Constructing Robes of the Qing Elite
Fabrics for the Qing imperial household were made under strict government control at appointed silk factories, called jizaoju, of which there were three - Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing - plus a jiranju, or a silk workshop, in Beijing. This arrangement had been established during the fourteenth century by the Yuan dynasty (1258-1368) and continued under the Ming and Qing emperors. The imperial factories were renowned for the excellence of their production, as only the most perfect goods would be suitable for the Son of Heaven. During the Qing dynasty, orders for robes and textile decorations for the use of the emperor and his extended family were organized through the Neiwufu, or the Imperial Household Department. Established in 1661 to manage the details involved with the emperor's food, clothing and shelter, the Neiwufu eventually included a staff of over 1600. It managed 56 offices, special schools and the workshops that maintained the imperial palaces and gardens, as well as specialty workshops that produced a wide range of objects and luxuries required by the court.
Each item of clothing, accessory or silk room decoration was individually designed. Renderings were prepared for the emperor's inspection, and, once approved, forwarded to the imperial silk factories to be manufactured to specifications. Nearly every garment required many different fabrics - the principle ground fabric, contrasting fabrics for externally-applied facings, sleeve extensions and gold-enriched brocades for bindings, plus linings and inner linings. The production of these different elements was coordinated by the factories. Once completed and checked against the cartoons and specifications, the components for a single garment were packaged in yellow paper and sent to the capital where they were inspected by the appropriate official of the Neiwufu and placed in storage until required, when they would be tailored. (See lots 43 and 50). Thousands of pieces of cloth were produced each year to insure the imperial household was supplied with appropriate clothes and palace furnishings required for the numerous daily functions, both public and private.
Clothes for other individuals within the empire were processed by professional workshops in much the same manner. Silk mercers, who dealt in luxury textiles, coordinated the selection of fabrics, trimmings and elaborate ribbons; embroidery workshops took responsibility for planning designs and executing them. All of the components were delivered to the client to be sewn within the home or by a professional tailor. By the mid-nineteenth century ready-made lengths with decorative bands embroidered on the bias for coat or robe edges and necks, elaborately worked bands that faced the sleeve edges and were turned back as cuffs, and packages of ribbons, tapes and pipings were all available for purchase from silk shops. (See lots 44, 53 and 54).
The tailoring of robes began, as the orange jifu yardage demonstrates (lot 42), by joining the left and right side lengths down the back seam, next the half-length panel for the front overlap was seamed to the left front panel. The excess material at the sides and under the arms was removed. The sleeve assembly, consisting of the sleeve extension and cuffs, was attached flat. The lining, as well as the external and internal facings, edge bindings, ribbons, tapes and couched embroidered bands were applied while the garment remained flat. The lower hem and skirt vents were finished, and finally the side and underarm seams sewn. Chinese tailors and seamstresses often used rice paste starch in the assembly of the components. This substance acted both to stiffen items as well as to hold all of the parts in place for sewing.