty boys at play the theme ' One Hundred Boys' (its companion band would have depicted the other fifty) shows long and short, stem and net stitch, couching and Peking knots. Couching is where a thread, in this case gold spun round a silk core, is caught down on the surface of the fabric by another stitch. Peking knots also known as Forbidden stitch were never actually forbidden by law. It probably got this name because it was first worked in the Forbidden City. The fineness of these stitches varies considerably and it is only occasionally that a really minute stitch is seen. In some stitches two colours have been twisted together to great effect.

There are many themes but one of the most popular was butterflies (longevity) sipping the nectar from peonies (spring). Together these two represent a lover tasting the joys of love. Other subjects might be people in gardens or on terraces surrounded by pavilions, birds and insects, horses, animals, fruits, and a great variety of flowers.

Colour was highly significant in the Chinese court with specific colours being worn for ceremonial or festivals. Red was a happiness colour and worn at weddings, white for funerals and mourning. Yellow was reserved exclusively for the Emperor and Empress. Different colours were worn at the four annual sacrifices.

Detail of Pekinese stitch, often confused with Peking knot, last quarter 19th c.

Many bands combine the stitch and background fabric to clever effect, such as with a pair of silk gauze bands which appear to have egrets wading amongst lily pads and lotus flowers in water. From a distance the birds appear to be painted, the counted stitches or minute tent stitches are so fine. The silk gauze ground has been given the effect of water silk and the birds do appear to be in water.

Another interesting technique is a band applied with pieces of silk which has been hand painted and pasted with rice paste to thin paper. They are then cut into the required shape and applied overlapping to form petals or leaves. The stems and outlines have silver or gold wrapped silk couching caught down with red silk for emphasis. The band dates from c. l900 and has used aniline dyes. These were invented in 1856 by an Englishman called W H Perkins but were not used in China until the 1870's.

Many of the examples that are found in the UK and in America today were those given as gifts or plundered during the latter part of the 19th century in China by Europeans and Americans. Many bands have been removed from robes and some have been reduced in length, so that only the embroidery and a little background fabric remains.

Detail of a tadpole using Peking knot stitch, last quarter 19th c.

Beautiful bands can be bought quite reasonably. Price depends on whether they are a pair, the quality of the embroidery, condition and unusualness of subject matter, variety of stitches and general attractiveness of the piece. Prices start from about £60 for a single good quality band.

About the Author:
Meg Andrews [ ] buys and sells worldwide antique costumes and textiles including Chinese court costumes and textiles; Japanese; English costume and accessories, Paisley shawls.