Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chinese Antique Thread Winders with Bats


Detail of carved bat.
 
Congratulations to Rosemary and to Mariette for correctly identifying the Mystery Object as a thread winder or spool. These wooden winders are two to four inches long, while smaller ones, beautifully worked from mother of pearl, often resemble game counters. Winders are often adorned with flowers, butterflies, fish, or geometric shapes, although readers here can readily imagine that I was pleased to find the bat motif.

 
This winder has a pattern of two bats on each end, facing a peach, the symbol of longevity. As the Hattatts reminded us, bats are a Chinese symbol of good fortune, so although I know of no special connection to thread or sewing, it is not surprising to see this figure turn up. 

The reverse of the winder shows a repeat of the same pattern.
 
I was lucky enough to acquire an additional example of these bat-carved thread winders. This other one is somewhat different. The spool section is deeper, and the carving is open or pierced. There are only two bats on each side, facing the center, and their auspicious symbolism is augmented by that of the coin placed in the middle.

 
As before, the carving on the back duplicates that on the front. Note that the coin has changed into a longevity symbol.


It is difficult to decide which one I like better—the second example is quite graceful with its openwork filigree, but the solid first one, with eight bats in total, has to have one of the highest bats-per-square-inch ratios for an object its size. They both show signs of considerable use, and the gilding on each is almost gone. They must have been quite dazzling when new, although possibly I prefer their current worn and patinated condition.

Reader Dianne in the original post mentioned Bat Conservation International, and I had a fascinating time perusing their site. I strongly recommend taking a look at their website to learn more about actual bats and about the various problems, natural and human, that currently threaten them.



(All photos and original objects property of the author.)

23 comments:

  1. Don't mention bats to me...I had quite a scare one night when one got into my bedroom while I was sleeping. It was a very hot night in summer and I had opened a screen less window. My husband was travelling and I was alone. The shrieks (from both of us!). Luckily I remembered to turn off the lights and completely open the window whilst screaming at the top of my lungs. The bat will start flying from one wall to the another, each time lower, until it finally finds the opening.

    Thus my choice would be the second. Less bats! Seriously, I think its gorgeous and find their "auspicious symbolism" quite charming. They are both keepers though. One of the things I love most about the Chinese is their use of symbols in everyday objects.

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    1. Hello Lindaraxa, I can imagine that must have been quite an experience with the real bats flying around.The Bat Conservation site had a video on how to get bats out of buildings--you might want to bookmark it in case there is a next time.

      Not all Chinese objects are elaborately decorated, but you are right about how the symbolism tends to show up on everyday objects, in addition to special or ritual ones.

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    2. I agree. Bats are a bit strange - they hang upside down, they make horrible noises, their sleeping pattern is backwards and they ruin fruit crops. So we might ask ourselves why the bat is a Chinese symbol of good fortune. Normally a society would select something beautiful and sleek eg a jaguar, eagle, lion, peacock.

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    3. Hello Hels, Although some people do consider bats to be graceful and useful, the reason they are so prominent in Chinese art is that the word for bat sounds like ones meaning prosperity, wealth or luck. Thus by association bats became a lucky augury. Many compositions involving bats can be interpreted as rebuses for expressions of good wishes.

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  2. Dear Jim - I began to suspect that my answer might be correct when my comment did not appear, but it was a complete guess on my part - I couldn't think of anything else.
    Both thread winders are delightful, I would not know which one to choose given the choice.

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    1. Hello Rosemary, I agree with you that it is difficult to choose between these--that is why I got both of them! (Not together, though. I just checked, and I bought them two years apart.)

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  3. Dearest Jim,
    That was a great mistery object and I too got the idea I would have given the right answer as it did not get published. Love both of them; they are unique each in their own way and bats don't scare me at all. In our garden we do have bat houses and in the summer they fly over our heads quite often. They are very useful insect eaters.
    Hugs to you and have a special weekend!
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, You seemed to recognize the thread winder precisely. With the beautiful gardens and grounds of your house, having some bats around must be a real advantage, both for their beauty, especially in flight, and for their insect control.

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  4. Makes total sense now!!! That was fun. Hope you have more mystery objects to come. Cheers.

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    1. Hello Loi, Thanks, and don't worry--the supply of oddities seems almost endless.

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  5. Of course! I love the craftsmanship and beauty of such a practical object. Sewing with love. They are both wonderful. I learned a bit about bats last year, because there's been a terrible disease killing the bats in NY. Also there is a terrific long essay on them in Diane Ackerman's book Moon by Whale Light.

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    1. Hello Jen, It is wonderful how much Chinese tradition has been incorporated in these small objects. Western antiques related to sewing often show beautiful workmanship also--think antique thimbles, for example.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I added the Ackerman book to The List; it's time I became acquainted with this writer.

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  6. Ahah! Mystery solved, and it makes sense. I suppose they could be used for winding in the spool of a kite's thread too?

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    1. You really jogged my memory. I can recall the small, flat spools of string that came with cheap paper kites when we were little. I suppose that real kite aficionados used ones that were more capacious and three-dimensional.

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  7. Hello Jim:

    First, thank you so much for the link which is most kind.

    Thread winders! We had absolutely no idea and are now completely fascinated that such items, with a practical application, were [maybe still are] produced with such care and attention to detail to transform them into things of great beauty.

    During the years we were in Herefordshire, close to the Welsh March, we had bats living in the roof of the house. They are, as you will doubtless know, a protected species and on that account could not be disturbed. The colony never bothered us at all but, on occasion, our cats would catch young ones alive which they then would bring indoors. Always something of a problem to then deal with!

    Kellemes húsvéti únnepeket!

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    1. Hello Jane and Lance, Happy Easter to you, too. I had totally lost track of the calendar, else I would have included a more general Easter/Passover/Thai-Khmer New Year greeting.

      I envy your living in Herefordshire, and would like to hear more about what it was like. I imagine it as a scenic and bucolic paradise, but perhaps the actual experience involved a different perspective.

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  8. Ahhhhh, of course it is Jim. I love a good mystery, especially when such a beautiful, useful object is the solution.
    Have a wonderful weekend.
    Di
    X

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    1. Hello Di, I love these mysteries too. I am just as happy when the result is merely interesting or even edgy, but then it turns out that those objects are beautiful too when looked at in the right way.

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  9. Hi, Jim,

    Both of the thread winders are very handsome, and I like their patina. It's hard to choose a favorite, but I lean towards the second one. The Colomnist's comment reminded me that I used bigger versions of your mystery objects when I flew kites as a child, though they certainly didn't have this style!

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    1. Hi Mark, I remember those string reels also. When I photographed these, I included a centimeter scale, which I cropped out for these posts, so they might appear somewhat larger than they are on most screens. Still, it wouldn't surprise me if these were sometimes (or often) used for kites--the trick now would be to find an old Chinese kite with the string reel still attached!

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  10. Hello Jim,

    I am only now discovering that you are not only a thoughtful blog commenter, having commented on my own blog, but you're a blogger too! My heavens, where have I been? I have just added you to my blog list so as not to miss any future posts.

    I adore your thread winders and I've never seen anything like them. You would think I would having grown up a daughter of a Savile Row tailor!

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  11. Hello Chronica Domus, Thank you for your kind words. Since coming to Taiwan, I have been discovering all kinds of new things.

    How interesting that your father was a Savile Row tailor--I hope that we might hear more about him on your blog. I imagine that some of his thread spools resembled these, in shape if not in decoration. --Jim

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    1. Yes, I suppose I really should do a post on my father. He just retired last year (finally!), but somehow can't help himself and still practices his art every now and then.

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