Globe-trotting Tea and Travel

A Break from Tea: Some Shopping Therapy in Hangzhou’s ‘Silk City’

When planning my visit to Hangzhou I wanted to be sure to include some ‘Silk Sightseeing’. I knew that Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, was central to China’s development of the silk trade. Through a series of water canals and rivers, its precious cargo was ultimately transported to the Ancient Silk Road, starting in Xi’an and ending in Persia, the gateway to Europe.

Hangzhou’s Silk Market is popularly known as Silk City, an outdoor pedestrian shopping area located at Xinhua and Jiankang Roads. The market was once a center of silk production and trade in the Ming and Qing dynasties and now this crossroads is home to over 600 silk enterprises. It is the biggest wholesale and retail silk market in China. Lanterns hang from the trees and an endearing sculpture of a child feeding silkworms is located close to the front gate.

Hangzhou's Silk City with old style shops and lanterns hanging from the trees
This sculpture of a young boy feeding mulberry leaves to silk worms, is located near the gate to Silk City.

There is also an indoor market nearby which at first glance looks like any fashion wholesale building in North America, until of course, you notice the retro l980’s mannequins and stacks of silk merchandise and fabrics.

After working several decades in the fashion world, I’ve learned to identify fabrics and their inherent characteristics. I was disappointed therefore, but I guess not surprised, to find polyester being passed off as silk by many of Silk City’s vendors – some of it very convincingly. The secret to identifying the real thing is in what we call “the hand”. The surface texture of silk should have a resisting “feel”. In other words there should be a slight amount of “traction” when you glide the palm of your hand over silk. Check this out if you have a silk scarf or shirt, you’ll see what I mean.

Loads of silk garments and retro 1980's mannequins

While in China, most of my shopping excursions were brief, with the exception of tea shopping, which was very involved. I’m happy to report that in the short time allotted, I purchased two silk dresses. They were about ¥120 each, which is approximately $20. I also found a few tiny silk purses – perfect for small gifts of tea and some shoes, technically cotton, but definitely in the spirit of the outing.

One of the silk dresses I purchased from SIlk City in Hangzhou on my own vintage mannequin
Left, same dress in grey and pink, yellow silk baby slippers, cotton slippers and sweet little silk purses, for holding pouches of tea

Did you know?

  • 1000 metres of silk fibre can be unwound from a single silk cocoon
  • 630 cocoons are needed for a woman’s blouse