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Xiang Embroidery

An Introduction to Xiang Embroidery

Xiang embroidery is considered one of the four great embroidery styles of China, and has been practiced in China for hundreds of years. The Xiang embroidery style originated in the Hunan province of China, where examples of embroidery have been found which date back more than 2,300 years. While other styles strive for perfection in their craftsmanship, Xiang embroidery is far more akin to folk art with its loose threads and rich colors.  Xiang embroidery is still produced today, and is popular throughout China and around the world. 

The history of Xiang embroidery starts in the Chu Kingdom, around the third century B.C. However, the Xiang embroidery style that is most familiar to modern audiences developed during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).  Because of its relatively late introduction, Xiang embroidery has enjoyed the benefits of being able to borrow stylistic elements from the older Su and Yue embroidery styles.  But despite this cross pollination of styles, Xiang embroidery embodies many unique characteristics that mark it a style all on its own. 

Xiang embroidery is done on transparent chiffon silk. The silk threads are dyed and then soaked in water containing pod nuts – the oil in these nuts tends to make the thread soft and easy to work with.  There are several distinct needling techniques used, the random or uneven nature of this needling means that colors and textures are often mixed together with great effect.  The most famous examples of Xiang embroidery use tigers as their subject. Birds, landscape scenes, and people can also be used as subjects – one of the characteristics of Xiang embroidery is that animals and people seem to be alive, thanks to the vibrant colors and often almost three dimensional effect created by the thick knots and stitching. Xiang embroidery pieces are often two sided, with different patterns or images on each side of the transparent chiffon. 

As to the material, Xiang embroidery uses pure silk, hard satin, soft satin, glass yarn and nylon, which are connected with colorful silk threads. The thin silk thread can be divided into up to many strands that are barely visible. The embroider can split the hair-thin colored silk thread into filaments--half, quarter, 1/12, 1/64 or more of its original thickness and uses these to create subtle and refined visions of beauty. The stitches are very disciplined and critical. The various colored threads are mixed together showing a gradual change in color with a rich and harmonious tone. Xiang embroidery is high detailed and there is more handwork involved to complete these artistic pieces.

The designs of Xiang embroidery mostly derive from traditional Chinese paintings, landscapes, portraits, flowers, birds and animals or famous western oil paintings. It features techniques of painting, engraving, inscription, calligraphy and embroidery.

Absorbing the spirit of Chinese paintings, Xiang embroidery reaches a high artistic level. It is the kind of painting with needles. A flower seems to send off fragrance, a bird seems to sing, a tiger seems to run and a person seems to breathe in Xiang Embroidery. Tigers appear strong and bold, revealing their power and menace as the king of animals.

Xiang embroidery is famous for its rich color gradient and short stitches. There are over 700 different thread colors and over 100 different stitch techniques can be used by embroiders. Xiang embroidery uses 16 shades for each color, so the color looks much richer. Shorter stitches mean more work, and thus better details in the embroidery.

Recently a new technique of double-faced embroidery, in which images and colors are all different on double sides of one transparent silk material, has become popular. It shows how stunning embroidery can be and how amazingly the techniques have evolved. This is really unbelievably beautiful Chinese traditional art. Xiang embroidery has won awards from several international fairs. Xiang Embroidery works were honored as embroidery masterpieces.

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