China has a long history of making umbrellas, with the first collapsible one recorded as having been made in 21 AD. Silk was used for the cover at first, and paper became more popular around 1,000 years ago.
In 1932, a silk mill worker in the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province reworked the silk umbrella using bamboo struts and silk from the area. This exquisite umbrella soon became popular among the locals and by 1935 Hangzhou had a silk umbrella workshop.
The techniques have been perfected and have become more sophisticated over the years thanks to employees of the Hangzhou West Lake Umbrella Factory and researchers from the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Institute. Now it takes dozens of procedures to make an umbrella which weighs a mere 0.25 kilogram.
And, the bamboo used for making the umbrella is carefully selected from the Jiang’nan region that is south of the Yangtze River. An umbrella normally has 32 to 36 struts, or ribs, cut from the same stalk of bamboo, so that, when the umbrella is closed and the silk hides behind the ribs, the bamboo strips appear to be one stalk, with the joints even with each other.
The silk surface is of course thin and light and doesn’t block out the air or become weathered by the sun. The silk is dyed with bright colors and patterns are added by spraying, brushing, embroidering, or painted. The traditional patterns for the silk include enticing sights at West Lake in Hangzhou, flowers, birds, landscape, or beautiful women in traditional attire.
More modern elements have been adopted in recent years to cater to different tastes and the changes have proven successful, with two-thirds of the 600,000 silk umbrellas produced each year being exported.
Many may not be aware of this but that seemingly delicate piece of work is not only used to provide shade or protection from the rain, it is also a tool of acrobats who use it for tightrope-walking. In fact, there are around a dozen different types of silk umbrellas used for a variety of purposes.
[Photo from en.gotohz.com]