Tibetan & Qiang Embroidery

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CRAFTSMANSHIP

High up in the mountains of Tibet, where traditional songs still fill the morning air, artists who specialize in the delicate art of Tibetan embroidery are toiling over their canvases with nothing but needle and thread. Their work may be arduous, but the creations they make are admired throughout the world. The colorful designs and ethnic patterns tell stories of times past, with mystical energy emanating from every point that these artisans’ needles make.

Declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, Tibetan and Qiang embroidery lives on through the handful of passionate and skillful practitioners who continue to dedicate their lives to the craft.

Tibetan and Qiang embroidery art

Tibetan embroidery is highly valuable on today’s market, as only a small number of artisans still pursue the craft. Yang Huazheng is an inheritor of the tradition, and an embroiderer for the Qiang Ethnic Group, who are the main promoter of this art in the region.

“Our embroidery shows the spirit of the Qiang ethnic group, and we need to hand this down to future generations. Our culture is our soul. I came back to help the artists financially by collecting their artwork to sell to a wider market,” Yang Huazheng said about the work of her colleagues.

Her role in helping the community is much appreciated. “Without Yang, we wouldn’t know that our embroidery can sell for better prices. Most of us don’t know much about business. Usually, I just make the embroidery and wait for travelers to pass by," said Wang Zhixiu, one of the villagers in Wenchuan County in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

Tibetan embroidery and thangkas - an exact art

Thangkas are very difficult to make, and embroidered artworks even more so. This is because of the techniques used, which involve not only skill, but also a deep knowledge of the subject, as well as a need to comply to very specific standards. For a Tibetan embroiderer, creating thangkas is not a hobby, but a lifestyle, chosen from an early age. While many young artists are now being taught this delicate art, it will take many years for them to master the craft.

How much does it take to create a piece of Tibetan embroidery?

Encompassing a wide variety of subjects, a single thangka can take a month or more to complete. Their intricate designs are truly enchanting, and echo with the passion of every minute their artists spend creating them.

Thangkas are usually rectangular in shape, and the first step in making one is to mount the canvas on a wooden frame. After that, a specific type of gesso is spread all over the canvas in order to make the surface as smooth as possible. The next step involves drawing a sketch of the design to be embroidered on the canvas.

Knowledge of proportions is a must for any artisan specializing in Tibetan embroidery. Traditionally, the colors used for the patterns are black, yellow, green, white and red, and to make the colors more vivid, an animal-based glue is added.

Tibetan embroidery designs and patterns

If the subject of the thangka is a deity, the eyes are left to be done on a particular day according to a very specific Buddhist ritual.

While the artisans adhere to the principles of perfect geometry in their designs, precision is not everything. These highly trained embroiderers know that a deep understanding of the symbolism itself is necessary to capture the essence of their sacred subjects. It is said of this ancient craft that “Tibetan art exemplifies the nirmanakaya, the physical body of Buddha, and also the qualities of the Buddha, perhaps in the form of a deity. Art objects, therefore, must follow rules specified in the Buddhist scriptures regarding proportion, shape, color, stance, hand position, and attributes in order to personify correctly the Buddha or deities.”

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  • Yang Huazhen Sichuan, China More >

    Yang Huazhen is a widely admired Tibetan master embroiderer; born to a family of Tibetan embroiderers; recognized as a Chinese National Intangible Cultural Heritage successor and a UNESCO folk art member.

    She has received a number of international and domestic awards. After the March 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province, she established the Tibetan and Qiang Culture Museum and the embroidery brand Mordo. Her core mission is to protect the heritage of Tibetan and Qiang traditional culture, and help women in affected areas. She has put enormous effort into the field of folk art preservation.

History

 

Tibetan embroidery is intertwined with the long tradition of thangkas. Thangkas are paintings created on silk canvases, and are either painted or embroidered. Influenced by the religion of Tibet, they usually represent Buddha, religious scenes or mandalas, and are very delicate. Thangkas need to be maintained in special conditions to avoid moisture, which can damage the silk canvas and ruin the painting.

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