Exquisite Beijing Embroidery
Beijing embroidery, known as imperial embroidery, is a traditional type of Chinese embroidery and generally refers to embroidered works from Beijing that are done with Beijing style. It is one of the “Eight Palace Handicrafts.”
The Beijing Museum of Fine Workmanship is home to large numbers of intangible cultural heritage projects, including Beijing embroidery.
On November 11, 2014, Beijing embroidery was included into the fourth batch of National-level Intangible Cultural Heritage, as approved by the State Council. This workmanship has a history of over 200 years.
Entering the Beijing embroidery workshop, one will see many examples of exquisitely embroidered works. Whether a cheongsam, Chinese-style topcoat, a bed curtain or even small accessories, one will find embroidered patterns with auspicious implications. Despite its small area of about 20 square metres, this workshop is a treasure trove of embroidered Beijing handicrafts. Yao Fuying, a fourthgeneration descendent of Beijing embroidery, displays his own embroidered works, amazing visitors with their level of luxury and exquisite quality.
Beijing embroidery, also known as imperial embroidery, is a traditional type of Chinese embroidery and generally refers to embroidered works from Beijing and done with Beijing style. Beijing embroidery is one of the “Eight Palace Handicrafts.” Chinese cloisonné enamel and ivory carvings are some of the others.
Beijing embroidery can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. Beijing embroidery was mainly used to decorate apparel for emperors and
nobility. Beijing embroidery began to flourish during the Ming and Qing dynasties. There was a special agency known as the Embroidery Bureau in the royal palace of the Qing Dynasty, which hired highly-skilled embroiderers that produced embroidery exquisite in both material and style. Beijing embroidery used to be an offering to the court. It is usually made of the best satin stitched with threads of natural silk. The end product is light, soft and comfortable.
Yao Fuying explained some of the cultural implications behind Beijing embroidery: “Every figure in Beijing embroidery must have a specific meaning, which must be auspicious. Behind every fine piece of Beijing embroidery, Chinese culture can be found.” Yao started learning how to make Beijing embroidery in his teens. During the past two years, Yao has let go of this valuable handicraft for health reasons, as he is already in his 70s. The majority of Beijing embroidery works feature auspicious designs, embodying the outlooks of the craftsmen and their good wishes via symbolism, allegory and homophone.
At the entrance of Yao Fuying's workshop, one will see two bright red framed embroidered works. These are known as “Hundreds of Sons Offering Birthday Wishes” and “The Number One Scholar.” In the “Hundreds of Sons Offering Birthday Wishes,” young men are coming from many directions to wish the God of Longevity a happy birthday, who is smiling and has longevity peaches in his hand. The “Hundreds of Sons,” “The God of Longevity” and “Longevity Peaches” elements all have symbolic significance. More sons means more blessings and better longevity.
Yao explained: “Beijing embroiders emphasise lasting appeal and implied meanings. The charm of Beijing embroidery is rather interesting in many ways.”
Creating Patterns for the Bottom Area
Every piece of Beijing embroidery is handcrafted, no matter how big or how small. This is still true today, despite the increased levels of mechanisation and automation in the world. It is an important feature of Beijing embroidery.
It takes a long time to complete a piece of Beijing embroidery, and the process is very complicated.
“To produce a piece of Beijing embroidery, primer material, silk thread, embroidery needles, scissors and embroidery frames are required. Before one embroiders a silk cloth, one must be well- prepared. As the patterns that are used are rather complicated, it is indispensable to draft something in advance. Drafting means drawing the basis of an embroidery pattern. Since the primer material is soft fabric, it creases easily and can lose its shape. Therefore, the primer material should be ironed flat and fixed with needles through its corners on a worktable to ensure that it is flat and prevent any inaccuracies in the next step of draft brushing.
Once primer material is prepared, one can start drawing lines. The drafting of lines is done on a piece of paper of sufficient size, and the process needs to be done in one go. This requires embroiderers like Yao Fuying to have fine painting skills and be able to draw all kinds of complicated patterns. Once these lines are completed, the primer material is covered with a layer of vegetable paper. A fine embroidery needle is used to densely prick small holes along the contour of the draft to form a new contour of holes on the vegetable paper. After this step, one will begin the stage of draft brushing unique to Beijing embroidery.
Draft brushing involves leaving the contour of the pattern on the primer material by brushing. Specifically, a sponge that is holding volatile liquid such as gasoline is dipped in lime powder and gently brushed over the holes with even force. In this way, the lime powder will meet the primer material through the holes. Marks from the lime powder will remain, thus forming the contour of the pattern on the primer material. If the primer material is not ironed flat or fixed firmly and creases appear, the contour of the pattern may be wrong during the draft brushing, and eventually the whole piece of embroidery will become defective. This is why one must iron the primer material.
The pattern is then printed on the primer material. Subsequently, the primer material is stretched over the embroidery frame to make it flat. This step is known as decoration stretching in the industry. This
process often appears on camera in costumed dramas. When someone is embroidering, silk is stretched on a circular stretcher to flatten it. This method is used in Beijing embroidery. The primer material printed with the pattern is sewn on both sides of the embroidery frame and unfolded; then both ends of the embroidery frame are punched to allow the four sides of the primer material to be supported with a shelf, making them flat and tight enough for embroidery. When this step is done, the ropes on both sides of the frame should be bundled tightly to fix both ends. This is known as “buckling the ropes.” This process should be repeated so that the primer material is completely fixed on the frame.
In order to ensure the embroidered surface has been stretched tight enough for embroidery, after the initial stretching is done, one needs to flip back the embroidery frame, gently rub the embroidered surface to test its tightness and fix it if needed. The preparatory work for Beijing embroidery is now done.
Once the embroidery surface is stretched, the next step is preparing embroidery thread.
Undoubtedly, as a special offering to the royal family in ancient times, Beijing embroidery is made of luxurious materials. The use of precious materials such as gold, silver, pearls and peacock feathers is not uncommon. Embroidery thread is naturally dainty. “In the past, the patterns on emperors' robes were all embroidered with real gold and silver.” When referring to the history of Beijing embroidery, Yao could not help feeling proud. Today, the glory of this special offering to the royal family is a bygone memory, and there are replacements for expensive and rare materials. Thread is pastel- and enamel-coloured, and various types are used. In addition to silk thread, gold and silver are still sometimes used.
To make a vivid piece of Beijing embroidery, one has to select thread colours very carefully. Yao elaborated: “You need to think very clearly about which colour should be used in which area when making a certain pattern. You rack your brain while doing the embroidery.” It is necessary to take into account the pattern itself and the features of the colours, and select thread with different shades and temperatures. Embroidery can be naturally presented in both warm and cold colors, with a layered effect, by using varied colours and hues. Yao is familiar with every tradition of this palace craft, as his family has been doing this kind of work for four generations now. “Colours cannot be mismatched. Each colour has its own character. ‘Black represents mystery, yellow represents power, red is for happiness and blue is for nobility.' If the representative meaning is wrong, one could be beheaded in ancient times.”
When embroidery thread is ready, the next step is to split the thread. This is also unique to Beijing embroidery as compared with other embroidery. To split the thread, as the name suggests, is to split the thread into floss. After this process, extremely short fibres are produced. Split floss retains the colour of the original thread but also improves the smoothness and texture of the embroidered surface. This can be witnessed in Yao's embroidery pieces. When embroidery is observed in a well-lit area, the surface of each element from flowers to birds appears bright and radiant. When the lighting changes, the fibres react and produce different lustres, giving the embroidery a layered feeling. For example, petals may have a scarletred-pink-light pink transition from near to far. Even on a flat surface, a special, three- dimensional effect can be seen.
When the thread is split and colour matching has been decided upon, one can begin embroidering with a needle. As a necessity for making Beijing embroidery, the “appearance rate” of an embroidery needle is quite high during the process. There is an iron box on Yao's worktable with a bag of embroidery needles. Tiny embroidery needles are wrapped inside under a layer of white paper. Yao explained: “Embroidery needles are divided into many grades. The No. 12 needle commonly used for ‘ Beijing embroidery' is two centimetres long and slightly thicker than a thread of hair. It is rather hard for an ordinary
person to hold it, let alone work with it. It is rather eye- straining to put floss or gold and silver thread through the pinholes of these kinds of needles.” Yao put on his glasses, pinched a thin embroidery needle with his left thumb and index finger, and picked up a soft and spindly piece of floss in his right hand. He tried to thread the needle but failed. He was a little sad, mentioning, “I have used this kind of needle for decades. Now my eyes are rather bad, and I can't even thread a needle.”
Completing the Work
Beijing embroidery emphasises eight concepts: flat, light, neat, rhyme, harmony, smooth, fine and dense. It can be a very time-consuming process to make a finished work.
It can take hundreds of stitches to embroider a petal and tens of thousands of stitches to embroider a palm-sized flower.
Stitching can be very complicated. According to Yao, “Beginners will usually make a lot of mistakes, and their first 30 products are usually defective.” This is another demonstration of the difficulty of making Beijing embroidery.
Beijing embroidery is divided into four stitching techniques: Coiled gold embroidery, circular gold embroidery, flat embroidery and Chinese knot embroidery. Coiled gold embroidery is unique to Beijing embroidery and is generally regarded as its most representative technique. It is a very complicated method. Its embroidery threads are made of twisted pieces of gold foil. They are double-stranded threads of gold and silver filigrees, which are closely and neatly arranged along the contours of the patterns. Then, a short needle is used on the embroidery surface until the gold and silver threads are coiled over the entire pattern. This is why this technique is called coiled gold embroidery. The gold and silver filigrees must be continuous to the end, which means the thread should not break during the embroidering process. Coiled gold embroidery displays royal magnificence in every way, fully embodying the exquisiteness and elegance of court-related aesthetics. It takes a lot of practice over many years to ensure that each pattern, be it a circle or a triangle, is fully expressed when using this technique.
Circular gold embroidery also uses gold and silver thread. However, circular gold embroidery is only used for creating the contours of the full pattern. The inner stitching is decided by the embroiderer based on his or her preference. Whether it is coiled or circular gold embroidery, the embroiderer is required to estimate how long a piece of gold and silver thread is needed to complete an entire pattern. If the thread breaks or is changed during the embroidering process, the work itself will be considered to be ruined.
Compared with coiled gold embroidery and circular gold embroidery, flat embroidery is a relatively easy-to-use technique. This method is one of the most widely-used in Beijing embroidery. It is also used in many other types of embroidery. Flat embroidery emphasises neat and uniform stitching. Dense, flat stitching is applied to the primer material. There is usually only one layer. Occasionally, knot stitches or back stitches will be added to make the patterns more solid. These areas can be very small, such as depictions of lotus roots or leaf veins.
Knot embroidery involved in flat embroidery is considered to be evolved from the lock embroidery technique from ancient times, also known as knot technique. Knot stitches give the embroidery a sense of power and solidity. It involves creating lumps of knotted floss. The knots are threaded from the bottom of the primer material and twisted around the pattern several times. After that, the needle is threaded again, from top to bottom, through the primer material. A small knot will appear. The knots add peaks to the patterns. Sometimes this technique is combined with back stitches to highlight the main pattern and make a greater sense of solidity. A lot of technical ability is needed for knot embroidery. Embroiderers need to apply the same force every time they hit the knots. They must be aware of the position of the knit stitches and ensure that similar force is used between knit stitches and purl stitches. Heavier force will lead to a larger knot, and a lighter force will lead to a smaller knot. It takes a lot of skill to make knots that are even, tight, full, of equal size and height and arranged neatly and tightly to make works that are full of charm. There are at least 150 knots per square centimetre when this technique is used. Even a very skilled embroiderer can only make a patch of knots about the size of a palm. The knots must be both delicate and natural in colour transition to fully embody the unique charm of knot embroidery.
After the ironing of the primer material, the stretching of the primer material, the selection and splitting of embroidery thread and the elaborate embroidering itself, a piece of finished Beijing embroidery has finally emerged. The stretched frame needs to be disassembled also. It needs to be done carefully, slowly and gently, as Beijing embroidery can be very delicate and surfaces of finished works can be damaged easily.
Things have changed as time continues its relentless march onward. Beijing embroidery, which used to add glory to people's appearances in the old days, is now mostly seen on TV dramas. Embroidered works are now often framed and hung on walls to be appreciated. Yao stated emotionally: “Every piece of embroidery is the crystallisation of the sweat and wisdom of embroiderers and also reflects the ingenuity of the embroiderers. For various practical reasons, it is a huge challenge to inherit this craft.”
Beijing embroidery is an exquisite craft with hundreds of years of history, ripe to be carried forward by those who appreciate this artform and have the patience and skill to do so.
Drafting a pattern
Embroidering with a fine needle