History of Chinese Silk Embroidery

Posted by Christine Boado on August 17, 2012

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.

  • "Chinese embroidery - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_embroidery (accessed August 7, 2012).
  • Chung, Young Yang. Silken Threads - A History of Embroidery in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2005.
  • Dowdey, Patrick. Threads of light: Chinese embroidery from Suzhou and the photography of Robert Glenn Ketchum. Los Angeles, Calif.: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999.
  • Runkel & Associates. "Learn about Chinese Embroidery." Asia Art: traditional and modern Asian art. http://www.asia-art.net/chinese_embroid.html (accessed August 7, 2012).

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Comments (4 Comments)
Posted by Ron on June 16, 2017

I own two 100 pure silk landscape pieces. I kept noticing what looked like to me was writing throughout both pieces. My friends and others told me that I was crazy and that I was seeing things. I didn’t know where to start si I did and OCR scan on one of the piece and sure enough it detected Chinese and 4 pages of it. see are scanned and found four pages of it. I dulicated the process using 2 other scans to verify the finds and inded they are a match. Once translated it into English I astonished at what I found. There is what seems to be information on illnesses and treatments for cancers amoung other things. I believe this is historial data and would like to know what and who to present it two. I’ve tried to reach out two universities and others to find out what this might mean in terms of smuggling information out of China during the early 1900s regarding the Chinese health but no one has responded to me quires. If anyone has any information that could lead to answers I would really appreciate it. I’ve spent alot of time on these and beliebe there is historial data in them. Please send anyinformation or resources to rdnphx17@gmail.com.
Best Regards

Posted by George on March 01, 2014

I have three pieces I think it’s a set. I would like to find out more about them. Like Artist name, when and where it was made. Can anyone help me?

Posted by hattie berger on June 17, 2013

I have a green crackle rectangle shape vase .the vase 14 1/2 by 4-5-6 these are the size as you measure going across downward the vase. the vase has silk fabric covering the middle . real gold leaves embroidery with blue green silk back round. you can fell the touch of the gold and also hear the ting sound of the gold makes when you tap it. if any one want to see it I will send picture. thank you h.m.b.

Posted by Debbie Dube' on August 21, 2012

I have a silk print from 1899 all in blues it is act 3 from the opera Aida.
Does anyone know the artist or would you just be interested in seeing an old silk print and I will e-mail a picture.
Art collector and lover all mediums

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