In a courtyard hidden within a maze of winding alleyways, large sheets of indigo fabric ripple in the breeze from beneath bamboo hanging poles. Their rich, midnight blue hue is in stark contrast to the intricate white patterns sprawled across the textiles. The refined swaths of cloth mark the location of the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall, a shop and gallery dedicated to an ancient type of hand-printed fabric.
Blue nankeen is a style of Chinese textile that originated thousands of years ago on the Silk Road, though it’s actually made of cotton. The two-toned, hand-printed designs are artistic and yet, somehow, also simple. The fabric was frequently used among Chinese commoners to craft everyday items like clothing and household linens such as tablecloths and drapes. It was traditional to offer the cloth as a gift for celebratory occasions like weddings or the birth of a baby. Sadly, the ancient art of developing these distinct blue-and-white fabrics has been on the decline, as many people now see blue nankeen as out-of-date and associate the textiles with peasants.
The designs were originally made by placing hand-carved wooden stencils over a large swatch of fabric, then covering the remaining white space with with a mix of soya bean flour and slaked lime. Now, people use sturdy paper stencils that stick to the textile. After being treated with the flour and lime mixture, the cloth is soaked in a bath of indigo dye until it reaches the desired color. After being removed and dried, the paste created from the flour and lime is peeled off, revealing vibrant white designs amid a rich, blue background.
Visitors at the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall can wander among exquisite examples of the ancient art. The quaint, quiet gallery began as a one-room museum and has since expanded into a slightly larger (though still quite intimate) shop. There’s a small display that showcases the delicate process required to make blue nankeen textiles. People can also purchase some of the unique, handcrafted fabrics, including objects like skirts, dresses, shirts, tablecloths, and tapestries.