What is Su Embroidery?
Su embroidery (su xiu 苏绣) is the most celebrated of the four main styles of Chinese silk embroidery, hailing from Suzhou and surrounding towns of Jiangsu province. Renowned for its subtle and refined needlework, Su embroidery is praised for its use of the finest threads, balanced compositions, dense stitching and smooth finish.
Compared to the other three embroidery styles — Xiang of Hunan; Shu of Sichuan and Yue of Guangdong, Su embroidery is characterized by distinct stitching techniques, use of split silk threads and a breadth of art themes.
Su Embroidery Stitching
Evolving over 2,500 years, Su embroidery has developed from 10 basic stitches to more than 40. Two well–regarded techniques are ‘even embroidery’ (ping xiu 平绣) and ‘random embroidery’ (luanzhen xiu乱针修).
‘Even embroidery’ stresses uniformity, and the avoidance of overlapping threads. Fine and neat, it is also known as ‘delicate embroidery’ (xixiu 细绣). Within this category, the primary technique is ‘neat stitch’ (qizhen 齐针) stitching that uses smooth lines of thread in the same length. The stitches can either be vertical, horizontal and oblique in qizhen.
Other methods that use even stitch lengths are ‘gradient stitch’ (qiangzhen 抢针) and ‘layer stitch’ (taozhen 套针). ‘Gradient stitch’ is used for flowers and butterflies and ‘layer stitch’ for highly detailed petals, animal tails and bird feathers.
‘Prodding stitch’ (souhezhen 擞和针) on the other hand is freer, and is used to achieve a greater photorealism in flowers and birds. Similarly, ‘thickening stitch’ (shizhen 施针) mimics animal fur and rolling clouds in the sky.
Breaking the tradition of ‘even embroidery’, ‘random embroidery’ was developed by Su embroidery master, Shouyu Lv in the 1930s. As opposed to neat, parallel stitches, she used oblique and crossing lines of different colors of thread, layering them to form figures, animals and scenery. In this method not only is uniformity discouraged, but also threads other than silk are welcomed. ‘Random embroidery’ methods are often used in silk embroideries that resemble Western oil paintings, bringing greater expressiveness to the pieces.
Traditionally handed down from mother to daughter, Su embroidery is an art form that takes decades to master. From design and stitching to mounting and framing, a single piece of handmade Su embroidery art usually takes months to create.
Su Embroidery Threads
The use of varying thread thickness is another important characteristic of Su embroidery. Silk is predominantly used, and the threads usually are as fine as human hair. Su embroiderers usually split each silk strand into thinner threads –in half, in quarters, eighths, sixteenths and so on.
Finer threads allow for more delicate embroideries, and require greater mastery of stitching techniques. Of the Suzhou embroidery masters, Jinzhen Gu was known to split a single silk strand into 96 finer threads within 3 minutes; her unique ability was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records.
Different thread thicknesses are used to embroider different subjects. A thinner thread is used for tails of goldfishes, to capture its swift dexterity. Thicker threads may be used for the gold fish body, stones of trunks of trees however.
Over time, Su embroidery has come to adopt the use of different materials aside from silk, such as cotton, nylon and gold. Their uses depend on the subjects of embroidery and the effects sought after.
Of the four major styles of embroidery, Suzhou embroidery is renowned for using the finest threads to achieve subtle and elegant works of art.
Su Embroidery Themes
Su embroidery art traditionally feature birds and flowers, scenes from nature and ancient Chinese paintings. Over the various dynasties the themes of Suzhou embroidery have developed to suit the tastes of the time.
From the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), birds such as peacocks, ducks and the mythical phoenix were popular embroidery motifs. Flowers paired with butterflies, dragonflies and bees were popular, as were swimming koi fish, galloping horses and tigers.
With increasing contact to the West and their artistic styles, Su embroidery adopted many of their portraiture and oil painting techniques. Today, it is not uncommon to see Suzhou embroidery of impressionist paintings, lifelike portraits or contemporary oriental art.
Double-sided Su Embroidery (shuang mian xiu, 双面绣)
Perhaps most famous of all is Suzhou’s double-sided embroidery, where a single image can be viewed from either side of a piece or even different images on each side.
Double-sided embroidery is the most complex of all embroidery methods. A fine gauze or near transparent silk cloth is used and the artist must first plan the design and stitching techniques thoroughly before beginning a piece. Instead of tying knots, the embroiderer stitches over the ends of the threads, weaving them into the needlework. This is done in two layers–first using short stitches to hide the ends, and then with longer stitches to conceal the short stitches within the final artwork. Done well, the result is immaculate embroidery from any angle.
Even more complex are double-sided embroideries with different images on each side. These require the artist to simultaneously embroider two different patterns, using one needle. Where colors on both sides are to be the same, a single thread may be used. However, where different colors are needed, the embroiderer uses two threaded needles, stitching in one style above, and in another below.
Double-sided embroidery is undoubtedly the epitome of Su embroidery as an art.
History and Development of Su Embroidery
The first records of embroidery in Suzhou date back as far as the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). The embroideries served minor decorative uses, on clothing and household items.
Embroidery in Suzhou reached its maturity as a folk craft during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and began to win acclaim in the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD) that followed. Most notable of all was the highly detailed, silk embroidered ‘Map of the Kingdoms’ commissioned by the Wu Kingdom emperor, which revealed the advanced embroidery techniques of the time.
By the Song dynasty (960-1279) needles as thin as hair were used in Su embroidery, producing refined works of art that rivaled paintings. A wealth of new embroidery techniques and tools were developed in this period, and even combined with calligraphy and painting to become a recognized art in and of itself. From this period on, Suzhou began to develop into a center of silk production and related crafts.
During the ensuing Ming dynasty (1368-1644), embroidering became so common in Suzhou that many families raised silk worms in their own homes. The embroideries of the time were often inspired by traditional Chinese paintings. Indeed Su embroiderer’s stunning replicas gave rise to the term ‘painting by needle’.
With the onset of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Su embroidery was revered across China. Suzhou was officially pronounced the “City of Embroidery” and its embroideries favored by the imperial family. At the time, 65 specialist embroidery workshops were active in Suzhou and beyond royal commissions they produced an ever-growing spectrum of embroidered goods including clothing and shoes, quilts and cushions. Embroidered paintings too became popular collectors items, with master embroiderers from Suzhou gaining prominence.
This vibrant period also gave birth to new kinds of embroidery and techniques. In mid Qing dynasty, the famous double-sided Su embroidery came into being where a single embroidered image is viewed from both sides of the cloth and the ends of threads are invisibly woven into the final piece. This new kind of embroidery marked the height of Suzhou embroidery craftsmanship.
Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese came into increasing contact with the West. This offered further sources of inspiration for embroidery artisans, particularly those in Suzhou. An acclaimed master embroiderer, Shou Shen (alias Xue Huan) studied oil paintings and incorporated their use of light and texture into her embroidery artwork. In so doing she introduced new techniques into Su embroidery for true-to-life portraiture. Her famous works include a portrait of Christ, an Italian queen and American actress–all of which brought her and Suzhou embroidery international accolades.
However her greatest gift to the Su style of embroidery was to publish the ‘Embroidery Book by Xue Huan’ (xue huan xiu pu, 雪宦绣谱) with Zhang Jian, a textile industrialist with a passion for art. It was the first book to record the techniques of Su embroidery, including ten new techniques she developed herself.
With the fall of the Qing dynasty and socio-political unrest that ensued in the early 1900’s, the embroidery industry fell into disarray. Only after 1949 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was there an attempt to revive the craft of silk embroidery through the promotion of Su embroidery courses to women in villages. Sadly these efforts were short-lived, as the social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw traditional fine arts near to eradicated and workshops destroyed in the name of modernizing the country.
Finally, with China’s reopening to the world beginning in the 1980’s, Su embroidery and other artisan crafts have slowly resurfaced. Today, central and local governments have established specialist Su embroidery research centers, workshops and museums in a bid to revive the art form. Co-curricular silk embroidery classes in primary and middle schools as well as a diploma course in the Suzhou Academy of Fine Arts, try to draw the interest of today’s young to the ancient craft.
Thanks to these efforts, new embroidery techniques and styles have since been developed and older techniques refined. Modern rendering and embroidering technologies have found their place in workshops too. As Su embroidery evolves, so too have themes and subjects of the artwork changed. Today Suzhou embroideries are available in various themes from the traditional birds and flowers of the Song dynasty, to lifelike replicas of well–known Western masterpieces, and oriental works of modern art.
What has not changed is its use of infinitely fine and delicate threads, intricate and expressive needlework that never fails to take a viewer’s breath away. It’s no surprise that Su embroidery continues to intrigue art lovers worldwide.