Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chinese Robe: Around The World From 80 Countries

My last blog post contained a photograph of the mandarin robe which is on display as part of the Benton County Museum's World Tour of Textiles exhibition. It is one of many beautiful embroidered pieces in the museum's collection.  Another Qing dynasty piece is this robe made for a lady-in-waiting at the royal court.

Both robes are made of silk satin, indicating they are meant to be worn in the colder weather. I was attracted to the intricate designs, the skilled execution, and the richness of color and sheen of the embroidery. To learn more about this Chinese art, I've been reading a library book, Silken Threads: A History of Embroidery in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam by Young Yang Chung.

I was surprised to learn that the Chinese were making silk cloth as early as 3630 BCE, based on dating of textiles found during archaeological digs. The Chinese were the only ones doing so for over 3 millennia! Embroidery is almost as ancient:  textiles from as early as the fourth century BCE are decorated with chain stitch embroidery in designs of clouds, vines, and other curvilinear patterns.
Embroiderers of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) added straight and satin stitches and used these new stitches to copy famous paintings or combined ink-wash paintings with fine thread embroidery to make wall hangings and other decorative pieces. During this period, a palace embroidery workshop
brought together 300 of the best needle workers to develop the art and train others. Over time, other workshops opened to further develop this art.

The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) accelerated the extensive use of embroidery to adorn court robes.  The designs incorporated various animals, plants, and objects, all of which carried symbolic meaning.  The peony, the “king of flowers” represents wealth and honor. Butterflies represent young love and the bond between lovers; it can also symbolize the wish for someone to have a long life.

The peonies are done in satin stitch using untwisted silk threads to create a flat shiny surface. Dimension is added with color variations. Between the petals are French knots, also called a seed stitch or the forbidden stitch.  The stitch was not actually forbidden by law but so-called because it was believed that frequent use of this tiny stitch caused blindness.

 I would have assumed that the embroidery was added after the robes were sewn together but according to Young Yang Chung, the pattern was laid out on lengths of fabric which were the stretched onto rectangular frames and embroidered.  Then the pieces were cut out and sewn together.  If you look closely at the picture showing details of this red robe, you can see that the two sections of the butterfly do not quite match up at the center seam.  For important dragon robes, the joined pieces were re-stretched and a dragon embroidered over the center seam.  

This robe was one of several items given to the donors, E. A. and Ruth Hoy, by Princess Der Ling, lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager.  My next post will tell more about the Hoys and Princess Der Ling.  

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon 

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