Nuido: The Way of Japanese Embroidery
Japanese embroidery is an embroidery style that is over 1600 years old. Embroidery in Japanese is called shishu; the ‘way’ of embroidery is nuido (nui means “sewing”, do means “way”).
Nuido has three aspects: rationality, sensitivity and spirituality. Rationality means the acquisition of skills and knowledge; sensitivity means the artistic acuity and awareness; and spirituality means the spiritual understanding of shishu, the balance and harmony when people stitch.
Traditional nuido is worked with silk or metal threads and makes extensive use of gold-wrapped and silver-wrapped thread. Silk satin is the preferred fabric, which is mounted on a frame to provide the threads tension to enhance shine.
A Brief History of Japanese Embroidery
This type of embroidery derived from China and grew in Japan before and during the Nara period (645-794 A.D.) following the import of religious images.
The first fragments of Japanese embroidery found date back to 622 A.D. In the beginning, shishu was mainly used for decorating religious items in ceremonies. Afterwards, the Japanese developed their own characteristics in embroidery and works achieved a more artistic quality.
With a more explicit Japanese aesthetic, shishu became a secular art during China’s Tang dynasty. In the early Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.) people began to use Japanese embroidery when decorating the ladies of the court. Similar to many embroidery types, during the early stages shishu was only available to the rich and noble classes, because only they could afford such expensive and time-consuming artwork. It was not until the Meiji era (1868-1912) that shishu became more delicate and precise with more realistic details.
Nowadays this once luxurious artwork has spread to a much larger consumer base. Paradoxically, embroidery techniques used to be handed down from one master to one apprentice exclusively, never shared with others. It was hardly known to ‘outsiderse’ until 1980, when Japanese embroidery pieces were exhibited at a national seminar in America.
The Stitch and the Heart
Just like tea, judo, and many other activities in traditional Japan, Japanese embroidery emphasizes philosophic thought. The best Japanese embroiderers always stitch with their spirit; their hands have a close relationship with their heart. By integrating action and belief the embroiderer makes what is in the heart visible through his hands; creating works of art from nothing that existed before. Each work is a mirror of the soul and experts can judge the state of one’s spirit by looking at what they have made with their hands. This art of creation is human-specific; it reflects what the artist is thinking or feeling, sometimes joyfully, sometimes sadly.
Japanese embroidery, with its elegant design and deep history, offers a place for people to retreat and refresh themselves, and gives patience and discipline. Its beauty can develop inner harmony and balance, which give courage to face difficulties. Nuido helps develop these two feelings.
To create a good piece of Japanese embroidery, one must first know the tools of the trade. But by adding the spirit of nuido, a new vitality appears. Japanese embroiderers express their artistic sensibility and deepest feelings through outlines, colors and symbols.
Historically speaking, the fukusa is a kind of Japanese silk textile, usually draped over a gift placed in a box or on a tray. The practice of the fukusa became popular during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1615–1887A.D.).
Originally, a fukusa would be returned to the donor; later, this packing fabric itself became an important part of the gift-giving etiquette, with the choice of fukusa responding to the occasion. On the fukusa, the motifs depicted the event for which the gift was being given, while the richness of the decoration, especially the embroidery, showed the giver’s wealth and aesthetics. The richer the decoration, the better.
In the first part of the 18th century, although popular use of fukusa declined, the tasteful custom was still kept in a small select society located in the Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo) areas. The embroidery on fukusa reflected the aesthetic values of the upper minorities of Japan: the daimyo and samurai. Almost exclusively, only these people understood the subtle cultural references in fukusa. This tradition in a narrow niche gave Japanese embroidery some noble and mystical blood.
At the end of the 18th century into the early 19th century, this custom was revived. With merchants and other nouveaux riches moving up the social ladder and joining the art culture, they adopted many practices of the aristocracy, including gift-giving with fukusa, as marks of celebrated identity.
Today the Japanese rarely use this luxurious packing, except for gifts given around Tokyo and Kyoto at the most important moments, like marriage.
The Kurenai Kai Hoitsu scrolls, embroidered copies of paintings by Sakai Hoitsu, a Rimpa artist during the Edo period, are examples of a nuido masterpiece. The original work is preserved in the Tokyo National Museum, and consists of two seven-meter sections. Like many Eastern artworks, the piece uses flowers, plants, birds and insects as major images. But it was separated into four parts because of the difficulty in framing such a large work.
Each scroll depicts a scene associated with one season. The scrolls were stitched over many years by several embroiderers trying to capture the original spirit of Hoitsu’s painting.
Sakai Hoitsu was born in 1761 to an aristocratic family and became famous for his refined and delicate style. His mature work reveals a soft and elegant delicacy, skillfully painted on gold and silver backgrounds. Hoitsu’s careful observations are evident in these scrolls as he paid attention to every detail; even the smallest insect is depicted with the same care as a gorgeous flower.
Such an exquisite and expressive method reflects an understanding about life, which is common in Eastern religion and art. From these scrolls, one can find the most obvious particularity in nuido: the echo of technique and spiritual intention, the hand as a means of ideological expression.