Hidden Oriental Jewel: Chinese Silk Embroidery
By: Raymond Yuen
Do you know what "silk embroidery is? Do you know what it looks like? Many people I come across in the U.S. are either unaware or unfamiliar with what silk embroidery is. Moreover, for the few who are familiar with this specialized Chinese skill, I have discovered that they do not have a true knowledge and appreciation for this fine Chinese art form. Thus, the implication can be made that “silk embroidery” is truly a "Hidden Oriental Jewel” that has been under appreciated in the West due mainly to the fact that the common person is ignorant of the time, effort, and skill required to create high-quality "silk embroidery" works. Hence, the purpose of this article will be to inform and educate you (whether the art lover or the common person) on: What is silk embroidery?, How it is made?, How to appreciate it?, etc. My hope is that you will acquire an appreciation for the uniqueness and value of this oft-overlooked Chinese art. Whether an art lover or not, I think you will come to appreciate the value of this “Hidden Oriental Jewel.“
What is Silk Embroidery?
Silk embroidery is a type of Oriental wall art that results from the traditional Chinese skill of pulling fine strands of colored silk through a canvas to create a beautiful work of art. The most common way to enjoy silk embroidery is as a framed, wall-hanging object. Hence, it is ideal as a gift, collectible, home decoration, souvenir, or office piece. The art of skill embroidery originated in China and has been practiced there for over 3,800 years. It reached a high level early in the Qing and Han dynasties, with silk and silk embroidery being the main products transported along the ancient Chinese Silk Road.
China was one of the first countries to transform embroidery into an advanced art form. The use of special embroidery techniques and styles sets apart Chinese embroidery from embroidery created in other parts of the world. In the past, embroidery skills were considered to be an essential skill every woman was to possess. A woman who could create a high-quality embroidery piece was admired and well-respected. Women from rich families took on embroidery as a hobby while those from poor families did it for a living. Today, high-quality embroidery works are treated on the same level as the best Chinese paintings and Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty poems
How To Appreciate Silk Embroidery?
Whether you’re an “art lover” or the “common person,” you'll come to appreciate the value of silk embroidery once you learn of the skill and effort that goes into creating each piece. To create a high quality piece, an artist must split a single silk thread into several thinner threads. It can be split into 12 to 48 thinner strands - depending on how fine the artist wants to be with his/her piece. The embroiderer then stitches layer after layer using threads of a variety of colors to reach the final wonderful effect. Embroiderers are known to take frequent breaks - every 10 to 15 minutes - to rest their eyes due to the strenuous nature of their work.
Due to the labor-intensiveness of the work, some larger and more intricate pieces of embroidery may require a year to a year and a half to complete by an artist or group of artists. Those works sell for thousands of dollars, - which is reasonable - considering the skill and time involved in creating the work. Of course, smaller pieces are available that are of high quality yet sell for much less.
Four Types of Silk Embroidery The adoption of different needling methods through the years has resulted in four distinctive embroidery styles in China:
1) "Su" embroidery of Jiangsu Province - known for its delicacy and elegance, this style is usually very simple, highlighting 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. Su embroidery is where double-sided embroidery originated. Su embroidery products were sent to participate in the Panama World Fair in 1915.
2) "Xiang" embroidery of Hunan Province - became the main craft in places around Changsha, capital city of Hunan Province, in the Qing Dynasty. Xiang embroidery was developed from Hunan folk embroidery methods, but it also drew on the skills of Su embroidery and Yue embroidery. This method uses loose colorful threads to embroider the pattern with the stitches being not as neat as those of other embroidery styles. The various colored threads are mixed together, showing a gradual change in color with a rich and harmonious tone. Designs on Xiang embroidery mostly derive from traditional Chinese paintings of landscapes, human figures, flowers, birds and animals. The most common designs on Xiang embroidery are lions and tigers. The tigers appear strong and bold, revealing their power and menace as a king of animals. Xiang embroidery won the best award in the Torino World Fair in Italy in 1912 and the First Award in the Panama World Fair in 1933.
3) "Yue" embroidery of Guangdong Province - is rich and complicated in content with bright colors and strong decorative effects. The embroidery is smooth and even. One type, gold and silver cushion embroidery, creates a magnificent three-dimensional effect. Yue embroidery has a wide range of designs, the most common ones being birds worshipping the sun, dragons and phoenixes.
4) "Shu" embroidery of Sichuan Province - are mostly found in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. They are made with soft satins and colored threads as the raw materials are embroidered by hand. The varied stitching methods form their unique local style. Designs on Shu embroidery include flowers, birds, landscapes, fish, worms and human figures. The products themselves include quilt covers, pillow covers, back cushions, table cloths, scarves and handkerchiefs.
Western-Style Silk Embroidery
Western-style silk embroidery occurs as the result of an artist using fine silk strands and needles to accurately reproduce famous Western-style oil paintings (see figure 2) - like Van Gogh and Da Vinci. It is truly amazing how an embroidery artist can literally take silk strands and create a silk reproduction of a well-known artist’s oil painting.
Essentially, the artist paints with fine silk strands instead of painting with oil. Think about it . . . does this not perhaps require more skill than painting with oil itself? Despite the difference in materials and technique, one thing about a silk embroidery work is that - from a distance - it can very much resemble a work of oil painting .
From up close, however, one can notice the colorful patterns and detailed stitching in a silk embroidery work. In fact, the colors will appear more bright and lively than the usually duller colors of an oil painting.
Double-Sided Silk Embroidery
Double-sided silk embroidery is the result of an advanced embroidery technique in which the artist stitches on both sides of a single transparent silk canvas. The embroidered design displays on both the front and back sides of the fabric and does not show the joints in the stitching. Such a work is normally mounted as a screen on a wooden frame. A special feature about double-sided silk embroidery is that you can enjoy the artist’s handiwork from either side of the picture.
How To Mount & Store Silk Embroidery
Mounting a piece of silk embroidery can be an art in and of itself.
Hard Mounting - is most suitable for small to medium-sized embroidery pieces. It involves mounting the piece on a wooden board or frame with a front protective glass. The mounting technique is relatively easy to master.
Soft Mounting - is most suitable for larger pieces. It involves mounting the embroidery piece on a large sheet of paper with a silk border. The mounting technique is very difficult to master. As a result, due to the nature of the mounting technique, a piece with soft mounting is more valuable.
Storing - be sure to wrap embroidery pieces in a container that protects it from moths. Also, embroidery should not be exposed to strong light - especially sunshine - for an extended period of time. Moreover, the environment should be neither too wet nor too dry.
1) Art of Oriental Embroidery: History, Aesthetics, &... by Young Yang Chung.
2) Painting with a Needle: Learning the Art of Silk Embroidery… by Young Yang Chung
This article was written by Raymond Yuen of Eternal Imports (EI). EI specializes in the provision of unique, hand-made, quality products from around the world. You may check them out at http://www.rejoiceinarts.com