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  • Writer's pictureCherie Fehrman

Travels on the Silk Road

Travels on the Silk Road: Chinese & Japanese Embroidered Textiles

Copyrighted Cherie Fehrman, 2022. All rights reserved.

Chinese embroidered textiles often cause gasps among Western needle workers because their beauty and the obvious skill of their workmanship are simply astonishing. The Ku hsiu method of embroidery that was perfected during the Ming dynasty by the Ku family in Shanghai is recognized as the superior type for its exquisitely realistic pictures of flowers, birds, insects and butterflies. Even fine portraits were embroidered by skillful artists. Large frames were covered with pure silk satin then mounted on turntable pedestals. Next, the subject to be embroidered was penciled in very lightly. The embroiderer used tufts of floss dyed in a wide range of colors and needles so fine that they could only be gripped if the fingers were soft and uncallused. The shading that makes this embroidery spectacular was the result of using the embroidery floss like a paintbrush, overlapping strokes and changing shades or colors at will. The front and reverse sides are almost indistinguishable because the embroiderer carefully covered the ends where different colors were introduced, making knotting unnecessary. This work was so fine that its use on clothing and on embroidered scrolls that were hung in daylight have caused much of it to disintegrate, making it a rare find today.

More readily available and equally beautiful in its own way, is the embroidery done in Peking (Beijing), Canton and Hunan that was exported to Europe as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, and later made its way to the U.S. The Chinese employed all the known embroidery stitches: satin stitch, long and short stitch, stem stitch, French knot (also known as Peking stitch), drawnwork, basket weave, couching, laidwork and cutwork. We have in our collection an exquisite embroidered panel of deer and birds drinking at a stream with pine trees in which the pine trees are so finely worked that the bark and needles look almost alive. Embroidery for the Mandarin garments found in antique shops today as coats, skirts and rank badges, was mostly done in Peking. The “forbidden stitch” was employed in much of this work. A lingering mystique revolves around this stitch. It has been said it was forbidden to all but royalty, or that it was forbidden because it sent embroiderers blind, but the term simply refers to a stitch developed in the Forbidden City in Peking–the area that was off limits to all but the Emperor and his court. We currently have available pillows of exquisite workmanship in which delicately rendered butterflies and flowers are embroidered on top of pleated silk without the thread passing through the entire pleat; it appears to float on the surface. I marvel at this process in wonder, for even though I have been a needle worker since I was five years old, I have no idea how this feat was accomplished.

As we pull on our denim jeans and toss on a sweatshirt, we are light years away from the exquisite clothing of old China where a traveler of the time described a woman’s winter dressing beginning with a binding of strong flesh-colored silk from armpits to hips. She then put on a type of pyjamas of peach silk that wrapped over in pleats in back and front. Over this was worn a second suit, cut to the same pattern, of heliotrope colored satin lined with white rabbit fur. Next came white socks tucked around the legs of the pants. Ankles were then wrapped in puttees of apple-green silk satin. Then came a third pyjama suit fashioned of wine-red silk brocade warmed with an inner lining of grey squirrel. For outerwear, a sleeveless cobalt blue silk jacket lined with beaver completed the winter garb. All these garments were embroidered with elaborate renderings of birds, flowers, butterflies, bats, phoenixes or dragons. Today, few of us could afford to live in such luxurious attire, but we can still bring a little of its beauty into our lives perhaps in the wearing of an antique Mandarin coat as evening wear, or adding the exotic touch of a beautifully embroidered Chinese silk collar.

Japanese embroidered textiles and brocades can also lend a touch of exotic elegance to the home in the form of pillows and wall hangings. Japan has a long history of the textile arts. As early as the Jomon Period (11,000-300 B.C.), people used fishbone needles for simple stitchery. By the 7th century, creative stitching decorated ceremonial robes for the emperor and the nobility. However, most of the early embroideries were used for Buddhist banners, sewn by friends and relatives of a deceased person for helping him along on his way to heaven.

During the Muromachi period (1392-1568 A.D.), embroidery was used as a substitute for the more expensive brocades. This versatile form of fabric decoration appeared on kosode (an ancient form of kimono) and Noh theater costumes, which glittered with nuihaku (a combination of embroidery and imprinted gold or silver leaf). The softer silks of the Momoyama period (1568-1615 A.D.) were embellished with stitchery, using untwisted silk and gold or silver thread to create small, simple designs. By the end of this affluent era, embroidery had reached its height.

In the isolation of the Edo period (1615-1868 A.D.), the popularity of embroidered motifs increased. Embroidery was in such high demand that one shogun ordered thirty-two elaborately embroidered kimono over a period of sixteen years–considering the work involved, a formidable task. The popularity of this decorative form soon declined, however, because of its extravagance, and the simpler and less expensive method of appliqué emerged.

Japanese embroidery employs several stitches, including the French knot (sagaranui)), dating from the Nara period (645-794 A.D.); the outline satin stitch (nuikiri)); back-stitch outline (matsuinui); satin stitch (warinui); and long couched stitches (watashinui). The gold or silver thread used for couching is made by wrapping silk thread with gold or silver covered paper. This thread is applied to the fabric by stitching it down with a very thin filament. Couching was used to highlight dyed kimono and to apply the family crest (kamon) used on outer garments for family identification.

Religion played an important part in the preservation of Japanese textiles since kosode and other textiles that were considered extremely valuable and of the finest quality were donated to Buddhist temples on their owner’s death and were often inscribed on the lining or on the presentation cover by one of the temple priests. The inscription noted that the robe was a gift, and might also record the date on which it was received and the Buddhist name of the deceased. We have available in our collection a superb example of an 18th century Japanese silk ceremonial cloth approximately four feet square. Translation of Japanese characters on the lining of this piece indicates that the cloth was made for the 500th anniversary of the patron saint of Sai Nen Temple and was dedicated in September, 1760.

Antique Japanese and Chinese textiles are becoming scarce today. There is a fair number of mediocre reproduction pieces around from the 1920s and later, but the fine old pieces are rare and always in demand. Chinese and Japanese embroidery lends itself well to home decor. Panels can be framed on acid free mounting board to protect the silk from deterioration, and then framed using an ultra-violet protective plastic instead of glass to prevent sun rot. Personally, I feel part of the allure of textiles is their sensual appeal to the touch. So, we produce a line of pillows made from antique fabrics using, whenever possible, the exquisite Chinese and Japanese textiles which have been strengthened using conservation methods so that they are quite durable with reasonable care. The softly mellowed colors of the older pieces, when combined appropriately with silk backing, luxurious French and Italian trims, and feather/down fill lend an exotic yet familiar touch of elegance to both traditional and contemporary interiors. There is a near magic to the way Asian textiles can mix remarkably well in even the most unexpected decorating situations. For example, a pine daybed looks wonderful mounded with a combination of Chinese, Japanese and western textiles as long as the colors blend well together. There is an added sense of richness in mixing different periods, textures and cultures as if one has returned home after a long trip, bringing treasures from an excursion down the exotic Silk Road.

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