Youngsters are giving life to a traditional form of embroidery as they bring in fresh perspectives, Xing Wen reports.
Male embroiderer Zhang Xue has inherited the traditional skills of Suzhou embroidery from his mother, Xue Jindi, and is revitalizing it with modern ideas and more creativity. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
On a street in Suzhou's Zhenhu town, a studio named MeWe will launch a summer course on July 20 on which Zhang Xue teaches beginners how to decorate sachets and moon-shaped fans.
The town, known as the home of suxiu, or Suzhou embroidery, boasts a longstanding culture of the craft, mainly performed by women. Zhang, the owner of the studio, is one of the few male embroiderers in the town.
Zhang, who graduated from Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, opted to take up the traditional art seven years ago instead of seeking a job in finance .
"I think we need to spread the craft, offering people a chance to learn it as a hobby," says Zhang. Apart from looking after his business, the 30-year-old volunteers as a narrator at Suzhou Museum, and provides embroidery classes for handicraft lovers.
Traditional suxiu is known for its exquisite presentation of literati paintings, and that's what Zhang's tutor, his mother, Xue Jindi, is adept at.
Xue is a local artist who has been doing embroidery for more than four decades. Some of her works were even sent to the Louvre Museum for the 19th International Cultural Heritage Show in 2013.
Explaining his role, Zhang says that while he lacks the skills and experience of his mother, he is exploring new possibilities for the handicraft.
(PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Ideas know no bounds
Displaying his creativity, Zhang portrays the solar system by using more than 20 types of stitches to distinguish one planet from the others, and simultaneously adding a touch of modernity to the designs.
Zhang says there are more than 40 stitches in Suzhou embroidery, but less than 10 are used by embroiderers in their works based on traditional subjects.
"I was wondering how to bring these stitches to life, until one day I saw a documentary on the cosmos," he says.
"Then, I thought I could use these stitches to depict the orbits, the sun's rays and the planets."
To expand the market for embroidery products, Zhang wants to embellish headphones, watches and phone shells with delicate embroidery, which is inspired by the craft of jin xiang yu - jade inlaid with gold.
"In ancient China, craftsmen attempted to use different materials harmoniously in one object," says Zhang. "So, I also try to combine embroidery with stuff other than decorative paintings."
Zhang Xue’s works: part of Four Seasons, a traditional embroidery piece. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Besides traditional crafts, Zhang also got interested in contemporary art during his trips to the United States and Europe in 2013.
"At that time, I didn't know how to appreciate contemporary art, but I thought I could get a wider vision and new direction to develop embroidery from contemporary art forms," says Zhang who applied to a postgraduate program at the School of Art at Soochow University in 2014.
Taking his idea of blending embroidery with contemporary art, Zhang has used needles and thread on a wall to create a 3D art installation titled See the Mountains.
Speaking of whether these innovations could blur the traditional features of Suzhou embroidery, Zhang says the past 2,000 years have witnessed the evolution of embroidery, which in itself is change and innovation.
"I do not impose limits on the subjects we choose, the materials we use and the forms we present," says Zhang.
"It's all about passing down the craft at the same time meeting the needs of the market."
As well as modern products — a watch and headphones — with which he embellishes the delicate embroidery art, in an effort to expand the market. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
'Old' art comes alive
Expanding on the subject, Zhang says that in 2011, when he was helping his mother contact customers, he found some clients who wanted to change the embroidery designs, which was beyond the capacity of the traditional needle workers.
"The market wanted embroiderers who were able to make something new, so, I made the decision to steer my career in that direction," he says.
At that time, according to Zhang, youngsters seldom chose to join the industry as people of his generation were exposed to more opportunities after graduating from universities.
"However, attitudes to traditional craftsmanship have been changing," says Zhang.
"Now, many of the embroidery masters' children are back in their hometown to pick up embroidery as a profession."
But Zhang says people should deliberate over whether they are suited for the job before venturing down that path.
"You need to be talented and patient to be an embroiderer," says Zhang.
However, he adds there are many other jobs in the embroidery business where people can display their capabilities.
"So, we would like to see youngsters find their roles in the industry."
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