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A new digital exhibition in Philadelphia highlights China’s rich history in textile manufacturing, tracing back to the 19th century when the country was a major exporter of textiles made with ramie. The exhibit, titled “The Story of Ramie,” showcases 18 watercolor paintings depicting the process of creating ramie textiles in Guangdong province between 1830 and 1860. These paintings were created to appeal to international buyers and showcase ramie as a high-tech, luxury fabric made by master artisans.

The paintings also shed light on the human element of textile manufacturing, exploring themes of labor-intensive work and craftsmanship. Curator Lisa Berry Drago notes that in today’s globalized system, consumers often don’t consider the people behind their clothes. The exhibit serves as a reminder of the labor-intensive nature of textile manufacturing and the importance of sustainable practices in the industry. Ramie, known for being a natural and biodegradable fiber, offers an alternative to synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, promoting sustainability in the fashion industry.

In addition to celebrating China’s early success in textile manufacturing, the exhibit highlights the use of natural dyes like indigo, which has been used in Asia for over 1,000 years and is still used today in products like blue jeans. The display is part of a larger science- and technology-focused collection at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, which also explores the evolution of synthetic fibers through the history of companies like DuPont and Gore-Tex. The outdoor ramie exhibition will be on display until October 2024.

China’s textile industry has played a significant role in the country’s economic growth, with exports accounting for 43% of the global total in 2022. The country’s Forbes Billionaires List for 2024 includes 406 members, many of whom are leaders in the textile and apparel industry. Shein, led by Chinese billionaire Sky Xu, is one of the world’s most popular fast-fashion websites. The success of China’s textile industry dates back to the 19th century, when the country was a major exporter of textiles made with ramie.

The exhibit at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia serves as a reminder of China’s rich history in textile manufacturing and the craftsmanship and artistry involved in the process. The intricate watercolor paintings showcase the creation of ramie textiles and the human element of the industry, emphasizing the importance of sustainable practices in today’s fashion world. As consumers continue to demand more transparency and sustainability in the fashion industry, the exhibit provides valuable insights into the history and future of textile manufacturing in China and beyond.

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