Tang Dynasty Textiles


China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) is considered a high point in Chinese history. Women’s clothing of this period went on to influence Japanese and Korean dress, as well as our modern concept of traditional Chinese clothing.  The country was open to the outside world, tolerant and appreciative of different cultures (Mei 2011, p. 25). This era of abundance and a more relaxed social atmosphere provided the opportunity for cultural development, wherein which China’s arts such as poetry, painting, music, and dance thrived (Mei 2011, p. 26). The conservative dress code of earlier periods became more relaxed, and women were allowed to expose their arms and back, as well as wear the clothing of other cultures or even men’s riding garb (Mei 2011, p. 26).


Here’s a quick video talking about the various fabric options for Tang Dynasty women’s clothing available at Dharma Trading Company.



A recreation of mid-Tang Dynasty court garb. Image from Wikipedia – 706 AD mural

Silk was the most difficult and expensive fabric to manufacture during the Tang Dynasty, but sericulture had been part of Chinese industry for centuries. Some of the oldest artifacts related to Chinese sericulture go back to about 5000 BCE (Vainker, 2004, p. 22). The Bureau of Weaving and Dyeing in the Tang Dynasty capital, Changan, classified textiles into ten types, eight of which were silks defined by their weave (Benn, 2002, p. 99). Woven silks in the Tang Dynasty included gauzes (sha), crepes (gu), lenos (luo), damasks (qi), single-colored twill (ling), brocades (jin), tapestry (kesi), and multicolored pile cloths (Vainker, 2004, p. 85). Tang Dynasty names for various silks were based on where they were woven, design pattern, function, or color, and the sampling included here is a broad listing of the principal types.

Silk comes in various weights, measured in mommes. Habotai silk is a great catch-all, but you can also get gauze and twill from Dharma Trading Company. For habotai silk, go for heavier weights for garments. Dharma sells a 16mm habotai in 45” width, which would work well for a shirt (I can get a shirt out of 2 yards of 45”).  I wouldn’t go any lighter than 10mm for a piece of clothing. 8mm for a pibo/pizi (ribbon/cape) would be okay, since those are described as being lightweight (Shaorong, 2004, p. 32-33). The skirt I made was out of 45” wide 12mm twill, but I would prefer a wider width – I will be experimenting with a 70” wide 10mm for this project. Skirts were also arguably layered, as seen in the Zhou Fang painting Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses, so any translucent issues which may occur with a lighter weight silk skirt would be mitigated.

A bit of fun info about Chinese silk during the Tang Dynasty –  in the early seventh century, Emperor Gaozu worked to refill the emptied coffers and granaries by reinstating the “equal fields” system. This system was a way to ensure a steady flow of annual taxes. The emperor technically owned all the land, so the state parceled it out to peasant males ages seventeen to fifty-nine in equal shares. Each adult male received about thirteen and one third acres, and in return, they paid annual taxes. Each adult male was required to send 2-3% of his annual grain harvest for each adult male in the family, either twenty feet of silk or twenty-five feet of linen woven by the women. They also had to spend twenty days doing compulsory labor to the government and two months doing special duty for the local government. Gaozo answered the large-scale counterfeiting that had occurred at the end of the Sui Dynasty by having new coppers minted which had uniform shapes, weights, and metal content. These coins were small and round with a square hole in the center so that they could be strung on cords. The next highest unit of currency was a string of 1,000 coppers, so large transactions were handled with silk, silver, or gold (Benn, 2002).


Woolens, made from animal fibers, were likely the easiest to manufacture of all the textiles in China during the Tang Dynasty, given that its production had the fewest steps. Commoners used woolens for their clothing (Benn, 2002, p. 98).

Felt was used for boots and hats (Benn, 2002, p. 97).

Linen and Raime

The Chinese during the Tang Dynasty used many bast fibers to make clothing, such as hemp, ramie, and kudzu. Benn (2002) only mentions “linen” as a sort of catch-all for fabric made from bast fibers. Fabric made from these plants is a complicated and time consuming process. Hemp grew in northern regions of China and was also used to produce cooking oil and fuel for lighting. Hemp fabric was coarse and used primarily for mourning clothes, bandages, sheets, and shrouds, as well as the garments of the lowest classes (p. 98). Ramie, a southern plant, had a greater yield than hemp, and the resulting fabric had a “brilliant luster like silk” and was quick to dry in high humidity (p. 99). It also was lightweight, cool, and absorbed sweat (p. 99).

We are very used to linen when making garments in the SCA. But is linen a good substitute for ramie? Ravenfea.com (2010) did a comparison study in which they found that ramie is prone to wrinkling, will breakdown if creased sharply, and holds dye well. Ramie dyed with saturated colors is prone to crocking. Ramie is also naturally resistant to bacteria and mold. The ramie that Ravenfea compared with linen had a higher thread count, which resulted in a fabric which felt higher-quality. Ramie possessed all the same qualities as linen, so passed, in Ravenfea’s opinion, as a good substitute. The converse should apply as well.


Cotton was known to China during the Tang Dynasty, but it was only used as an item of commerce. It came to China from India and Pakistan along the Silk Road. Since cotton was expensive and inferior to silk, it wasn’t until the thirteenth century that it became a fabric used for clothing (Benn, 2002, p. 98).


There are many descriptions of women’s dress in Tang Dynasty poems, including a large range of colors (Hua, M., 2011, p. 32).  Colors, designs, and even textures were more varied than in previous dynasties (Zhou & Gao 1987, p. 77). Garnet or pomegranate colored skirts were the most popular, but purple, yellow, and green were also very common (Shaorong 2004, p. 5).  As larger pieces of clothing, such as skirts, were usually a plain or figured weave, they were often printed with a design (Vainker 2004, p. 98). This is evident in the Zhou painting, as half of the ladies are wearing an outer skirt of a solid color. The outer and inner skirts with designs feature large, repeated floral roundels which could easily be the result of block or jiaxie printing. Jiaxie printing involves folding the fabric and then clamping it between two carved wooden boards which are mirror images of each other and which have holes that allow dye to reach the fabric (Vainker 2004, p. 84). Block printing was used in China as early as the 2nd century BCE, as evident by a bronze stamp found in the tomb of the King of Nanyue in Guangzhou, which was used to print gauze (Vainker 2004, p. 52). In the Tang Dynasty, printing fabric with stamps became much more refined, allowing dyers to print multicolored designs with the use of multiple stamps (Benn 2002, p. 100). There are several extant pleated skirts with printed decoration which match skirts depicted in paintings and sculpture, but the latter tend to soften the pleats (Vainker 2004, p. 106). Fabric dyes were derived from and plant, animal, and mineral sources, and were capable of producing a wide range of colors; over forty categories of fabric color are listed in Tang Dynasty records (Vainker 2004, p. 84). The Song of Yanying in May includes an account of the popular pomegranate-colored skirt, describing how when the trees were in bloom, every household with a young girl was buying the flowers in order to dye fabric (Mei 2011, p. 29).


Benn, C. (2010). Daily life in traditional China: The Tang Dynasty. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.

H. C. [user25056]. (2014, May 3.) How to wear a traditional Chinese garment called ‘Quixiong Ruqun’ [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGSylLPJ42o

Johns, J. (4 June 2011). China’s disappearing clothing. We Drive East.  Retrieved from https://wedriveeast.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/chinas-disappearing-clothing/

Ling, S. (14 Dec 2012). More on the Hezi (Undergarment). Dressed up dreams. Retrieved from http://dressed-up-dreams.blogspot.com/2012/12/more-on-hezi-undergarment.html

Ling, S. (22 Nov 2012). (An extremely long post on) Tang costume history. Dressed up dreams. Retrieved from http://dressed-up-dreams.blogspot.com/2012/11/an-extremely-long-post-on-tang-costume.html

Mei, H. (2011). Chinese clothing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ministry of Culture, People’s Republic of China. (2003). Secrets of Women’s Underwear in Ancient China. ChinaCulture.org. Retrieved from http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_artqa/2006-08/04/content_84371_4.htm

Ravenfea (18 Jun 2010). Ramie fabric – the new (old) linen? Ravenfea: Maker of various fabric things. Retrieved from http://raevenfea.com/learning/ramie-fabric-the-new-old-linen/

Shaorong, Y. (2004). Traditional Chinese clothing: Costumes, adornments and culture. San Francisco: Long River Press.

Vainker, S. (2004). Chinese silk: A cultural history. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Wu, X. (2010). China’s disappearing clothing. Shandong, China: Shandong Publishing Group.

Zhou, X. & Gao, C. (1987). 5000 Years of Chinese costume. Tsui-Yee Tang (Ed.) Hong Kong: China Books and Periodicals.

Featured image is from http://www.rugrabbit.com/content/textiles-silk-road. “An arrangement of floral medallions interspersed with quatrefoil motifs was one of the dominant textile patterns of the High Tang period (roughly the first half of the eighth century). A textile with a similar large floral medallion has been preserved as part of the Shôsô-in collection from the mid-eighth-century imperial repository in Nara, Japan. However, an aspect of this work’s weave structure-namely, that it is bound in weft-faced twill on both the face and the reverse-is more commonly seen in textiles of the tenth century and later.”

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