Silk Padded Applique Embroidery(I) – The Once-Lost Hidden Gem of the Imperial Palace

Written by Gioia Zhang

Translated by Yuqing Yang


Speaking of Chinese embroidery, what comes to your mind other than the famous four major styles? Do you know any other styles? Today I want to introduce a special kind of Chinese embroidery – silk padded applique embroidery. It is made of little bits of cloth of different colors, and together they form a brush and ink painting. The finished work is a colorful and well-arranged collage. It is a combination of hard textures like woodcuts and gentle textures like fabrics. This silk embroidery has a long history; since it was initially produced only within the imperial palace, it was also called imperial embroidery of cloth bits or imperial padded applique (宫廷补绣gongtingbuxiu in Chinese). A more popular name among the people would be: patchwork drawing or patchwork flowers or simply jacquard.

3f308a04-857a-4d4c-a43d-f20a081769e4.jpegImperial Embroidery “Flowerpot Shoes”

月季花蓝.jpgSilk Embroidery: Chinese Roses in A Basket

More than one thousand years ago in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), a rudimentary form of these techniques already existed in the Jingchu area (nowadays known as Hubei). For festive occasions, the local custom was to cut colorful silks into shapes of flowers and birds and put them up on screens or use them as headwear.

财神(布堆画).jpgPatchwork drawing: God of Wealth

This tradition was fully developed in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and transformed into a unique skill called silk sticker (贴绢 tiejuan in Chinese) and padded applique (堆绫 duiling in Chinese). Silk sticker is a patchwork made of a single layer of spun silk pieces, while padded applique consists of patterns made from multiple layers of silk and other fabrics. The latter, padded applique, was popular among the common people. For example, It was common to embroider patterns of mandarin ducks, Ruyi jade figures ((a filler word to keep all words in the list plural)), five-colored flowers and birds.

米色“纱贴绢”《桃树仙鹤图》乌木雕花柄团扇副本.jpg1.Beige silk gauze sticker “Peach Tree and Red-crowned Crane” with carved ebony moon-shaped fan, Qing dynasty ;  2.Beige silk gauze sticker “Flower and Butterfly” with blue painted and gold lined moon-shaped fan, Qing dynasty

During the Qing dynasty, the skills and techniques of padded applique reached their peak. Silk and other fabrics were well-selected and exquisite, and workmanship was more than excellent. The whole production strove for perfection at all costs.

堆绫项羽魏豹戏像册2副本.jpgProfile Pictures of Xiang Yu and Wei Bao in a Playbook, from Guangxu’s reign, Qing dynasty (1875-1908).

This playbook has blue satin as the base and a patchwork of satin, silk, damask silk and paperboard on the top. Each layer is stuffed, so that the characters would look fuller. The paillette used on clothes and the red pompon on the crown also make the figures vivid and lively. Their faces are painted with a brush to compensate for the inadequate artistic expression of padded applique. This playbook shows some novel techniques that are rare among padded applique embroideries as well as other embroidery works.

The padded applique technique spread to the Tibetan region and evolved into a new kind of Thangka. For example, among the collection at Yonghe Temple in Beijing, there is a piece called “Padded Applique of Green Tara,” which is listed as a class A national cultural heritage. It was made by Emperor Qianlong’s mother with help from maids in the imperial palace, and now this Tangka is already more than 200 years old.“Padded Applique of Green Tara” consecrated by Qianlong’s mother, Empress Xiaoshengxian

Unfortunately, padded applique skills were lost for a period of time, and nobody knew how to make them for a long time. However, in the 1990s, after three years of careful studies, the Beijing Drawnwork Institute rediscovered this once-lost technique. The padded applique skill now has transcended its previous boundaries; new variations of padded applique such as painting, embossment, silk-drawing, and tufting have been created. The silk embroidery produced shows meticulous work and patterns displaying the national features of China.

7bac34e0c4eb43e08a88b1d3bfac57b4.jpgFrom the collection of Imperial padded applique embroideries – “Ode to Peace.” It pictures a peony surrounded by peace doves. Through this traditional imperial embroidery, we get a glimpse into the endless charm of the Chinese culture.


c77e13a5cb7e4043a5fa3f1f29bfa038副本.jpgDetails of “Ode to Peace”

So, what if I told you there is a secret behind this embroidery skill of padded applique, the fate of which is full of ups and downs? Would you be curious to hear what it is?

Or, perhaps you have seen it already? Well, I will unveil the secret to you in the next article!


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“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide” 

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