Chinese Embroidery: the Splendid Art of Threads

Embroidery is a traditional Chinese craft which consists of pulling colored threads through a background material with embroidery needles to stitch colored patterns that have been previously designed on the ground. The adoption of different needling methods resulted in different embroidery styles and technique schools. Chinese embroidery had already reached a high level early in the Qin(BC221-BC206)and Han (BC202-AD220)dynasties, and silk and embroidery were the main products transported along the ancient Chinese Silk Road.

The items embroidered are quite diverse and include robes, theatrical costumes, purses, shoes, spectacle cases, banners, alter cloths and many other pieces.  Some of the pieces were so finely stitched that the pieces took 5-6 people several years to complete, which were very expensive. Practiced all over the country, China's most famous works of embroidery come from Suzhou (abbr. Su), Hunan, Sichuan and Guangdong.

Su embroidery has a history of over 2000 years, and is the most renowned technique school. It was produced on a large scale during the Song Dynasty (AD960-AD1279). Su embroidery is known for its delicacy and elegance. The design is usually very simple, high lighting a main theme. Its stitching is smooth, dense, thin, neat, even, delicate and harmonious. The thin thread is divided into up to 48 strands that are barely visible to the naked eye. Double-sided embroidery has the same pattern on both sides and uses the same embroidering method that does not show the joins in the stitches.

Take the double-face embroidered "Cat", representative work of Suzhou embroidery, for example, the artist splits the hair-thin colored silk thread into filaments-half, quarter 1/12 or even 1/48 of its original thickness-- and uses these in embroidering concealing in the process the thousands of ends and joints and making them disappear as if by magic. The finished work is a cute and mischievous-looking cat on both sides of the groundwork. The most difficult part of the job is the eyes of the cat. To give them luster and life, silk filaments of more than 20 colors or shades have to be used.

Recently, on the basis of two-face embroidery have developed further innovations-- the same design on both sides in different colours, and totally different patterns on the two faces of the same groundwork. It seems that possibilities hitherto unknown to the art may yet be explored.