Chinese Embroidery

Embroidery is one of China’s traditional styles of decorating fabrics, especially silk. China was the first country to develop and make use of silk fabric which eventually lead to embroidery. I’ve chosen to look at Chinese embroidery as i feel it’s quite a distinct feature in Chinese textiles and artwork. Some of the oldest pieces of Chinese textiles were created using embroidery techniques. Chinese embroidery has a long history dating back thousands of years to Neolithic times and they always used silk because of its strength and durability. There is not a precise date when embroidery was first practiced in China but many pieces have been discovered at archaeological sites. Some pieces have been discovered in tombs which date back to as early as the second century B.C.  One of the oldest and largest pieces of Chinese embroidery was the image of Shakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak ( see below).  This was discovered in Mogao, Gansu Province, 8th century AD. This piece of work was made from hemp cloth which was then embroidered with very fine woven silk.

The images used in Chinese embroidery can symbolise and represent lots of different meanings. Images such as animals, dragons, birds, florals were embroidered onto various items including robes, theatrical costumes, purses, shoes, wall pieces and interiors etc. Embroidery is a very skilled and intricate style of artwork and some pieces could take up to several years before they were completed. Finest pieces of embroidery were very expensive and only wealthy men and women could afford to buy them.

There are different styles of embroidery used in china. These are the 4 major regional and historical styles of Chinese embroidery.

Suzhou Embroidery ( Su Xiu )

This style dates back 2000 years and originates from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Suzhou embroidery was one of the first embroidery styles to be developed in China, but its detailed needlework and intricate images are still produced today. Some of the distinct features of Suzhou embroidery is that it was often two-sided, where the image was embroidered on both sides of the silk. Its beautiful patterns and images, subtle colours, variety of stitches were very skillful and time consuming (in some cases taking years to finish). The images used on this style of Chinese embroidery were quite typical using nature and environmental themes-flowers, birds and gardens with pastel colours. I’ve noticed that the main animals used in chinese embroidery are tigers, pandas and dragons.

Hunan Embroidery ( Xiang Xiu)

Xiang embroidery was created in Changsa, Hunan Province and has been used for hundreds of years. This style has been influenced by other embroidery styles however it has many characteristics which make it unique. The embroidery uses a lot more loose threads compared to the Suzhou style. There are several distinct needling techniques used in embroidery but the Xiang style uses a more ‘random’ way of needling, where the randomness results in colours and textures being mixed togther. Its distinct features include black, white and grey colour palettes with strong focus on the contrasts between light and dark. There is also a strong use of tigers and landscape scenes used on Xiang textiles. Xiang embroidery is still practiced today and has become very popular around the world being used on clothing, interiors and art pieces.

Guangdong Embroidery ( Yue Xiu/ Guang Xiu)

This originates from Chaozhon, Guangdong Province and dates back 1,000 years. This style of embroidery contains intricate and symmetrical patterns, using strong contrasting colours and varied stitches.  The main influence of this style was national folk art and the images most commonly used were of flowers and plants.

Sichuan Embroidery ( Shu Xiu)

This style originates from western areas around Chengdu, Sichuan Province. This is the oldest known embroidery style in chinese history and has been used for thousands of years.  As with most embroidery they always used silk and satin, as they were very strong and would last a lot longer than other materials. The distinct features of a Sichuan style piece were- emphasis on even stitching, pastel colours using, images of young women and the environment. Sichuan embroidery is used to decorate interiors such as quilt covers, pillowcases, curtains, fashion garments, shoes and painted screens. All of these embroidery styles are extremely beautiful and have characterisitics which make them very unique and interesting to look at.