Japanese embroidery, called ‘nihon shishu’, is a complex tradition that incorporates several different embroidery techniques that date back as far as the early Kofun period (the 5th century by our reckoning).
The History of Japanese Embroidery
Nihon shishu was traditionally reserved for very wealthy, high status individuals. In fact, in the Heian period it was reserved for creating ceremonial religious costumes the ladies of the Imperial Court, and a few others of noble rank. However, before the Meji Era (the late 19th and early 20th century), it was simply called ‘nui’ or ‘sewing’.
Eventually, more and more European techniques were absorbed into traditional Japanese embroidery, and it became ever more ornate. In time it became a widely spread art form, and began to be valued for its beauty, rather than as a purely ceremonial decoration.
The Symbolism of Japanese Embroidery
- Cherry blossoms symbolise beauty and the transience of life, but also renewal.
- Peonies represent bravery, honour and good luck.
- Evergreen trees speak of winter and the new year, but also longevity and the ability to stand firm against adversity
- Chrysanthemums are symbols of the Imperial family, and also rejuvenation and regal beauty.
- Carnations mean both fascination and motherly love.
- Cranes stand for good fortune and longevity. A pair of cranes symbolises a happy marriage.
- Dragonflies are symbols of warriors, martial might and victory.
- Spiders in Japanese embroidery mean industry and productivity.
- Swallows are thought to bring good luck, fertility, and fidelity of one’s partner.
- Dragons mean prosperity, and are said to drive away evil.
- Butterflies evoke joy and prosperity, and often represent the soul.
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The Techniques of Nihon Shishu
To begin, the artisan makes a drawing directly on the fabric. Next, they must choose the colours of the embroidery floss to use. This selection is not merely artistic; there is a complex meaning to each colour and colour combination. Some colours are only used with certain traditional designs. Others are appropriate only for a garment worn at certain times of the year. Others are exclusive to certain ages, genders and other statuses the wearer might possess. In the end, a traditional piece of nihon shishu is more of a personal story than a garment.
The floss itself is applied using an embroidery frame, and the excess cut away. The obverse side is then coated with wheat starch and steamed, to give the floss the traditional shiny, stiff texture.
Like most other traditional Japanese crafts, Embroidery is highly regionalised. For example, Kyoto is one of the largest centres for this craft, and its distinctive style is called Kyo-nui.
There are 43 traditional embroidery methods used in nihon shishu today, and many have their own complications. Most of them involve the usual ‘passing’ technique, using a combination of metallic and silk flosses and threads. Explaining all 43 techniques would take a book – probably more than one! However, we can touch on a few:
- Rozashi is a technique that involves creating geometric shapes using straight stitches on a woven canvas. In this technique, it is important that the weave of the underlying fabric remains visible.
- Wari-Nui is a technique very similar to the European ‘split stitch’, and is used to depict leaves, flower petals and most famously the feathers of birds.
- Kyo-nui became famous during the Heian Period, and focuses on the use of silk, silver and gold threads, typically on a silk or linen backing.
- Sashiko is a type of embroidery using only a running stitch.
Exploring Nihon Shishu on a Colouricious Holiday
Of course, if there is something crafty going on out there in the world, Colouricious Holidays is there, making it possible for you to observe, learn and of course participate. We have a wide variety of different holidays to choose from, and many of them partake in a taste of nihon shishu and kio-nui.
So, would you like to learn more about traditional Japanese nihon shishu embroidery? How about learning the basics from traditional artisans as part of a Colouricious Holiday? We can help make it happen! Just contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 0203 362 4114. We have a wide range of crafting holidays available, both in Japan and around the world. I’m sure we can find the perfect one for you!
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