The National Silk Museum in Hangzhou had a small number of embroideries made by several ethnic minorities on display. After last week's book review on the textile traditions of one of these minorities, the Miao (Hmong), I thought it a good idea to share my pictures with you!
First up is an embroidered apron worn by women of the Dong minority. The Dong are matrilinear people from the south of China. The embroidery on this apron consists of brightly coloured satin stitches (possibly over a cut paper template) and some applique. The pattern is made up of stylised flowers and the sun symbol (probably the swirls; Chinese explanations at museums are notoriously vague ...). Other parts of the apron consist of strips of wax-resist dyeing.
Unfortunately, the only thing stated on this apron is that it was worn by an ethnic minority from Guizhou province. What I understand from the museum's description is that this is a single panel and that several of these embroidered panels would make up the actual apron. Do you see all these white buttonhole wheels? There are also chain stitches and knots. I think they used chain stitches to create the star shapes on the left and the maple leaves on the far right. Quite a clever and visually pleasing piece, I think!
This panel was embroidered by the Ge people who also live in Guizhou province and who are officially considered to be a sub-group within the Miao. This piece mainly consists of outlines stitched with fine and very regular chain stitches. There is also some back stitch and some satin stitch visible.
This piece of clothing (called 'braces' in the description) was also embroidered by the Ge people. It is again covered with very regular chain stitches and interspersed with satin stitches. The regularity of both pattern and stitching is absolutely stunning!
The last piece on display was an embroidered shawl made by the Miao. The geometric pattern is based on an old song and represents flower beds. The stitching is entirely done in a form of long-armed cross-stitch.
This is even a better close-up of the flower bed pattern. The movement created with the stitching is absolutely sublime! Keep staring at it and see how many different patterns you are able to see :).
Book review: One Needle, One Thread: Miao (Hmong) embroidery and fabric piecework from Guizhou, China
I was given this lovely book about ethnic embroidery from China by the lady who organised my teaching trip to China last year. This book on an interesting topic has a rather special and highly pleasing visual concept as well. Although it is not your classic project book, the step-by-step photographs and descriptions mean you can easily recreate particular stitches and patterns. Especially for those of you who are already adept at wielding a needle, there is a lot of 'new stuff' in this book which will make your hands itch.
The book is written by Dr. Tomoko Torimaru, a Japanese woman who studied Chinese textiles at the University of Shanghai, China. She is the daughter and research-associate of her mother Dr. Sadae Torimaru. Together they have studied the textile traditions of the Miao and related ethnic groups for many decades. They are both well-known and respected textile researchers and deserve to be more widely known among Western embroiderers as well. Full details of the book: Torimaru, T., 2008: One Needle, One Thread: Miao (Hmong) embroidery and fabric piecework from Guizhou, China, University of Hawai'i Art Gallery, ISBN: 978-1-60702-173-5.
And this is what a typical two-spread from the book looks like. Many detailed pictures with explanatory text. In this particular case, the darning stitch is worked from the back in order to protect the finished embroidery. One needs great skill to not make a mistake when carrying threads or otherwise the pattern on the front will show a mistake. There are several embroidery techniques detailed in the book where the embroideress works from the back to avoid soiling the finished embroidery.
Throughout the book, you will learn about the myriad ways of pattern design and transfer. I am blown away by the fact that some paper-template cutters are so skilled that they do not need to make an outline drawing prior to cutting ... There are also many 'recipes' in the book for making starch and thread conditioner from local plants. You'll be amazed at how often the silk threads for embroidery are conditioned to behave during embroidery. I am always quite reluctant to use thread heaven or the like on my silk threads. I usually talk them into submission (with various degrees of success, I must admit).
Another thing I was reminded by when reading the book from cover to cover, is how ingenious people are. We can be one heck of a clever naked ape! For the Miao, embroidering their folk costumes is typically done in between other tasks. When waiting or tending the family, for instance. There's often no ergonomic position to be had or good lighting. Slate frames or hoops for perfect tension? How about using your knees and thighs instead? And it is almost always an activity you'll share with other females. Knowledge transferred from mother to daughter. Underlining and taking pride in one's ethnic identity one peaceful stitch at a time!
Jessica M. Grimm
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