CHINESE EMBROIDERY COURSE IN SUZHOU from Sally Kahler

An article from Textile Society of Hong Kong

When I moved to Hong Kong six years ago I was already a textile enthusiast but had focused more on weaving than embroidery. My first trip into China was with the Textile Society of Hong Kong and as we explored the cloths of Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou I admired the intricate brocades and extremely fine kesi weaves but it was the beautiful embroidery that increasingly caught my eye. 

Chinese embroidery has a history that dates back 4000 years. By the Tang dynasty (618-OO7AD) it had been refined to such an extent that it took on a painterly quality made possible by using an array of stitches and a colorful palate of very fine silk. I soon started collecting the small pockets and purses popular in the Qing dynasty. They were small textile pieces that depicted auspicious motifs or scenes from Chinese stories and were presented as gifts at New Years and special celebrations. The purses served a wide range of uses with specific shapes for fans, seals, watches, eyeglasses, lucky amulets etc. 

The purses provided inspiration for design to create my own embroideries but I knew that I was a novice trying to duplicate very sophisticated works of art. Last spring I noticed an advertisement in a textile publication for a Chinese embroidery course given in Suzhou, China. I quickly signed up for the September, 1999 course.

Eight women from seven countries gathered in Suzhou for the first session at the China International Training Center for Weaving and Embroidery. Turid Uthaug the director of the Danish Weaving Center and an expert on Chinese Textiles had spent years planning and negotiating all the details involved in having foreigners participate in what had previously been exclusively taught to Chinese. 

We were welcomed to The Silk Museum by their director Professor Qian Xiao Ping where the classes were held and taught by experts in weaving and embroidery. The Silk Museum has excellent exhibits of ancient textiles, a room of silk worms, and a mulberry tree garden. The best room includes working demonstrations with skilled craftsmen reeling silk, creating embroidery, kesi weaving, weaving brocade on a draw loom, and weaving velvet on another draw loom where the pile is cut after every couple of weft picks. These exhibits would be visited again and again by the participants.

Six of us concentrated on embroidery and two focused on kesi weaving. All of us were surprised and delighted by the piles of silk thread for us to choose from for our sample and practice work. There were hundreds of colors, every imaginable hue and shade. The workdays were divided into morning and afternoon work sessions with a half-hour break each session devoted to the learning of Tai Chi. We all looked forward to this challenging change of focus and stretching movements. 

The students working on embroidery spent hours practicing the basic stitches including satin, filling stitch, knots, back stitch, scattered stitch, and chain stitch. We were shocked to learn that the already thin silk thread could be subdivided into 40 strands and then threaded into an impossibly small needle (similar to a #12 between). We started with the satin stitch and practiced until the stitches started to lie evenly side by side. We spent four days creating a sample of stitches and color shading. 

When I saw how little I accomplished after hours of diligent stitching I appreciated the Chinese embroideries all the more. The weavers spent four days practicing the laying in of well colors in varied shapes working up eventually to a perfect curve. Then we were ready to create our own pieces.

Many of us had brought pictures for inspiration. These were copied onto the silk cloth that was pulled tautly over a floor frame. We then chose the silk threads we would use to execute the design. The next five days were spent on those individual designs. The discipline of sitting and stitching for hours a day was a unique experience for me and I enjoyed the quiet focus of placing thread after thread surrounded by and participating in the lively chatter of the other women and our Chinese teachers. At the same time the weavers were working on two harness floor looms slowly creating their designs in kesi weaving.

The teachers were frequently called upon to demonstrate stitches or determine what stitch would be appropriate for a particular design. We were blessed with capable translators who helped with any communication difficulty. During the week we took some sightseeing trips to the studio of a master kesi weaver, the silk embroidery institute, and Tiger Hill pagoda where we enjoyed a Chinese cultural show. 

The participants stayed at Nanvuan Guesthouse surrounded by beautiful gardens and conveniently located on the famous Suzhou antique shop Street. Now you know what we did in the evenings. Suzhou is a beautiful city. Many of its ancient gardens remain and are open to the public. The city is becoming modem at an astonishing rate and yet much of the old chami of a city built hundreds of years ago on canals remains.

What a privilege to spend ten days sharing Chinese art and culture with teachers who willingly shared their knowledge and themselves. The weaving and embroidery session will be run again in Suzhou in April and September 2000.



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