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Chinese Embroidery, and the Humble Silkworm.
Chinese Embroidery has a long, complex and thoroughly interesting history. It is one that spans thousands of years, before the invention of machine embroidering, before the Gutenberg printing press, let alone the now essential die-cutting machines we know and love!
From little things; big things grow. No article on Chinese embroidery techniques is complete without an honorable mention of the heaviest hitter in the crafting world:
The Silk Worm.
Had this little insect not been domesticated over 5,000 years ago, the embroidery we explore today may never have eventuated. Over it’s long development, silkworms have continued to create strong, shiny threads to enable artists and crafters silk reels to weave intricate patterns and pictures.
So What do Princesses, Silkworms and Tea Cups have in common?
Let us return to circa 2760 BCE. And, according to ancient Chinese legend – the discovery of the humble silkworm’s potential happened to a princess Si Ling-Chi, whose leisurely afternoon cuppa in the garden was interrupted by a falling cocoon from the trees above her.
“If I had a dollar for every time…”
Having taken – presumably – delight in her flavorsome tea-time experience, she removed the cocoon from her teacup, and discovered that the boiled water had dissolved the hard cocoon, allowing it to be unwound into a long thread.
Sericulture – the science of silk production is credited to princess Si Ling-Chi, and brought about the (secretive) development of the artwork and embroidery we see to this day, with Si Ling-Chi still revered in China as the ‘Goddess of Silk’. This is not to be confused with the beginning of Chinese embroidery itself, which has been in play since even earlier.
One of our earliest evidences of silk embroidery is believed to have originated circa 475-221 BC, during warfare between the 7 states of ancient China. Buried in a tomb in the Chu State (now south-eastern China), was an embroidered silk piece displaying the Dragon and Phoenix – both central characters in Chinese mythology. Over the centuries, embroidery became more and more commonplace in China, with the four most famous traditions out of the Guangdong, Hunan, Sichuan and Jiangsu provinces. We know them today as Xiang (Hunan), Shu (Sichuan), Yue (Guangdong) and Su (Jiangsu).
Xiang Embroidery, is characterised by its similarities to traditional Chinese paintings, using a range of materials to achieve a focus on reality or realism, lending itself to folk-art in many depictions.
Materials of pure silk threads, hard and soft satin as well as nylon are connected to colored silk to create artistic realizations, including crafts for daily usage also.
Further West in the Sichuan province, Shu Embroidery was developed by people mainly in the area around Chengdu. The smooth textures, neatness and bright coloring that characterizes much of Shu embroidery is best lent to what typifies the region; in its rich natural scenery and topography.
It’s also the home of the Panda.
Yue or Guang embroidery is a name for the wide-spanning embroidered art and practical crafts from the Guangzhuo, Zhongshan, Fanyu, Shunde and Shantou regions of the larger Guangdong province to the south east coast of China.
Taking folk-art as a heavy influence, and with mythological phoenixes and dragons as inspiration for sophisticated pieces, Yue embroidery is all about strong contrasting colors with understated shading.
It may also surprise you to know that animal hair was used in many Yue crafts to vivify the artwork, which helped early artisans (mostly men) to bring the birds and flowers to life on their canvases.
Su embroidery is generally accepted to be the main, and most famous style of embroidery in the Chinese tradition.
Stemming from the people in and around Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Su embroidery is a delicate and shimmering style of needlework. The phrase ‘painting with silk’ is best embodied by the artwork and crafts that raised Suzhou to its peak in the late 17th century, and features folk inspired themes and flavors.
With a tradition of over 4000 years to draw from, Su embroidery products were adorned by the royal families of the Qing dynasty, with decorations on clothing for their households, costumes, upholstery and also became popular among common fashion in the villages and cities over China.
Much of the later works – of the period until 1911 and after world war 1 – had effects in the silk threading that were artistically borrowed from the western fine arts traditions. These showed particular lighting elements to create ‘rays of light’ and a depth that separated it from other Chinese embroidery styles.
Another typification of Su embroidery is the practice of ‘double-sided’ embroidery, of which weaving methods now number at 40 different practices, but ever present is the requirement for an even picture, with colors of harmony and brightness.
It is also important to mention the method of double sided embroidery, where patterns can be seen on either side of the canvas.
Over its lifetime, Chinese embroidery has evolved from a place of every-day practicality to an accepted fine-art tradition. It was believed to be a replacement for tattooing the body, where adorning the skin with artwork and patterns became less commonplace, to ornamenting the clothing as it grew in complexity.
Even as many believe the act of Embroidery itself to be a form of craft, proponents of the Chinese historical tradition are fighting for it to remain Art in the truest sense. A major factor for its success early on may be due to the value of the silk itself, being a form of currency – hence the silk road and Marco Polo – for which embroidery was the perfect setting to utilize the thread’s potential. Silk, unlike other threads, does not absorb light. It rather reflects it, and shimmers spectacularly when arranged into detailed graphics and images.
Chinese silk embroidery in the modern day is undergoing a renaissance in many parts of the world, with one champion of the art form now hailing from Adelaide, South Australia.
Margaret Lee – featured also here– is an ambassador for embroidery of both the Chinese and Japanese traditions, and consequently is an embodiment of the persistence and lifelong learning required to master them.
Taught the way of creating artwork using silk thread and canvas by her mother, Margaret continued to practice embroidery as a hobby through much of her life. A career in corporate banking eventually gave way to her true calling, of which she now has a legacy in numerous books on the topic, and gives lectures and classes the world over.
In 2013 she published ‘The Art of Chinese Embroidery’ – Foundation level, with ‘the Art of Bead Embroidery – Japanese Style’ published in 2017. Good news for the new decade, with volume 2 of ‘The Art of Chinese Embroidery’ – Intermediate, is set to be published in April this year.
Chinese Embroidery has no doubt undergone ebbs and flows in it’s popularity and usage over the many centuries since Princess Si Ling-Chi and her teacup.
It is certainly in good hands with ambassadors like Margaret Lee showing us all the beauty from a fine historical tradition.