Hello there, and welcome to the first in a series of blogs we’re calling Embroidery Through the Ages. We hope that this series provides an understanding of the extraordinary art of embroidery, its rich history and its influence on art, politics and fashion throughout the ages.
In this first instalment, we’ll be heading back through the millennia to Ancient China.
While embroidery in China can be traced back to the Neolithic era, almost 12,000 years ago, it truly began to boom after the opening of the Silk Route. Silk was the primary thread used in Chinese embroidery. Around 5000 years ago, silk worms were domesticated, and the sale of silk was one of China’s main trades.
When the Silk Route was opened during the Han Dynasty (202BC - 220AD), the production of thread and fabric flourished, and paved the way for the art of embroidery. Until this point, decorative embroidery had been worked using linen, hemp and wool. As embroidery became popular as an art form, four schools of design became prominent, with even one taking its name from a silk growing region.
The four main schools of Chinese embroidery are Xiang, Shu, Yue and Su, and each has been designated Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Chinese Government.
Su embroidery, or Suzhou 苏州, is perhaps the most celebrated and well known of these embroidery styles. It takes its name from the Jiangsu Province, which dates back 2000 years and has long been the centre for China’s silk trade.
At the height of its popularity during the Qing Empire (1636 - 1912) was known for its intricate needlework, wide variety stitches and threads, balanced and complex compositions, and smooth finish. It is believed that at its height, around 2000 embroiderers worked in the region to produce this style.
Using up to 100 types of thread and 40 stitches, Su embroidery typically focuses on scenes of nature and pastoral life. The most common stitches are ‘even’ embroidery and ‘random’ embroidery.
‘Even’ or ‘delicate’ embroidery accentuated uniformity, and was used as a basis for features of works with fine motifs, such as butterflies and flowers. The most common ‘even’ stitches were ‘gradient’, ‘layer’ and ‘prodding’ stitch. ‘Random’ embroidery was often used for textured details such as scenery.
As well as being embroidered onto clothes, the Su style was also popular on decorative panels. Embroidered panels led to the most famous Su style of all; shuang mian xiu 双面绣, meaning double sided Su. These designs could be viewed from both sides of a panel, and required expert embroiderers to create.
Fine or transparent cloth was used, with artists planning stitches before committing them in thread. Instead of tying knots in the thread, embroiderers would instead stitch over the ends and conceal ends in the needlework. Done well, the detailed image could be viewed from any angle.
Chinese embroidery is still popular today, with design techniques from 1000 years ago still influencing fashion. Intricate, couture and detailed embroidery focused on floral themes has been popular with designers including Valentino, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Balmain.
Most recently, Chinese fashion was centre stage at the 2015 Met Gala, the theme being China: Through the Looking Glass. We think it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets Rihanna’s Guo Pei dress, bedecked with Palace embroidery, which took over from Su in popularity during the late 20th and 21st centuries.
With the invention of machine embroidery, it was estimated that in the early 2010s, there were only 50 true Su embroiderers working in China. Perhaps it is time for a revival...