Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 13th Wave Index Page

The History of Textiles in East Asia

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Cho, Yeon Ju
Term Paper, AP Worldn History Class, December 2009

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. About East Asia
III. Cotton
III.1 Origination
III.2 Development
III.3 Usage
III.4 Analysis
IV. Hemp cloth
IV.1 Origination
IV.2 Development
IV.3 Usage
IV.4 Analysis
V. Silk
V.1 Origination
V.2 Development
V.3 Usage
V.4 Analysis
VI. Wool
VI.1 Origination
VI.2 Development
VI.3 Usage
VI.4 Analysis
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            The history of textiles attempts an objective survey of textiles throughout human history, identifying materials, tools, techniques, and influences, and cultural significance of these items to the people who used them. [1]
            This paper will firstly deal with brief introduction of East Asia. Then the paper will focus on origination, development, and usage of textiles, especially cotton, hemp cloth, silk and wool, in the East Asia. Finally, this paper will show how the history of textiles is related to people's lives.

II. About East Asia
            East Asia is an eastern part of Asia including countries such as China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, and near Vietnam. This paper will regard only China, Korea, and Japan as East Asian countries. In East Asia, China has greatly influenced, especially cultural, agricultural and trading, on other countries.

III. Cotton
            Cotton cloth is fiber which is made of seed-hair of various plants which is native to most subtropical countries. Cotton fiber is durable and resistant to high temperature. Also, cloth made of cotton fiber is comfortable to wear since it absorbs moisture and releases it quickly. Cotton is one of the world¡¯s leading agricultural crops which is plentiful in that cotton products are relatively inexpensive than other fiber. In cotton industry, China is one of the leading producing countries in the world.

III.1 Origination
            There are contradicting records about the origination of Cotton.
            In the book, it is written that "Cotton has been used in China since prehistoric times. It is recorded that cotton was spread around Han dynasty." [2]
            On the contrary, in the Internet encyclopedia, it is written that "In Chinese inland, cotton growing started since it was introduced from Southeast Asia to Hainan in Tang dynasty." [3]
            In the end of Goryeo dynasty, Moon Ik-Jeom smuggled cottonseed from China during Yuan dynasty and started cotton growing in Korea. However, it is assumed that using imported cotton yarn and cotton cloth had already been produced throughout Goguryeo dynasty, Silla dynasty, and Goryeo dynasty.
            Around the 16th century, cotton production was started in Japan, replacing hemp which was main material used for making ordinary people's clothing.

III.2 Development
            According to promotion of Yuan dynasty and Ming dynasty, cotton growing and fabric production popularized throughout the whole country. In Yuan dynasty, spinning and weaving technology developed in Hainan introduced to Songjiang that cotton production was put into practice. In Ming dynasty throughout this area, cotton production was spread fastly as a side-line of small-income farms. Cotton fabrics produced here were sold all over the country and production process was specialized. Dominant status of cotton from this area continued until the end of Qing dynasty, and in 18th century, it became known to western society as Nanjing cotton cloth. However, around this period, cotton producing district extended to Hubei, Guangdong, and Fujian, and especially they used cotton imported from India. Nanjing cotton cloth continued existence even after Opium war, it showed rapid declination because of imported cotton cloth based on modern type of cotton spinning and development of domestic cotton spinning based on large capital in 19th century. In 20th century, cotton industry played an important role of industrialization of China.
            In Choson dynasty, indebted to promotion of cotton industry by King Sejong, cotton fabrics were produced a lot, and from this time, cotton took the lead in textile industry, leaving out hemp cloth. Moreover, people could pay taxes in cotton. During Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, cotton industry was introduced to Japan. However, after opening ports in late 19th century, domestic cotton industry came into a crisis because of import of foreign-produced white cotton cloth and muslin and infiltration of Japanese capital. Thereupon, in 1919, Kim Sung-su founded textile company in order to confront Japanese capital. Cotton industry in Korea flourished after 1970 by enlargement of factories and modernization of facilities in that making Korea world-famous cotton-producing company.
            Cotton was one of the most important textiles produced in Japan from 17th century. However, cotton production was influenced by the inflow of imports because Japan was opened up to foreign trade in 19th century. In 20th century, Japan became one of the leading countries in cotton production.

III.3 Usage
            Although the export of the cotton was banned in China, the cotton was imported to Goryeo dynasty, common people mostly wore rough hemp cloth even in Choson dynasty.
            In Japan, cotton usage outweighed hemp usage among people who were not nobles.

III.4 Analysis
            About the contradicting records, I think the record written in the book is more reliable. However, when synthesizing two contradicting records, it can also be assumed that cotton used in prehistoric time could be imported cotton from other area and the start of cotton 'growing' might be from Tang dynasty. This is not written in any books, but can be one hypothesis.
            Cotton was widely used since it was introduced in China, Korea, and Japan. It is used by ordinary people. It can be inferred that it is because cotton was definitely cheaper than other fabric like silk. However, it is said that ordinary people wore clothes made of hemp mostly. Probably this was because too many efforts required in producing cotton fabric and make clothes with it.
            To find out the reason why the cotton production increased in Japan, we should look into labor condition of cotton workers. In Japan, cotton workers lived in the owner¡¯s house, boarding and lodging like a dormitory. This made them work more because they could spend time working instead of commuting. They could save time and with saved time, they had to work more. In that, with this labor condition the production of cotton increased a lot in Japan.

IV. Hemp cloth
            Hemp grows in temperate zones and annually cultivated. It grows best in sandy areas where the soil has good drainage and has average monthly rainfall during the growing season. Cloth made of the fiber is yellowish, greenish or sometimes dark brown with long and less flexible characteristic. It is also durable and strong. One of the leading producers is China.

IV.1 Origination
            Hemp fiber imprints found in pottery shards in China supports the idea that hemp was used since Stone Age, more than 7,000 years ago. [4] Spinning and weaving tools were excavated with pottery shard. This supports the idea that people in China used hemp in making clothes.
            According to the record, hemp was also used in Korea in order to make clothes from even before A.D. [5]
            In Japan, many kinds of textile were imported or introduced by China and Korea. Hemp plant and skills to make cloth with it were also introduced by China and Korea, but it is said to be developed earlier and more than silk and cotton production.

IV.2 Development
            Hemp was used a lot in Korea during the period of Three Kingdoms. Three countries produced hemp cloth which had better quality than that of China.
            Hemp cloth was used largely in the countryside, while many textiles which have higher quality were available in the urban area. Hemp fields were easy to be found in every rural area. Hemp was grown as a fiber crop in Japan. However, hemp was outweighed by cotton with its usage. People grew cotton more than hemp. Finally, hemp was restricted in 1948 because it was classified as drug.

IV.3 Usage
            Most people in Choson dynasty wore hemp cloth even though there are many other textiles.
            It is said that hemp cloth was widely used that they were used for making not only clothes but also quilt, waistband, string of a bow, and fishing rod.

IV.4 Analysis
            The reason why Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla had better quality of hemp cloth is that the hemp grown in the Korean Peninsula itself was of predominant species. Also, it is because an aesthetic sense of the Korean national people required delicacy of making cloth.
            At first, Hemp was used a lot in Japan. The most important reason is that the material of cloth was easy to be found. Hemp plants were everywhere around. Also, production of hemp didn¡¯t required many difficult steps.
            Hemp cloth was used by many ordinary people for a long time. This can be analyzed that people could not afford to wear clothes made of those textiles such as silk, cotton, and wool. On contrary to other expensive fabrics, hemp was easier to access because the climate of East Asia is suitable for hemp to grow.

V Silk
            Silk is fiber made by silkworms. Silkworms grow well in mulberry trees, eating mulberry leaves. Cloth made from silkworms is luxurious, and it was used by nobles. China is one of the leading countries which produce silk products.

V.1 Origination
            The origin of silk production is seem to be started in ancient times, but it is mystery that how it was originated. According to Chinese record, silk industry began in China and existed before the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Some scholars say that it was a princess who found how to extract yarn from silkworms by accidentally dropping the silkworm to her tea cup. Also, it is said that, according to the Chinese legend, the wife of Hoan-Ti, Silingchi developed sericulture and spread it to among people. [6] Chinese kept skills of silk production secret for many centuries, but around 1st millennium BC, they began to trade silk cloth to many countries such as India, Turkistan, and Persia. It is told in the legend that around 140 BC, sericulture and silk spread from China to India.
            Actually, there is no record about sericulture and silk production of the ancient Korea. Since the region where Korean sericulture started is now became Chinese territory, actual circumstances of sericulture are not understood well. [7]
            It is told that by the 2nd century AD, silk cloth was imported to Japan from India. Japan acquired and developed a thriving sericulture a few centuries later. [8] It is said that Japanese brought silkworm eggs and four young Chinese girls, and forced them to teach them sericulture. Between the 8th and 9th centuries, larger scale of sericulture techniques was introduced to Japan by diplomatic exchange.

V.2 Development
            Since silk originated and was developed in China, silk production in China was most popular around the world. China exported silk production to Western countries by Silk Road. On account of the Industrial Revolution which made innovation in spinning cotton possible, it became cheaper to produce cotton cloth. Therefore, expensive silk became less used. An epidemic of several silkworm diseases also caused production to fall. [9] In the 20th century Japan and China regained their earlier role in silk production, and China is now once again the world¡¯s largest producer of silk. [10] The rise of new fabrics such as nylon reduced the prevalence of silk throughout the world, and silk is now once again a somewhat rare luxury good, much less important than in its heyday. [11]
            Although silk productions in China were most famous, Korean merchants also traded silk production produced in Korea. Silk produced in Korea had brilliant and beautiful colors.
            Until the 17th century, silk used in Japan was one of the main imported goods. In spite of the fact that Japan produced silk on its own, silk was needed to be imported from China. However, because of Japanese piracy, Ming Dynasty restricted the trade with Japan in 17th century and it caused the increase in domestic production of silk. This made many peasants to grow silkworms.

V.3 Usage
            Silk was used not only for clothing but also for many other applications such as writing, and the color of silk was one of the indicators of social class during the Tang Dynasty. [12] Nowadays, silk cloth is used for making many products such as quilt cover, clothing, and curtain. In spite of the fact that improvement of silk production made it possible to easily access the silk production, it is still quite expensive than products made of other textiles.

V.4 Analysis
            China still produces most of the silk used in the world. This is maybe because sericulture has developed in China from ancient times and China was the only place to produce silk for a long time.
            The reason why the origin of silk production is mostly related to women is that silk production was mostly work for women throughout history.
            Silk fabrics were regarded as luxurious goods which are used by wealthy people. It is maybe because the fabric made of fiber extracted from silkworms is shiny and looks good. Also, since growing silkworms and producing fabric into fiber is not an easy process, the cost of fabric became expensive that only wealthy people could afford it.
            According to the documents, Japanese silk production depended on how much silk they import. It is because there were some regions that were not suitable to grow silkworms that most of the silk used in Japan were imported since long time ago. Also, if there were no restrictions of import, silk was imported, and if there were restriction of import, silk was grown by people domestically showing that silk production in Japan was closely related to import. This is because Japan could easily import the goods it needed since it is an island country surrounded by the sea which helps people to import things through it.

VI Wool
            In one sense, when narrowly focusing on the definition of wool, wool means animal fiber that forms the protective covering, or fleece, of sheep. On the other hand, in a broad sense, wool includes many kinds of fiber from other hairy mammals, such as goats, camels, and rabbits. [13] Wool, used in this paper is the latter, meaning that it includes fiber from not only sheep but also other animals. It is assumed that prehistoric human who were cloth made with animals skins eventually found out how to make yarn and fabric from animal skin. Fabrics made of wool have good retention of air that makes the product to retain heat well. Because of this characteristic, it is widely used in cold area. Japan is one of the leading consumers of wool.

VI.1 Origination
            According to the record, Chinese people wore outer coat made of wool.
            It is said that Korean people started to use wool made of wild animals around 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. [14]
            First wool production was made in 553 according to the record written in the book which showed the book, . [15]

VI.2 Development
            There are few records about wool development in China, Korea, and Japan. It can be assumed that wool was rather imported from other countries than produced. Some records show that some ordinary people used wool from the wild animals they caught on their own. [16]

VI.3 Usage
            Wool was a symbol of wealth in East Asian countries. China once separated the kind of wool. So, for some kind of wool, ordinary people could not get access and only people in high social status could use it. [17] In Japan, the colors of wool are regarded important in that they have to separate the colors that only the emperors could wear or other people could wear, too. In Korea, wool is used as material for clothes ornament for nobles. Wool was precious good and the supply was limited. Because of this, Chinese government had to restrict the usage of wool to prevent indulge in luxurious good. [18] It was luxurious good goes well with luxurious life of nobles, but it was hard to satisfy the increasing demand.
            Wool is used to make many products such as clothes, infant sleeping bags, and blankets.

VI.4 Analysis
            East Asia shows large differences in temperature between seasons in that the clothes that people wear differs according to the seasons. This means that people in East Asia needed warm clothes for their cold winter. Due to the cold winter, wool was necessary in East Asian countries. [19] However there was not much information about the origin of wool in China, Korea and Japan. It may be because the majority of wool used was generally imported from Central Asian countries. [20] Of course, some people got wool from hunting wild animals. [21] Imported wool was one of the famous luxurious goods in East Asia. [22] Ordinary people would wear clothes made of cheaper textiles or get wool from hunting wild animals because ordinary people could not afford expensive imported wool [23]

VII. Conclusion
            After writing about origin, development, usage of four different textiles in three East Asian countries including China, Korea, Japan, I found that there are some differences among the countries and among the textiles. When comparing three countries, actually the origins of textiles were largely related to the own climate of each country. That is, if the textile were produced earlier in specific country than other countries, the country might have more suitable climate. Development and usage can be also said that they were influenced by how earlier the specific textile production started. It is related to the differences between the starting times of textile production because if one country started textile production earlier than other countries, it would have more time to develop the textile and find a lot of usage of it. When comparing four different textiles, the most important factor that affected to the development and usage of each textile was the social background. More luxurious textiles were worn by aristocracy, and other cheap textiles were worn by normal people.
            In conclusion, origin, development, and usage of textile differ among countries, and among textiles according to the naturalistic and social factors.


1.      Article "History of clothing and textiles," in Wikipedia
2.      Jung 2001
3.      Article "Cotton," in Wikipedia
4.      Article "Hemp," in Wikipedia
5.      Jung 2001
6.      ibid.
7.      ibid.
8.      Article ¡°Silk,¡± in Britannica 15th ed.
9.      Article "History of Silk," in Wikipedia
10.      ibid.
11.      ibid.
12.      ibid.
13.      Article ¡°Wool,¡± in Britannica 15th ed.
14.      Sim 2002
15.      Jung 2001
16.      ibid.
17.      Sim 1998
18.      ibid.
19.      Jung 2001
20.      ibid.
21.      ibid.
22.      ibid.
23.      ibid.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2009.

Primary Sources
1.      Article "Cotton," in Wikipedia,
2.      Article "East Asia," in Wikipedia,
3.      Article "Hemp," in Wikipedia,
4.      Article "History of clothing and textiles," in Wikipedia
5.      Article "History of silk," in Wikipedia
6.      Article "Silk," in Wikipedia,
7.      Article "Textile," in Wikipedia,
8.      Article "Wool," in Wikipedia,
9.      History of East Asia, from WHKMLA,
10.      Chinese Textile History, from Textile as Art
11.      Living in Silk : Chinese Textiles Through 5,000 Years, from China National Silk Museum,
12.      Chinese Textile, from India Crafts
13.      Japanese Textile, from India Crafts
14.      The Yangtze River Tow Men, Liu Bai,
15.      Article "Industries, Textile," in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. Macropaedia vol. 21 p.570-588
16.      Article "Textile," in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. Micropaedia vol. 11 p.664-665
17.      A History of Textiles, Kax Wilson, 1979
18.      Chinese Silk: A Culture History, Shelagh Vainker, 2004
19.      Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, Stephen Yafa, 2006
20.      East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Patricia Buckely Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James Palais, 2008
21.      International Historical Statistics; Africa, Asia and Oceania 1750-2000, B.R.Mitchell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
22.      Introduction to Korean History and Culture, Andrew C. Nahm, 1993
23.      Silk Weaving in Ancient China: From Geometric Figures to Patterns of Pictorial Likeness, Dieter Kuhn, 1995
24.      Textile Art of Japan, Yang, Sunny/Narasin, Rochelle M., 2000
25.      Textile Workers in Japan, 1650-2000, Janet Hunter, Helen Macnauchtan, 2004
26.      World Textiles: A Concise History (World of Art), Mary Schoeser, 2003
27.      350 Years of Chinese Textiles, Robert Cliver, 2004
28.      5,000 Years of Textiles(Five Thousand Years of Textiles), Harris J, 2004

Back to WHKMLA Main Index . WHKMLA, Students' Papers Main Page . WHKMLA, Students' Papers, 13th Wave Index Page