History of Chinese Silk Embroidery
Silk embroidery is so much a part of Chinese history, that at times it seems as though silk embroidery is as old as China herself and one could not have existed without the other. But Chinese legend tells another story about how silk came to be. It is said that Empress Hsi-Ling Lo-Tsu discovered silk one afternoon, while taking her tea beneath the shade of a mulberry tree. A silk cocoon fell into her cup and as she reached in to pull it out, the silk thread began to unwind, and thus the secret of silk was discovered.
It was with the discovery of silk that the art of embroidery really took off for China. Because of the early discovery of silk and because the quality of the harvested silk was very good, nearly all embroidery in China’s history was made in silk. The earliest descriptions of silk embroidery are found in the classical text (Book of History) around the Neolithic Age (4000 to 3000 BCE). The book details the regulations that applied some 4,000 years ago to the making and wearing of garments, including the decorative aspects of embroidered designs. During this period, embroidery was used to distinguish rank among people and was applied on garments purposefully, with designs, symbols and colors that were full of meaning.
For many centuries, silk was China’s most valuable commodity. The spread of silk cultivation (sericulture) and the techniques behind silk embroidery were so widespread throughout Ancient China that by the fifth century BC, more than 1/4 of the Chinese population were employed in producing silk and creating silk embroideries. Many of these provinces became known for their distinctive styles of embroidery. Regional styles included Suzhou, Sichuan, Hunan and Guangdong embroidery. Of these styles, silks and embroideries from the city of Suzhou rose to prominence due to their intricate and precise methods and masterful artistry. This unique style of embroidery is known as Su embroidery.
Dating back over 2,000 years, Su embroidery is remarkable for its use of subtle and elegant colors and patterns, variety of stitches all executed in the most meticulous manner, and craftsmanship. In fact, embroiderers in the Su style are so exacting in their methods, that they are able to create double-sided embroidery. This subset of embroidery does not have a backside, and the ends of each thread are woven into the final piece rather than tied and knotted, as is done traditionally. Indeed, embroiderers from Suzhou are considered the finest and most skilled embroiderers in China.
Today Suzhou remains the world’s center for silk embroideries with artisans carefully crafting modern pieces using the same techniques that have been mastered over the centuries. China continues to hold the record for the highest silk production, producing over 54% of all the silk in the world. Together, they lead the world in silk embroidery production and continue to create the most intricate and astounding embroideries that can be found today.
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