CRAFTSMANSHIP

She remembers the quiet evenings when Mother taught her the ancient horsetail embroidery craft. Her mother used to sing, weaving the memories of their ancestors into every stitch… 

Now, she sits on the porch with her own daughter and teaches the same techniques her mother once taught. She creates fine works not only to earn a living but also to pass on this beautiful craft.

Horsetail embroidery is arduous work. The whole process involves more than 50 steps, and one project may take a year to complete.

Creating the Horsetail Hair Threads

The first step in creating hand embroidery using horsetail hair is to create the thread. This is done by wrapping several hairs together using white silk thread. The contrast desired in the finished project determines the thickness of the thread used, which depends entirely on the number of hairs wrapped during this process. The thickness, along with the length is decided by the artisan who will be using them.

The utility of this sort of thread is very interesting. First, the hair makes the thread very strong and it will hold the pattern better than plain silk. Secondly, the oil secretions present on the hairs seep through the silk and help to maintain their luster and vibrancy like a natural conditioner.

Design

Once the horsetail thread has been created, the artisan starts weaving, using a technique called “invisible stitching.” The more experience the weaver has, the less visible the stitches are. The mastery of this technique is evidence of the artisan’s fine skill.

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.

Copper

The last distinctive element of Shui embroidery is the use of small copper disks as embellishment. For some time in Chinese history, the production of copper was forbidden. Nevertheless, the Shui still used the material to adorn the embroidery on baby carriers. Even today, Shui people believe in the mysterious properties of copper to ward off evil spirits and protect babies. It takes at least 20 copper disks to decorate one carrier.

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  • Song Shuixian Guizhou, China More >

    Song Shuixian belongs to the Shui ethnic group. She is the inheritor of horsetail embroidery, which has been recognized as China’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage. She started to learn the craft at the age of seven and has been practicing it for forty years. In 2006, she opened a workshop of horsetail embroidery in Sandu, Guizhou province-- the first of its kind in the county. The costumes she made received the UNESCO Seal of Excellence certificate in 2012.

History

 

The Shui people have many myths and legends that influence their daily lives. One can find symbols of their folklore, deeply rooted in Shui history, on various types of handicrafts. Although the Shui people have a long history, much of it has been passed down only through oral tradition. No records were kept of their distinct crafts, and it is now impossible to trace the very beginnings of horsetail embroidery. The craft was passed down from mothers to daughters, so the only clue to its origin is found in the simple explanation women give their daughters when they teach them the craft:

The wife was looking at her husband as he groomed their horse before the race. Suddenly, she realized what a magnificent animal it was. She thought it was such a waste when the long strands of horsehair were falling down on the ground. She collected the strands carefully and weaved them into clothing and household items.

 

Horses have always played an important role in Shui people’s daily lives. Locals have a strong affinity to these graceful animals. They breed horses, organize frequent racing events and even use horsetail hair to make stunning embroidery. The art of horsetail embroidery can be traced back thousands of years and is now referred to as the “living fossil” of Shui tradition. Today, horsetail handicraft is used to decorate clothing, handbags and baby carriers. The craft produces elaborate pieces of art that are sold on the market.

 

Recently, the handicraft received encouragement from the Chinese government. Horsetail embroidery was enshrined as part of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Ministry of Culture. The Shui people see such a revival as an opportunity to boost their quality of life while preserving their ancient culture.

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