The fine technique of Chinese embroidery
When it comes to silk, the Chinese know their stuff. Legend has it that in 2800 BC, Leizu – wife of Emperor Huangdi – observed silkworms at work and saw that the shiny, silvery threads could be used to make clothing.
The Chinese have since developed the silk-making process into a fine art, including elaborate methods of embroidery. As early as 2000 BC, the bureaucrats of the Zhou dynasty had their clothes embroidered with symbols to show their official positions. Embroidery techniques were further developed during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) and perfected during the Qing dynasty (1616-1911 AD), when different styles began to arise, such as Beijing embroidery (which specializes in clothing for royalty) and the four famous regions – Sichuan, Jiangsu, Hunan and Guangdong – which are now regarded as “the Four Styles of Chinese Embroidery.”
Today, over a hundred different techniques have been developed, although not all of them are commonly used. Wang Yingjuan, who has been practicing embroidery since the early 1980s, teaches two styles at Beijing Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). “One is plain stitch (píng xiù, 平绣), which uses long or short straight stitches without much variation,” says Ms. Wang. “This is most commonly practiced in Jiangsu and Hunan embroidery.”
In Beijing embroidery, the chain stitch (suǒ xiù, 锁绣) is a common style and involves stitching thread in small circles that connect to each other like a chain or a braid. “Not many people practice suo xiu nowadays, as it takes more time and energy, but it is a classic style and it makes the pictures look alive,” says Wang.
No matter how much styles vary, however, the basic tools for embroidery are the same: needles, threads, fabrics and frames. Professional needles are extremely small (around 2cm in length) and are somewhat difficult to find. But for beginners or amateurs, regular-sized needles are fine to work with. Depending on the degree of fineness, several kinds of threads can be used. Silk thread is the finest and better for high-level embroiderers, but cotton threads can be used as well – though less fine and shiny, cotton is ideal for novices to practice with. Wool threads are rough and thick and good for larger works.
As for the underlying fabric, silk, cotton and gauze are all applicable. Small hoop frames are good for small pieces of ping xiu, and large rectangular frames are recommended for bigger works and suo xiu. As Wang explains, “Suo xiu requires two hands to alternately hold the needle, so it’s best performed on a big frame that doesn’t need to be held.”
Once the tools are obtained and the fabric is set in place, the next step is to draw a design on the fabric. For cotton textile, a sharpened pencil or crayon works best. For a more sensitive fabric like silk, Wang uses an elaborate process of soaking vegetable parchment paper in kerosene until it forms into a black, ink-like liquid. She then dips a small needle in the ink and “draws” the picture gently on the silk canvas.
To make the first stitch, run the needle through the canvas from underneath, leaving an inch of the thread’s end out. As you stitch, try to hide the end with the stitches. “Most beginners would want to tie a knot at the end of the thread,” says Wang, “but that is not encouraged because the knots destroy the smoothness and the wholesome feeling of the picture.”
When practicing embroidery, the most important thing is to relax the wrist and spread each stitch evenly. “The picture will be distorted if the thread’s tightened too much or not enough,” says Wang. To finish, run the needle through the previous stitches to hide the other end of the thread.
Novices are advised to begin embroidery on white cotton cloth with simple geometric shapes – straight lines, circles, squares or triangles – before moving onto slightly more complex pictures, such as grass or tree leaves. Flowers, birds, fish and other animal designs can be achieved through practice. At the highest level of embroidery are images of people and landscapes, which can be extremely intricate.
“The best thing about embroidery is that it cultivates patience,” says 21-year-old Xing Cuijuan, who has been learning embroidery under Wang for over four years. “I have become a very calm and peaceful person since I started. Besides, I get to learn a lot about Chinese history and culture because of it, which is really beneficial.” Kids ages 5 and above can learn with Wang as well, though those under 9 years of age require parental supervision.
When practicing embroidery at home, have a magnet on hand in case you drop your needle. Small hoops or frames are available in local arts and crafts shops for RMB 15-20. Big rectangular frames can be ordered through YWCA at RMB 200-300. YWCA’s embroidery lessons are on Monday mornings from 9-11.30am; RMB 50 per class for YWCA members, RMB 80 for non-members. Prices include embroidery tools and materials. House-call lessons are offered for five students or more at a time.
Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)
33 Xitangzi Hutong, Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District
6525 6028/7712 (Chinese only)