Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Copyright © 2008 Jean Kares


Pictorial silk tapestry, or kesi, was produced in China beginning in the tenth century as a method of weaving that allowed for designs that were independent of loom controlled patterning. When Chinese weavers adopted the technique, they expanded its design repertoire from overall patterning to a means of creating pictures, and typically chose similar subjects to those of court paintings, sometimes copying directly from them. In kesi, the conventions of depiction in painting and tapestry met, and the process of translation from one to the other gave rise to a new mode of expression. Tapestry method represents a serious challenge for the process of translating from a medium that is not constrained by a structure, and the investment of time and material to produce kesi strongly suggests that its creation was not undertaken lightly. Its use by the imperial court as gifts to courtiers and for diplomatic purposes demonstrates that kesi functioned as a valuable form of social currency and a marker of status and wealth. I will argue that the practice of copying paintings in pictorial tapestry went beyond mere reproduced imagery; more important was the transfer of the compositional conventions of painting to tapestry, which encouraged the evolution of the medium as an independent, expressive art form, separate from painting. Principles of painting composition were synthesized with the ancient style of over-all patterning used in kesi functional textiles, and resulted in pictorial representations that honored both the strengths and origins of the medium of silk tapestry.