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Shopping Suzhou's Chinese Silk

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Suzhou is the silk capital of the world. Authentic and handmade embroidery is a traditional, local product that’s a great choice for visitors to Suzhou. Browsing is even more enjoyable when visitors are aware of the important role of Chinese embroidery through the ages, especially the significance of this region’s top craftsmanship and design.

Centuries of Skill

The earliest embroidery can be traced to the Shang Dynasty in the second millennium BC, when writing carved onto tortoise shells demonstrate the use of words such as silkworm and mulberry, indicating that the silk industry existed during the Bronze Age.

A bit of material found in Henan Province of China is said to be the earliest embroidery handicraft. Described as a rhombus in a folding waves design with twisted thread at the edge, it shows historians and experts a highly developed design technology.

The skilled manipulation of fine silk threads gave rise to the craft of embroidery, although certainly reserved for ceremonial garments worn by nobility, rather than for use by commoners. Subsequent dynasties embellished the craft, adding colors, new designs and different stitching styles.

As a noted painter, poet and calligrapher, Emperor Huizong of the 11th century Song Dynasty had embroidery themes officially divided into four categories: mountains and water, birds and flowers, pavilions, and people.

Chinese Silk Roads

From Roman times onward, Asians and Europeans developed Silk Road trade routes, attracted by the luxurious fabrics enjoyed by the wealthy. Quality silk from China was adapted for elaborately embroidered robes, brocade sofas, richly decorated pillows, tapestries, tablecloths and linens.

As the nation which invented silkworm breeding, to this day, China leads the world in the culture of traditional silk manufacturing and embroidery. It is generally agreed that some of the finest silk embroidery work comes from artisans in Jiangsu Province, notably Suzhou, known as Su embroidery.

Often handed down from mother to daughter, the skill takes decades to master and each work of art takes months to complete. The epitome of Su embroidery is the double-sided effect of two different images on either side, perfected by only a few artists.

Recognizing Silk Quality

Visitors can follow several tips regarding the quality of a silk embroidery and for spotting the differences between 100 percent handmade silk embroidery as opposed to machine-made products.

  1. In top quality embroideries, the silk threads used are as fine as 1/16 of one full silk thread. The most detailed designs by skilled artists require threads finer than a human hair.
  2. Short stitches represent higher quality, more labor and better resilience over time than longer stitches.
  3. Dozens of colors in various shades and hues of intensity assures a higher quality than an item using as few as 10 threads of different colors.
  4. Silk threads on silk satin and the use of more layers to provide visual depth and perspective are indications of quality handmade work.

Make your first stop at the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute (No.272 Jingde Road, Pingjiang District) for an opportunity to see master artisans at work on silk embroideries, including a few double-sided ones, and a retail center.