Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looms, computers, embroidery and snakes in jars.

When I started at university I had to punch cards a little like the long snakes of paper that can be seen above the looms in the picture below.

Once I'd finished with them I had to leave them in a place for a mysterious thing called 'a computer' to work through them and come up with an answer. Usually it came up with a load of error messages claiming I have failed to end my commands with sufficient semi-colons, and nothing would have happened. Clearly the programming of these Jacquard mechanisms are more successful. They instruct loom which the warp threads should be held where as the weft is threaded through, and so the pattern is woven into the fabric, rather than printed afterwards.

I'd already seen primitive version of this machine in a museum in Macclesfield, but these in the silk factory in Suzhou were modern versions. In the old versions the cards had had to be laboriously compiled by humans from designs (a highly skilled job involving elements of maths and design) but these days the work is done by computer - which takes me neatly back to those Fortran code cards again.

The end results of those Jacqard-controlled looms were lustrous tablecloths like these:

Silk makes a great embroidery thread too and in Suzhou there were examples of embroidered silk bed-spreads

and screens.

In a nearby institute there was something called the Silk Research Centre where students are trained to make double-sided embroidered pictures which are different each side. I couldn't take pictures but I did buy a sample of the students' work. It is skilful rather than particularly artistic since all the pictures are copied from photographs or paintings.

Then it was time to go back through a flat landscape teeming with building cranes, new housing blocks, factories and hoardings until we reached the skyscrapers of Shanghai, and I was deposited in a restaurant for my meal. I sat at a bench which incorporated a hot plate and I was able to watch him refry rice and bits of meat and fish. Next to me were a Chinese-Australian couple, obviously on a trip through the ancestral home. They had been through Japan, Korea and were now stopping at a couple of places in China and soon were flying home. The wife warned me to watch out for pick-pockets because she had been relieved of her purse in Beijing, and then she directed my gaze to this (click on the picture for a better view inside):

It is, apparently, 'Snake-wine', but it wasn't part of my menu.