Suzhou Embroidery

Yushu, Qinghai
Producer: Dawa Drolma
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
[Catalog No. CFV11273; © 2017 Smithsonian Institution]

Suzhou, or Su, embroidery is named for the garden city in Jiangsu Province that has long been the center of the country’s silk trade. With its dense, fine needlework and depictions of idealized landscapes, this craft has been a source of local identity and pride—even as Suzhou developed into one of the country’s largest centers of high-tech manufacturing. Working with dyed silk thread split into extremely fine strands, embroiderers create images so finely detailed that they resemble paintings. Used as decorative wall hangings, Su embroidery is sustained in part through formal training programs and commercial industry. Su embroidery became a favorite in the court of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and was used for royal clothing and wall decorations. Su embroidery remains popular today, and now is used for general-use products such as handbags. Su embroidery traditionally features birds and flowers, as well as scenes from nature and ancient Chinese paintings. Perhaps most famous of all is Suzhou’s double-sided embroidery where a single image, or even different images, can be viewed from either side of a piece.

Questions for Discussion

  • What embroidery tools and materials do you see artisans using in the video?
  • Look at this formal court robe, an example of Suzhou embroidery, from the Qing dynasty in the Freer Gallery collection. Try out the zoom feature and notice as much detail as you can in the embroidered patterns. How does this object compare to the embroidery you saw in the video?
  • Have you ever tried sewing or embroidery? Look up some simple embroidery stitches online and try them out. What was it like? Was it easier or more difficult than you thought?