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Expensive fashion garments can be afforded by only a handful of today's extremely rich. In ancient China, top quality haute couture items were made especially for the feudal emperors.

For seven centuries or so until 1911, the Nanjing Cloud Brocade, or yunjin, was considered a key fabric for "dragon robes" enjoyed only by emperors and empresses in Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Because of its unrivalled quality, artistry and craftsmanship, an inch of Nanjing Cloud Brocade was considered as valuable as an ounce of gold. Today, it is a major intangible cultural heritage in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province. 

Among all ancient Chinese fabrics, silk brocade known as jin represents the top of the industry's arts and crafts. Cloud Brocade refers to the delicate and flossy pieces that feel as soft as a cloud.

The weaving work is a cooperation between two weavers: One sits on the top of the giant wooden loom and lifts one end of a thread, and the other weaver, seated in front of the loom, weaves the other end of the thread into the brocade.

The weavers must decide which thread is to be lifted up and woven into the brocade according to the pattern designed beforehand. Their cooperation results in rich colors and patterns that won't repeat themselves.

It usually takes more than two years to accomplish one large piece and the weaving job cannot be replaced by machines.

Scientists have yet to figure out a computer program sophisticated enough to weave such a brocade, according to experts from Nanjing-based Brocade Research Institute.

The ancient know-how that has been handed down by generations involves color matching and thread-lifting; there are even instructions about knotting the threads with such details as how a weaver should position the fingers when making a specific knot.

The history of Nanjing Cloud Brocade can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280). In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Nanjing Cloud Brocade entered a period of full blossom with over 30,000 looms and nearly 300,000 workers in this trade.

But only four looms were left by 1949 and this unique handicraft. The Nanjing Brocade Research Institute has been working hard to revive the ancient art.

(China Daily May 23, 2007)

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