Horsetail Embroidery
Shui Ai
GuiZhou, China
Fabric Decoration

Through the mountains of southern Guizhou the road twist and turns, from Guiyang to Sandu the three hour journey has already left the hustle of the big city behind.  Instead all the way are birds singing and flowers blooming.  However what my heart really longs to see is the Shui ethnic group’s ancient and unique horsetail embroidery and I dreamed of viewing this thousand year-old craft with my own eyes.  The road becomes rougher, but more and more women can be seen wearing the traditional clothing as they walk along the road.  Also catching my attention are the people, sometimes as many as three or four women together at their doors, seated on low stools and chatting together as their needles fly and the thread runs.   You might see an old lady behind a fruit stall, or some 16 year old young girls etching the butterflies, fish, dragons or the old traditional Shui words.  There are different patterns of flowers, all coming alive under their skilful hands.

After days of inquiring, I finally track down one of the most famous masters of this craft, Shui Ai.  In front of her door are gathered more than ten women students, some of them carrying their babies and some watching their grandchildren as they work.  The youngest is sixteen.  And despite the age differences, the group's spirit of joy, community, laughter and celebration of their shared skills was tangible. I see Shui Ai patiently and repeatedly teaching her students how to wrap the horsetail threads with white silk.  She plucks three or four strands of horsetail to form the core, then uses her hands to deftly encase the fibres with the silk.  She gets faster and faster like a ballerina spinning in a pirouette but never losing her balance or concentration.  “After you have made the core, you use this heavy thread to make the outline of the pattern”, she explains.  “Then you use seven or eight coloured silk strands  to make a flat-shaped thread to fill in the pattern.”  Using cross-stitch, chain stitch and spiral stitches, her needle fills in the rich colours of traditional Shui embroidery.  This is how the real horsetail embroidery has been done, generation after generation.

Horsetail thread is hard, almost stiff, but the shape is very stable and not easy to deform, and the horsetail’s natural oils enhance the lustre and colour of the silk.  Shui Ai talks and passes samples for me to examine.  Of course the three-dimensional beauty is not only for the eye, but appeals to the touch as well.  The lines are smooth under my fingers, but surprisingly solid.  Some of the patterns are abstract or exaggerated shapes, while around the design are also attached beaten old copper coins as decoration.  It as believed that the coins were effective against evil, but they are also very durable.  Even though the butterflies are all different, they reflect the Shui women’s imagination and interpretation of the natural world.  In the traditional festivals, the men still ride their horses while the women parade these exquisite horsetail gowns, creating an extraordinarily beautiful landscape that has been replicated through the ages.  This is truly touching history.

The ancient art of horsetail embroidery is challenging work, mastered only after a long apprenticeship. From beginning to end, one piece, such as a baby carrier, might involve over fifty stages in its creation and take a year or more to complete
The first stage involves several strands of real horsetail which is then finely wrapped in white silk, all by hand. This wrapped hair will then form the design outline of the future embroidery
After the laborious process of preparing the horsetail, the artisan begins embroidering, applying the thread to the fabric using “invisible stitching.” And the stitches of a top-flight embroiderer will be all but invisible.
The utility of this sort of thread is very interesting. First, the hair makes the thread very strong and it will hold the pattern better than plain silk. Secondly, the oil secretions present on the hairs seep through the silk and help to maintain their luster and vibrancy like a natural conditioner
Shui women used to sing, weaving the memories of their ancestors into every stitch… Flowers, plants, and mystical creatures from Shui folklore are the common embroidery motifs. Butterfly patterns are woven mostly into children’s clothing or accessories. This is related to Shui beliefs that butterflies are children’s guardians. Dragons, a phoenix and fish also possess great symbolic meaning and are commonly seen on Shui handicraft.
The last distinctive element of Shui embroidery is the use of small copper disks as embellishment. For some time in Chinese history, the production of copper was forbidden. Nevertheless, the Shui still used the material to adorn the embroidery on baby carriers. Even today, Shui people believe in the mysterious properties of copper to ward off evil spirits and protect babies. It takes at least 20 copper disks to decorate one carrier.

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