Embroidery is a capability that any traditional women would have been equipped with. With their artful hands, they would create embroidered handkerchiefs, bags, pillows, or even costumes. Each piece was embroidered with their heart and soul and each stitch, rich with sophisticated sharpness; presenting vivid and delicate beauty, full of individuality.
Embroidery appeared more than 2500 years ago. According to historical records, Suzhou was the land where this extremely special art form was first founded.
Suzhou had a uniquely favorable climate for growing mulberry trees and also for weaving silk. Along with the growing industry of silk weaving, came the increased development of embroidery, crafted with silk thread into the silks themselves.
Since silk embroidery paintings were found to look bright and beautiful but still retained the silks durability and softness, the female led handicraft developed into an increasingly industrious business.
Suzhou is colloquially known as the “Oriental Pearl” thanks to its well-known and admired embroidery. Made by skillful hands and birthed from the wonderful imaginations of the women of Suzhou, these traditional products have been passed down for thousands of years.
The importance of embroidery in the life of a Chinese woman
From the perspective of the ancient Chinese, every gifted and accomplished woman must be skillful across four fields; namely music, chess, poetry and drawing. Embroidery and sewing falls under the category of drawing. To make a piece of embroidery one must be competent in not only drawing but also the craftsmanship of the deed. A sketched design carries in itself the soul of the drawing, while the embroidered stitches manifest the fineness of the craft.
In ancient times, from an early age, young girls were expected to study and master these four skills, of which embroidery was considered the most demanding and essential. A girl’s handkerchief was the means by which her love was extended to her chosen man. These handkerchiefs were handmade by the girl herself, representing her soul, her virtue and her dignity. As such, not only were they a commonly crafted product, but also thought of as a quintessential art form.
Suzhou is of course famous for its immaculate silk weaving, but also, and perhaps more importantly for the life that each woman would breathe into their masterpieces. They would stitch each piece with the same heart and soul as the handkerchiefs they were trained on. This unique characteristic would put all of Suzhou’s embroidery products at a premium in the marketplace.
According to historical records, embroidery in Suzhou reached its peak during the Spring-Autumn Period (770-476 BC) in China. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 AD, silkworm rearing and embroidery had began to spread to almost every corner of the country.
The women of Suzhou remain the most highly regarded silk embroiderers in the world. Many compare the crafting hands of the Suzhou’s women to silkworms releasing their precious golden silk threads. They seemed to breathe life into every embroidery line and stitch, elevating the piece to be an artwork embracing the beauty of their own soul as well as their inspiration.
Embroidery painting – The poetic garden of skillful women
Making an embroidery piece requires patience, perseverance and an endowment of softness and dexterity, which are all innate characteristic of women.
Each line and stitch are the embodiment of the woman’s meticulousness, creativity and steady hand.
Women tend to have a rich imagination by nature, and through each embroidery piece they would have the opportunity to freely explore this imagination, bolstered by their creativity, in which their inner desires and hopes could be revealed.
The personality of a woman could be identified through their work, be it soft or strong, weak or tough. Each work was deemed to be their emotional garden.
Discovering the embroidery technique through a perfect artwork
The embroidery pieces of the Suzhou region are known for their elegance and their exploration of a variety of themes, through the use of impressive techniques. The techniques of the region include one-sided embroidery and two-sided embroidery, a technique which ensures that both sides look the same. The two-sided embroidery technique is characterized by the two sides of the piece sharing the same pattern and cleverly avoid stitch exposure.
Suzhou embroidery paintings stand out for their clear themes, vivid imagery and fine colors. Each line is soft, each stitch is hidden. The talented embroiderers were experts in using color exquisitely to create vivid but harmonious pieces.
The technique of using space within an embroidery is similar to that of watercolor painting. It requires the skillfulness of the artist to give the feeling of depth and relief, to the work.
Recently, the embroiderers of Suzhou have added some Western techniques to their repertoire. In the past, there were only 18 types of needles used for embroidery. But now there are more than 40 at the craftsman’s disposal. Modernizing the craft as we know it.
Under the influence of traditional culture, Suzhou embroidery has some delicate features that we seldom find in other kinds of embroidery styles. Suzhou embroidery techniques were widely used across all of the ancient royal dynasties.