Shopping Suzhou's Chinese Silk

Chinese Silk Road in the Pingjiang District
Pingjiang District

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.

Featured Tour Packages

13-Days : Gardens, Culture, History, People, and Nature

13-Days : Gardens, Culture, History, People, and Nature

Day 11 - 13 : You will visit the Urban Planning Exhibition and Shanghai Museum, a world-class museum with a collection of bronze, jade, pottery, ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, old coins, and furniture. Tour the Lingering Garden (Liuyuan) and Tiger Hill Pagoda (Huqiu Shan) including the Bonsai (Panji) Nursery on the grounds of Wanjing Villa. After lunch visit the Master of the Nets Garden (Wangshi Yuan) and Blue Wave Pavilion (Canlang Ting).

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10-Days : Idyllic Water Towns

10-Days : Idyllic Water Towns

Day 7 - 8 : Garden art is one of the region’s most famous cultural expressions, and Suzhou is home to its greatest gardens. Here the Chinese literatis have integrated architecture, water and rock, and painting into a unified spiritual expression.

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11-Days : Enchanting China

11-Days : Enchanting China

Day 9 - 10: Suzhou, which dates back to 514 BC, is sometimes called the "Venice of the East". And visit Shan Tang Street, which has always been regarded as the first name of Suzhou ancient streets. It has a long history of about 1,100 years, its layout and architecture are the best to represent the characteristics of Suzhou's old alleys, and it has connections to many ancient Chinese celebrities and anecdotes.

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Expert Tips:

Humble Administrator’s Garden is one of China’s finest, the centerpiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that comprises nine classical Suzhou gardens. Visitors during spring and summer may attend the azalea or lotus festival. Adjacent, the Suzhou Museum is the latest masterpiece of China’s most famous architect, I.M. Pei. For transportation, take tourist buses No.1, 2 or 5.

Traveling with children? Don't miss the Suzhou Amusement Park at Junji Lake with zipline ride, a dancing water fountain show on weekends and one of the world's tallest Ferris Wheels. The 60 cabins carrying a total of 300 passengers take 20 minutes per rotation, providing great views of the lake and the Suzhou skyline.

Currency in Suzhou, and throughout China, is abbreviated as CNY for Chinese Yen or as RMB for Renminbi. Along with 13 other major currencies, US dollars can be exchanged at all the outlets of the state banks of China at the same rate. Bring a passport to make any transaction.

Known as the "Silk Capital of the World", those keen to see silkworms in action can be guided through the process from mulberry leaves to finished product at Suzhou No. 1 Silk Mill. The region's temperate, subtropical zone that's ideal for deciduous mulberry trees has supported 5,000 years of silk cultivation.

Picturesque canals, stone bridges, temples, gardens and pagodas make the ancient city of Suzhou one of China's top tourism destinations. Calligraphy carved onto Tiger Hill rocks indicate that it has attracted visitors for thousands of years. A Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi, said, "It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill."

In Suzhou, the regional Chinese language is called Wu, the subgroup is called Taihu, and the local dialect, one of nine, is known as Suzhounese, considered one of the most elegant, flowing in all of China. Most people are bilingual in Mandarin used in schools, because Suzhounese is not mutually intelligible with either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Atop Tiger Hill, the Yunyan Pagoda, nicknamed the Leaning Tower of China, stands as a symbol of Suzhou. Completed during the Song Dynasty in the year 961, the 1,000-year-old pagoda is taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become a symbol of Suzhou. The 3-degree tilt means that since 2010, visitors are no longer permitted entry.

Visit an authentic Buddhist monastery and temple just 3 miles west Suzhou old town. The temple has been well-known since the Tang Dynasty of the 7th and 8th centuries. Take bus No. 3, 6, 9, 17, 21, 31, 301 or Y3 and get off at Fengqaio Station.

Suzhou Railway Station, one of China's busiest, dates back to 1906. Now throughly modernized, the fast train connection with a design speed of 217 miles per hour covers the 52 miles to Shanghai in a journey of only a 24 minutes.

One of the best ways to tour the "Venice of the East" is from a front row seat on a hand-steered canal boat. Afterwards, stop into 130-year-old Pin Von Teahouse for exotic teas served in private booths on the second floor. It overlooks Pingjiang Lu, an 800-year-old lively pedestrian street, one of China's "National Historic and Cultural Streets."