Embroidery is one of a number of Chinese arts and crafts with a millennia-old history. Many believe embroidery developed subsequent to silk production. Whether its techniques originated first in the homes of villagers as a handicraft or were begun and refined by skilled artisans within palaces or the sumptuous homes of wealthy merchants or officials is impossible to determine, and indeed is probably irrelevant.
What is undeniable is that the Chinese today continue to produce matchless embroidered articles, some of which are expensive high quality pieces of art for display while many others are simply beautiful utilitarian cloth objects.
The quality of Chinese embroideries varies significantly, ranging from those that are exquisitely hand-embroidered, appearing like fine paintings, to others produced by computerized machines that crudely mimic hand embroidery, sometimes even with printed backgrounds.
The range of embroidered items is incredibly broad, including cloth-enshrouded cases, boxes, handbags, slippers, hats, lamp shades, bracelets, pillows, and an array of curios, including Christmas ornaments in addition to clothing, scarves, framed wall hangings, freestanding screens, and tabletop displays in many sizes.
To meet the demand from foreigners, embroidered linen and linen-like tablecloths, napkins, place mats, and table runners are now common in the embroidery shops in China.
There are four major centres of embroidery production in the country, each with characteristic stitches, distinctive themes, and unique textures that are employed by artisans with skilled hands, fine eyesight, and enhanced powers of concentration.
All are in areas where villagers not only grow mulberry bushes and breed silkworms but also weave cloth and ornament it with embroideries. In each centre is an Embroidery Research Institute and Museum dedicated to preserving traditional techniques while innovating with products that meet the needs of contemporary consumers.
Dragons and birds are common themes in Chinese embroidery
Although as many as forty different stitches are sometimes claimed, there are actually four common ones with many variants: the satin stitch, couching stitch, stem stitch and seed stitch.
The satin stitch is preferred when the intent is to create a smooth surface with attention to simulating a kind of surface shading.
A couching stitch, which is essentially invisible, is one whose purpose is to anchor other stitches, especially gold silver threads that cannot be sewn directly onto the fabric.
Stem stitches involve the looping of a thread around another thread to heighten its presence, as for example in creating a prominent flower stem.
The intricate seed stitch, which appears in many variants, is referred to as the Chinese knot and sometimes the forbidden stitch or blind stitch because it is said to have ruined the eyes of young girls. This intricate stitch involves wrapping silk floss around a needle and then stitching it down on the fabric.
The Chinese knot rarely appears alone but instead is worked in rows or patterns so as to leave a finely textured surface of small rings. As the base cloth to be embroidered traditionally varied in weight from satin to gauze, today synthetic materials are often used as well.
It is not surprising the best-known of the four centres of Chinese embroidery is in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, an area renowned for its production of silk.
There, the specialty is silk embroidered pictures, which are usually referred to as thread painting and embroidery painting since many resemble the textured surface one sees in an oil painting. Some of the pictures actually look like fine photographs because of their shading.
Double-sided embroidery, also well-known art in Suzhou, is accomplished by skilled artists who split individual thin threads of silk into even thinner filaments, or floss, that are then threaded into needles employed for various stitching patterns.
“Suzhou embroidery is famous for its flat surfaces, neat edges, delicacy, closely packed stitches with even thickness and spacing, and harmonious colours”, all executed with meticulous craftsmanship.
Hunan embroidery emphasizes shading in the creation of realistic depictions of landscapes and life-like images of animals, especially tigers and lions, usually on a base of transparent chiffon silk. With hair-thin silk floss in colours that range from black to white, animal fur is rendered in true-to-life textures that are three-dimensional owing to the mixing of stitches and knots.
A special type of Hunan embroidery replicates traditional monochrome ink-and-wash paintings by deploying silk floss in shades of black, gray, and white.
Guangdong embroidery is judged by many to be showier than either Suzhou or Hunan style. With a palette of principal colours such as vibrant reds, yellows, and blues in addition to black and secondary colours, as well as gold and silver, it should not be surprising that peacocks, butterflies, and floral arrangements are common themes.
Sichuan embroidery flourishes in the western region of the province around the city of Chengdu.
Here, coloured silks are used as the base material since many of the embroidered objects serve as heavily ornamented quilt covers and pillowcases. The most common embroidery themes seen in shops throughout Sichuan are a group of pandas enjoying a meal of bamboo and a school of varicoloured fish swimming in a pond.
Ethnic minorities, among them the Bai, Miao, Zhuang, and Tibetans, are also skilled embroiderers, each with their own style.
Tibetans are known for their embroidered wall hangings with sacred Buddhist symbols on them. Thanka, which usually depict a deity, mandala, or scene within a geometric frame, are generally painted on silk or cotton but also are sometimes embroidered or appliquéd.
The Bai generally embroider on cotton cloth using cotton threads.
Zhuang embroidered balls are seen often in shops as well as dangling from sticks held by itinerant merchants in southern China. Made of coloured silk cloth sewn over a core, these once were made by young girls to present to a prospective suitor. Today there are essentially showy ornaments.
The Miao, who are found in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Hunan Provinces, embroider their jackets with narrative tales. Using techniques employing two needles simultaneously as well as braids of multiple threads, their auspicious designs on jackets, bags, blankets, and baby carriers are quite bold in both colour and texture.
As Chinese painting, bird and flower motifs employ colours that are even more vibrant than in nature