Every ethnic group of China has its own unique way of designing and adorning their costumes and textiles. For centuries a special traditional type of embroidery, horsetail embroidery, has been kept alive by the Shui women in Guizhou province, southwest China. The horsetail embroidery is a special craft which uses horsetail hair as a main raw material for embroidery, and is passed down from generation to generation by women of Shui Nationality.
The horsetail embroidery of Shui Nationality has an untraceable origin. Shui legend says that when one of the ancestors groomed his horse prior to a race, a lot of horse hair fell to the ground. His wife thought it would be a shame to leave these strong and glossy hairs unused. She collected them and started to use those hairs in her embroideries along with silk threads.
Horsetail embroidery is a hard, time-consuming craft. Girls begin learning embroidery at about 5 or 6 years old. Some of them spend 10 years on a single embroidery piece, which is specially prepared for their wedding.
There are a variety of unique skills and methods involved in this craft. The first step is to take 3 to 4 pieces of horsetail hairs as the core, around which white silk threads are tightly wrapped by hand, making pre-made embroidery threads akin to bass strings. The second is to use the threads to embroider the outline of traditional embroideries and paper-cut patterns. The third is to make flat colored threads with 7 colored silk threads and use them to fill the inside area of the coiled embroidery patterns. The fourth is to complete the rest using such ordinary techniques as flat embroidery, cross-stitch embroidery, random stitch, skipped stitch, etc.
Flowers, plants, and mystical creatures from Shui folklore are the common embroidery motifs. Butterfly patterns are woven mostly into children’s clothing or accessories. This is related to Shui beliefs that butterflies are children’s guardians. Dragons, a phoenix and fish also possess great symbolic meaning and are commonly seen on Shui handicraft.
As another Shui legend says during an ancient flood, a brother and a sister were saved by fish. Their descendants multiplied to become the Shui ethnic group and the image of double fishes became one of the favourite motifs of the Shui artisans.
The horsetail embroidery technique is very intricate, and works using the technique appears to have a bas-relief, with abstract, generalized, and exaggerated shapes.
Besides decorating with embroidery all parts of their traditional costume – blouse, trousers, apron, headdress, shoes and even insoles – women use the horsetail hair for embroidering baby carriers, tablecloths, wall hangings, bags and wallets.
Unfortunately, due to social changes and other reasons, the inheritance of horsetail embroidery craftsmanship has been seriously neglected and the quality of modern horsetail embroidery products has become poor. As a result, few people are willing to use such products. As such, it is imperative to protect the special craftsmanship of horsetail embroidery of Shui Nationality from disappearing forever.
by Xiao Xiao email@example.com
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