SanLin Embroidery
Fabric Decoration

Sanlin embroidery, also called Jun embroidery, is deeply rooted in Shanghai Pudong.  700 years ago, during the Qing dynasty, this type of embroidery was brought to Shanghai by Gu Lanyu the great-granddaughter of Gu Mingshi - the originator of the style.  The form intermingled with local elements to become something new.  A  European painterly style is a key element of this type of embroidery, and it features intricate, colourful and delicate tracing.  Sanlin embroidery has adorned clothing made for Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, former president Ronald Reagan and Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

Step into the exhibition room on the ground floor and the air is so quiet that the old saying “you could hear a pin drop” is literally true!  The embroiderers are gentle, quiet, graceful women.  Upon seeing me, they nod their heads in greeting, then turn back to the work at hand.  I see they use their needles to paint, very much focusing on the reality and accuracy of what they are drawing.  Two vivid dragons look so real they might burst to life.  When I ask them how they choose their colours, the virtuoso artisan Kang Meili explained.  “When we were young girls we did this every day.  But silk embroiderers work within a fairly restricted palette of colours.  After all unlike a painter we cannot mix colours to produce another.  Instead we were taught to put carefully selected shades adjacent to each other, then we can produce subtle changes in tone by the proximity of the strands.  In this way our work might remind the viewer of 17th century Dutch painters with the fineness of the detail and their almost microscopic attention to accuracy.  We work at times with but a single strand of silk, and like the Dutch artists we often work piecemeal and with more than one person completing different parts of the same piece.”

The women’s soft and slender fingers make the needles fly.  Dainty, elegant hands must be a prerequisite for these embroiderers working with threads almost too delicate to see.  The threads momentarily appear, then become only faintly discernible as they blend with the rest of the patterns and colours of the design.  If you understand the thread connecting the fingers and the soul, then you might understand the embroidery too.  A sunset glimpsed through the willow’s verdant green, the southern bridge spans the tiny river upon which charming women remember with nostalgia their home town with its spring flowers, the summer moon, autumn’s chill winds and the winter snow…

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