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Consider This: Collecting Chinese Textiles

Subject and Symbolism

The symbols depicted on a textile can tell you quite specifically what the function was and who would have owned it. Chimes, twin fish, and double happiness characters are symbols for blessings in marriage, designating a marriage robe. At the same time, Imperial dragons were strictly only used on Imperial textiles until the later parts of the Qing dynasty. 

Manchu Wedding Robe, China, 19th century. Sold for $9,225 in September 2019.
Detail showing twin fish for marriage blessings.

Stitching and Technique

A general rule would be that the greater variety of stitches used in a piece, the higher the quality. The more refined the execution of these stitches is generally also counts towards the value of a work. The most commonly used stitches include seed stitch, known as “Peking knot,” or “forbidden stitch,” and couching, which typically uses gold- or silver-wrapped thread, and satin stitch. Still, there are many more variations to discover.

Five Embroidered Belt Purses, China, 19th/20th century.
Sold for $1,107 in March 2019.


Color indicates rank and importance, particularly in the Imperial court structure in China. Yellow robes and accessories were reserved for the emperor; black, blue, and brown signified different ranks among court officials. Red is the auspicious color of weddings and other celebrations such as birthdays. Certain colors such as bright pink and purple were not used until the later part of the 19th century when aniline dyes reached China from Europe.

Lady’s Informal Robe, China, 19th/20th century. Sold for $738 in March 2017.


Condition is an essential consideration. Most textiles made before the end of the 19th century achieved color from vegetable dyes, which are unfortunately very transient. As noted, the commonly used colors of red and yellow are two of the more transient natural dyes and fade considerably when exposed to light. Robes were also sometimes sized down or re-cut for a more fashionable fit, particularly in the early 20th century. A semi-formal or formal robe should follow the typical straight-cut flared silhouette visible when laid flat on the floor, with one side overlapping the other.

Imperial Yellow Semiformal Dragon Robe, China, 19th century.
Sold for $73,800 in September 2016.

Displaying and Preserving Textiles

While it might be appealing to hang a stunning robe or hanging panel on the wall in daylight, it is not the best way to care for your investment. Textiles, particularly antiques, can be displayed and enjoyed for short periods, but ideally, they should be stored in a cool, dark, humidity-controlled environment, folded carefully and wrapped in acid-free tissue paper to prevent dye transfer. Consider a collection of exquisitely decorated purses, accessories, or rank badges which can be stored and displayed on rotation.

Three Woman’s Accessories, China, 19th/20th century. Lot 190 in the October 9 Asian Works of Art auction. Estimate: $700-900

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