From the start, Chinese silk production was a well-honed group activity, with many specialists involved in the cultivation, harvesting, sorting, spinning, weaving, and embroidering phases. Hand-embroidery developed as a craft naturally associated with silk, engendering a plethora of regional embroidery styles, the most famous of which emerged in Hunan, Guangdong, and Sichuan provinces, and in the city of Suzhou. There are more Chinese words to describe silk embroidery techniques and styles than there are English ones to supply translations.
Today, the silk-making process is largely a blend of handmade and industrial production, and still employs many specialists. Most silk factories utilize machines to sort and boil the cocoons, and to throw and reel their delicate threads. However, even with China's reputation for automation, the country still boasts many excellent sericulturists who follow centuries-old techniques, hand-weavers who use traditional looms, and embroiderers who continue to reproduce by hand the traditional stitches of their ancestors. China remains the world's largest silk exporter.
Many travelers to China are overwhelmed by the choices for silk fabrics, garments, and smaller accessories. The number of silk shops in Shanghai and Beijing alone is staggering. For the most authentic shopping experience, head to one of the regions known for silk. The city of Suzhou, west of Shanghai, for example, developed a reputation as a silk capital because its silk-makers turned out imperial garments from the seventh to the early 20th centuries under the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. At the Suzhou Silk Museum, you can view silks dating back to the seventh century, and train your eye for the many silk shops and factories that lure travelers across the region. China's larger cities boast interesting fabric markets such as the boisterous Dongjiadu Fabric Market (now called the South Bund Fabric Market) in Shanghai, where tailors craft custom garments.
Good buys include traditionally styled garments like the qipao, a high-collared gown with a slender cut. To judge quality, examine the edges and stitching carefully. How closely are the silk threads woven? Are the edges even and unfrayed? If embroidered, how fine and skillful is the stitching? Are the design and colors traditional? Prices begin at 45-55 yuan (roughly U.S. $6-7) for one meter of silk, and climb to several thousand yuan for unusual or antique pieces. One of China's best shopping experiences is commissioning a tailor to create a custom silk garment. For a surprisingly reasonable price, you can select a fabric and hire a tailor to create a shirt or entire suitand come home with a souvenir that is truly a reflection of China's history.