Cloths, Threads & Designs in China’s Old Embroideries
In past centuries, everything in a Chinese household was covered in embroidery. Clothing, accessories, and household furnishings were all adorned with embroidered symbols.
These symbols were always auspicious and designed to protect the wearer and occupants from harm and to foster good fortune in the family home.
Designs For Old Chinese Embroidery
Drawings, especially of flowers, in books of woodcuts, were used as a reference, where the styles and arrangement of colors and patterns were set out. Rice paper-cuts, made to be pasted onto the paper windows found in many Chinese homes, was also used as a base for the design. The paper cuts were moved around until a pleasing arrangement was reached. They were then tacked down and the designs embroidered over until the paper was completely covered and sewn into the fabric. Alternatively, the edge of the design was sewn round as an outline and the paper ripped out.
Stencils of the most popular patterns were made, and in large embroidery studios, there was a selection of cardboard templates used to give uniformity in design, to assist in the placing of the design, and to save time.
Base Cloth for Embroidering
The cloth for embroidering upon was usually silk, of all weights from gauze to satin. Everyone in the family learned to embroider. Men worked standing up at an embroidery frame made of bamboo suspended from the wall, with the material to be worked on stretched tightly across it. Women sat with the frame supported by their legs, their bound feet preventing them from standing for any length of time. Even the children were called upon to help contribute to the family income.
Embroidery Threads and Colors
Embroidery threads were bought from peddlers who walked the narrow streets announcing their wares by twirling a rattle. They carried small drawers of every shade of floss and twisted silk imaginable. Aniline dyes were invented in 1856 in England and reached China around 1870; before that time all dyes used were made from plants.
These chemical dyes produced colors previously unknown, and bright pink, lime green, and orange supplanted softer, more mellow vegetable dyes. Silver and gold threads were said to have a special coating which prevented them from tarnishing in the heat and humidity. Short fine needles were used, made of ivory or bone at first, then later of steel.
Many of the embroidery stitches used are familiar to embroiderers in the west today. Couching anchored the metal threads which could not be sewn directly as they might break or split the silk fabric. Counted stitch, also called tent stitch, was good for covering large areas of the background. Satin stitch, in use for over three thousand years, was an important part of an embroiderer’s repertoire. The stitches had to be very flat and even to give the characteristic satin smooth appearance. Stem stitch was used to outline a design and for fine detailing.
One stitch, which still fascinates western embroiderers, is the Peking knot, otherwise known as seed stitch. In Chinese, Dazi means `making seeds’ due to the smallness and evenness of the stitch. Formerly it was often called forbidden stitch, or blind stitch, as it was said to ruin the eyesight of the embroiderers. The stitch was used to give a soft texture, to fill in small areas, or to define details. Another, Pekingese stitch, resembles a Peking knot but it is formed when a backstitch is interlaced with a looped second thread.
Many examples turn up in markets in China and in antique shops in the West and the symbolism and exquisite workmanship continue to give pleasure today. Books on Chinese dress will give more information on this fascinating topic.