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Eastern and Western Embroidery: A Tale of Two Tapestry Traditions

“Modern Chinese embroidery art not only upholds the essence of ancient Chinese traditional embroidery, but also assimilates the characteristics of traditional Western embroidery techniques and Western painting styles, giving rise to a novel trend in modern Chinese embroidery techniques epitomized by Shen embroidery and random stitch embroidery.

During the biannual London Textile Fabrics Exhibition (held in January and September), an array of fabrics, exuding elegance and grandeur, captivate fabric enthusiasts in various forms.

Britain boasts a plethora of traditional embroidery types, including crosses, vestments, vestment embroidered ribbons, white linen robes and hooded shawls, cloak-style robes, sacrificial vestments, ribbons, socks, and more, intended for religious attire. Regardless of size or purpose, embroidery has symbolized status, opulence, and extravagance since medieval times. Each embroidered masterpiece encapsulates historical events intertwined with religion, commerce, and craftsmanship.

The History of Needlework and Embroidery

Among my fellow doctoral classmates at the Crown Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, there is a peer who hails from the esteemed Royal Academy of Embroidery. She enlightened us about the historical tapestry of British embroidery during a seminar. Historically, British wool exports played a pivotal role in propelling the growth of British trade. It is said that, in the 13th century, four embroiderers toiled for four years to complete a decorative cover adorning an altar. The embroidery industry was regulated by guilds, demanding apprentices to dedicate themselves to rigorous training for a minimum of seven years before attaining the status of embroiderers. Embroidery work predominantly took place during daylight hours to ensure the precision of meticulous stitches in terms of direction and hue.

The split stitch, a venerable British embroidery technique, imparts both tightness to the overall pattern and achieves a rich and nuanced gradient effect in color (sometimes rivaling the three-dimensional quality found in paintings). Another stitching method demanding exceptional technical proficiency is gold thread embroidery, allowing gold and silver threads with sufficient strength and pliancy to traverse the fabric surface with remarkable flexibility. This stitching technique gives rise to the commonly observed golden and resplendent motifs adorning traditional garments.

Western embroidery and Eastern embroidery diverge significantly in styles and forms. In the East, embroidery artisans rely predominantly on stitches and patterns to convey vivid effects in their creations. They deftly employ long and short needles, trocars, and other stitching techniques to meticulously depict flowers, birds, figures, landscapes, and other scenes in a detailed and realistic manner. In Europe, embroidery craftsmen excel at utilizing diverse materials for embellishment, such as pearls, polished shells, gemstones, metals, embroidery threads, and more. They transcend the confines of stitches and prioritize the artistry of materials, harnessing the potential of the embroidery ground. Silk, linen, cotton, wool, and even metal find wide-ranging applications in the realm of embroidery.

The Bayeux Tapestry, crafted by English embroiderers (also known as the “Bayeux Tapestry”), stands as an exceptional exemplar of medieval embroidery craftsmanship. This tapestry diverges greatly from mainstream medieval embroidery, lacking opulent embroidery patterns, intricate stitching techniques, or lavish decorative materials. Instead, it employs the simple lock stitch method to document special historical events in a straightforward manner.

Measuring a total length of 70 meters (currently 68 meters) and width of 0.49 meters, the tapestry chronicles the Norman invasion and conquest of England in 1066 by the Normans residing in northern France. Scholars estimate that the tapestry was created between 1064 and 1066. The artwork depicts scenes of soldiers engaged in battle, King Harold’s funeral ceremony, coronation ceremony, banquets, shipbuilding scenes, a sailing fleet, and the deaths of two kings (Harold and Edward). It also portrays Norman knights, English infantry, and battlefield skirmishes.

Over 70 scenes unfold on the tapestry akin to comic strips. The embroidery employs linen as its foundation and is meticulously stitched with wool thread. The scenes depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry exude vivid realism and superb craftsmanship. Basic expressive stitching techniques, such as twisted threads, flat embroidery, and net embroidery, saturate the composition. The patterns depicted are lifelike and vibrant, evoking strong artistic expression through the interplay of colored threads and the meticulous filling of stitches. Simultaneously, it reflects the simplicity and unadorned nature of documentary embroidery craftsmanship at the time, focusing on capturing the realism and engaging qualities of the imagery. Upon examination, the author noticed that certain parts of the soldiers’ armor were embroidered with numerous white circles, lending a whimsical touch. Nevertheless, the embroidery as a whole emanates a solemn aura. This art form facilitated storytelling and possessed remarkable value as a collectible during that era.

The Bayeux Tapestry portrays over 600 characters, alongside numerous animal and plant motifs and nearly 2,000 Latin characters. It stands as the longest narrative commemorative tapestry of itskind and is recognized as a UNESCO Memory of the World. Its historical and cultural significance cannot be overstated.

In modern times, embroidery continues to thrive as both a traditional craft and an artistic expression. Contemporary embroidery artists draw inspiration from both Eastern and Western traditions, merging techniques and styles to create unique and innovative works. Chinese embroidery, in particular, has undergone a revival and transformation, blending traditional Chinese embroidery techniques with Western influences.

Shen embroidery is one prominent style of modern Chinese embroidery. It originated in Suzhou, China, and is known for its meticulous craftsmanship and intricate designs. Shen embroidery often features delicate and lifelike depictions of flowers, birds, and natural scenery. Skilled artisans employ a wide range of stitches, including satin stitch, long and short stitch, seed stitch, and split stitch, to create detailed and textured compositions. The use of silk threads in various colors adds vibrancy and depth to the embroidered pieces.

Random stitch embroidery, also known as freehand embroidery, is another modern Chinese embroidery technique that has gained popularity. This style deviates from the strict guidelines of traditional embroidery and allows artists to express their creativity freely. Instead of following predetermined patterns, random stitch embroidery involves improvisation and spontaneity. Artists use a combination of stitches, colors, and textures to create abstract or impressionistic designs. The emphasis is on the artistic expression rather than the precise replication of objects or scenes.

Both Shen embroidery and random stitch embroidery showcase the fusion of traditional Chinese embroidery techniques with contemporary artistic sensibilities. These styles have garnered recognition and appreciation both within China and internationally, contributing to the rich tapestry of modern embroidery art.

The history of embroidery is a testament to the enduring appeal of this art form. From medieval British embroidery to the Bayeux Tapestry to modern Chinese embroidery, each era and culture has left its mark on the development and evolution of embroidery techniques and styles. Today, embroidery continues to thrive as a cherished craft and a form of artistic expression, bridging the gap between tradition and innovation.

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