Chinese silk hand embroidery art from Suzhou

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Chinese woman creates enchanting hand embroidery

by Mary Ann Hickey

In spite of the controversy as to whether embroidery is art or craft, I am certain that anyone who has seen Peng Jianchun's work will acclaim it art of the finest caliber. Her delicate thread paintings are not only exquisite in detail and craftsmanship but they have the unique distinction of portraying a different scene on each side of the gossamer silk ground fabric.

Peng Jianchun, hereafter referred to as Mme. Peng, toured the United States in 1982 with an exhibit devoted to Chinese art of the last 7,000 years. When the exhibit was shown in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry as part of their fiftieth anniversary celebration, I had the good fortune to discuss Mme. Peng's work with her through an interpreter, Chicagoan Connie Cheng.

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Mme. Peng's one-sided embroideries are so painstakingly rendered that they appear to be photographs. The details of shading and color are miniscule. Even a part in a woman's hair and the highlights of her glossy lipstick are life like. Her dress is stitched in a complicated geometric-floral pattern. A Renoir-like portrait of a child glows with the same rosy impressionistic background that he might have painted with oils; but even these are outshone by the two-sided embroideries. A most stunning example is her portrait of an elegant Chinese lady seated beside a low table and playing a harp. The table rests on an elaborately patterned rug. The woman's costume appears to have several layers and the transparent hem of her garment reveals the pattern of the rug beneath. Sheer curtains are draped to one side, so that the viewer can see through folds of fabric. The face and front of the woman's body appear on one side of the embroidery and her back on the other, giving an in-the-round three dimensional effect with the clever use of only two dimensions.

Most of the two-sided embroideries have a completely different image on each side. One of these unusual thread paintings combines a beautiful lady in a boat on one side, with several mandarin ducks paddling in the water on the other. Some of her work is humorous as in the dual portrait of a monkey looking at a reflection of the moon in the water, and a cat trying to catch a fish; whereas the portrait of Wha Mo-Lan is a study in elegance. One side portrays Wha Mo- Lan in her general's uniform and the other reveals her in the finery of a woman of the court. This historic portrait tells the true story of a woman who was so devoted to her aging father that she donned a uniform and took his place in battle. Her exceptional valor was rewarded with a general's rank.

Surely it is difficult enough to embroider in such a detailed manner without adding the complication of filling both sides of the ground fabric at once. Nothing in the tradition of Western embroidery prepares us for the concept of two separate and different pictures on oppo site sides of the same piece of cloth. Mme. Peng was generous in explaining and demonstrating just how her technique is done.

Silk organza is her chosen background fabric. It usually has a 600 to 700 thread count per square inch. The two-ply spun silk thread that she uses is further separated into hairlike strands (40 or 50 of them) and threaded into needles that are less that a half-inch long. When I examined the needles, I could not even see the eye, yet Mme. Peng almost always manages to thread them on the first try, without glasses. The silk fabric is placed on stretcher bars. While at the Museum of Science and Industry, Mme. Peng used a versatile set of supports. They resembled two carpenter's horses, with a U-shaped bracket on top of each, which supported the stretcher bars as she stitched. The portability of these supports makes it possible for her to change from one piece to another with frequency as to give her relief from the tedium of working on the same image for long periods of time. At home she has a frame that is much more stable.
She limits herself to 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch, then moves around to break the monotony and get some physical relief from the intense concentration of such extraordinary work.

The most frequent question from viewers of the exhibit is, "How do you manage to create a different picture on each side?"

Mme. Peng says that she does not draw the picture on the silk before stitching. Instead, she does a rough outline sketch on a separate piece of paper, filling in details of color so she can figure out all the color changes before she stitches. She is careful to familiarize herself with the details on paper before she begins a two-sided embroidery, so that the dimensional quality is preserved.
She then composes the actual picture in her mind, while stitching directly onto the silk. She must work in a very quiet atmosphere because of the intense concentration required to hold both images in a clear mental picture as she stitches. The outline is usually stitched first. This should be the same or a closely similar shape for both sides. If the background uses the same colors for both pictures, she will use only one needle so that the color comes through on both sides. An example of this would be in the outdoor scenes that have trees and water in the background. As she approaches the central figure in each picture, she begins to use two needles, each threaded with a different color. Although she looks on both sides of the embroidery from time to time, Mme. Peng doesn't flip-flop, but gives her attention to the more detailed side most of the time, always maintaining both images in her mind through intense concentration.

The basic stitch that she uses to achieve a different coloring on each side is the couched satin stitch. She holds down satin stitches on the upper (working) side with couching stitches from the underside. The underside thread is simultaneously making satin stitches as it travels from one couched stitch to the next. She secures the satin stitches on the underside with a couching stitch every time the needle passes from the upper (working) side to form a new satin stitch on top. This results in parallel satin stitches on the top and bottom of the work in two different colors. The couching stitches on either side are not visible because the thread is so fine.
Mme. Peng never uses knots; to finish off she sews a few stitches to hold thread in place then cuts it off flush with the embroidery. If she ever has to rip out stitches she does it very carefully by picking them out with the needle.

This exceptional method of double stitching was developed by Mme. Peng in 1980. Previous to that she spent many years in learning the refinements of silk embroidery. As a child, she loved to watch her mother embroider and often begged to be taught these skills. Her mother began instructing her between the ages of 13 and 16 and by the time Mme. Peng was 17 she became an instructor for simple stitches. At first she stitch of this flowers and birds. After a time working in a craft factory she was singled out for instruction by masters of the craft. By the age of 23 she learned to stitch human figures. This was at the Research Institute in Hunan where she is still employed. There she learned many sophisticated techniques from her master Wang Tsa Fan. He only chose twenty pupils and Mme. Peng is one of his outstanding proteges. Later, she went on learning how to embroidery beasts of all kinds. At one time she was famous for her rendering of hair and fur on animals. Mme. Peng says once you know all these basic techniques, then you can proceed to more complicated images. This she has done.

In the 1950's two-sided embroideries were very popular; at that time both sides were identical. Very few people were able to master this technique even though both sides were alike. Mme. Peng was one of these people but having a rare gift she decided to experiment further on her own. In 1980 she developed the method that she now uses to create two different embroideries simultaneously. She says her two-sided technique is the result of all the cooperative work at the Research Institute but she actually accomplished the first piece.

About twenty other people know how to embroider in this fashion since Mme. Peng has taught them. She still works for the Research Institute in Hunan where she is researching ancient embroidery methods and developing techniques of color shading. As she continues to master these techniques, she passes her knowledge to other qualified and gifted embroiderers so they, too, can teach properly, thus carrying on these rare skills.

Mme. Peng, who is in her early forties, does eye exercises every night. The Research Institute requires its employees to do such exercises daily. She credits these exercises for her ability to do such fine work at her age without glasses. (Some of the people at the Research Institute are 60 years old and still working.) Sometimes a pressure ball builds up at the bridge of her nose after stitching along time and she massages the area to relieve the pressure.

Lighting is also very important. In the factory the embroiderers work in four rows. There are huge windows, letting in the natural light, adjacent to three of the rows where the stitchers of two-sided embroideries have their work stations. In the fourth row, which is farther away from the windows, people work on one-sided embroideries only. Of course each exquisite work is precious and pictures embroidered by Mme. Peng are sold for appropriately high prices. A portrait such as that of the woman general Wha Mo-Lan would cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000. After all, 400 days is more than a year's work. During the exhibit in Chicago purchases were being arranged through the head of the Chinese Delegation, Mme. Wong.

Although these lovely embroideries are something that most of us only dream of, it was thrilling to see them and somehow, as needle workers, to identify in a small way with the woman who creates them. It is gratifying to know that Mme. Peng is teaching others and keeping the craft alive as it was 2,000 years ago during the days of the Silk Route trade from China to Egypt and Rome.


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