Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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A Visual Feast: Needlepainting Up Close: By Hand, With Silk


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Needlepainting – the art of “painting” with a needle and thread – is one of the most complex forms of hand embroidery. Realistic needlepainting is an art mastered by Chinese embroiderers in Suzhou, China. In this region of China, embroiderers create the most amazing masterpieces by hand using tiny silk threads.

I recently had cause to be in contact with Chunhua Mao, the founder of Su Embroidery Studio, and he graciously sent the photos of some of the needlepainted works at his studio that caught my eye. I asked if I could share them with you. You see, if you’re like me, you will be filled with wonder and delight when you see the detail and beauty of these embroidered pieces. To think that they are worked completely by hand with such accurate and perfect detail! It boggles the mind!

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Embroidering animals has been a constant fascination of mine, and lately, the topic has been the subject of a small “debate” between me and a friend. We’ve been discussing the merits of realistic vs. stylized animals depicted in embroidery, and how to achieve realism. Though there are a couple points we don’t agree on, what we do agree about is that embroidering an animal and making it look real is really, really difficult. It takes time, patience, and practice. And more practice. And a still more practice. If you peruse the catalog at Su Embroidery Studio, you’ll come across quite a few needlepainted animals, and oh my! Are they a wonder to behold! This squirrel immediately caught my eye: the perfectly realistic coat, the fluffy tail, the glint in the eye, and how the imagined light source reflects on the critter. Have you ever seen a squirrel embroidered with this type of detail?

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Look at the squirrel a little closer and and you’ll see the layers of shades of silk thread that make up his coat and his face. The embroiderers use strands of silk that they separate into tiny strands of filament, to achieve this kind of detail. Master embroiderers sometimes separate the threads to the point that the thread is barely visible to the human eye. On the Su Embroidery Studios website, you’ll find plenty of articles that discuss Suzhou silk embroidery and the ways the artists achieve these realistic results.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

You can see in this little fellow’s eye the amount of shading in that glint alone. You can also see how accurate the direction of the stitching is around the eye, below, and above it. When the embroiderer moves onto the squirrel’s coat, notice that the stitches become more irregular. The embroiderer does not stick to the standard and more regular long and short stitch – to achieve realism, the embroiderer uses what the Chinese call “hairy stitch.”

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

The tail is a beautiful example of hairy stitch. Note, too, the number of colors used in the tail. Chunhua Mao explained to me color selection is up to the embroiderer, who chooses the colors needed as the piece progresses. They don’t go by a color key or a pre-selected palette of colors. Colors are chosen on the spot, as the embroiderer determines the need!

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

I have a weakness for embroidered birds, and a love of tropical birds. So this fellow caught my eye, too.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

The layered feathers are perfect – the perfect amount of “fluffing” for a preening parrot.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

See the little dark dashes mixed in with the feathers? And notice the neck feathers up close, too!

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

I love seeing the pieces mounted on their frames – evidence of the hand embroidery artist at work! The frames are set up much like slate frames. Note that the backgrounds of these pieces are all hand embroidered as well – the whole canvas is solidly embroidered by hand. The icy-looking background behind the peacocks is the ideal stage to show off those glorious feathers.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Besides the tail feathers (which are always the peacock’s show-stopper), look at the detail on both peacocks’ bodies!

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Here’s another piece on a frame – this time, note the piercing eyes and the “light” on the bird, in contrast to the dark background.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Notice that the eyes are not exactly the same. The eye on the right has a bit of a ring on the lower edge, further contributing to the realism by reflecting the imagined light source.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Speaking of reflections in the eye, this eagle’s eye looks like glass. Besides the larger “glint,” notice the tiny lighter stitches to the right and left of the glint that carry out the illusion of a real eye.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Photograph? Painting? Embroidery?! It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Now, this little creature should melt your heart! Remember that the background is solidly embroidered. Notice the “bokeh” effect in the background, with the foreground flowers more in focus, and then clarity of the log, and of course, the kitty himself.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Another perfect eye. Look at the depth in that eye!

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

And both eyes together – what an expression!

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Check out the layering here that achieves the furry paw – it is perfection! Look at the tips of paw – the little tiny threads swishing to the sides, the layers of light over dark.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

The embroiderers at Su Embroidery Studio also work landscapes. This, in fact, is an example of one of their ready-made Fine Quality silk embroideries that can be purchased from the studio. There are two levels of quality sold through the studio – “Fine Quality” and “Top Quality.” Both are entirely hand embroidered, but the top quality works utilize more layers of threads and finer split threads, and are therefore more elaborately detailed and take longer to create. The fine quality needlepaintings are stunning, too. In this landscape – titled “Meadow of Lights” – what strikes me especially are the use of colors, the reflections on the water, the depth of color in the water, and the somewhat Impressionist look, with the very “Monet-ish” waterlilies.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

The sense of Impressionism is driven home even more when the piece is seen up close. Clarity is lost in the sketchiness of the stitches, but that sketchiness achieves the look of the shadow and light in the embroidery. Look, too, at the various colors in the water.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

Notice how the shadows deepen on the edge of the lake, but the plants in the foreground are vivid and sharp.

Silk Needlepainting - Hand Embroidery in Silk

The reflections in the water are achieved in a number of ways: the “mirror” of the grass, worked in the blues, the darker green shadows of the overhanging bank, the vertical sketching of reflected grass along the edge.

The website of Su Embroidery Studio is definitely worth a visit! You’ll notice that they take custom embroidery orders, working from photographs. They also recreate master artworks in embroidery with astonishing accuracy. And, as mentioned above, you’ll also find some good reading on the site, especially under “Chinese Hand Embroidery ABC.” A couple things you should not miss: the article on the difference between hand and machine embroidery, with photos to illustrate, and a close look at Su Embroidery. While on this page, take a look at the piece titled Glassware, and click the link to view the enlarged picture. It’s is stunning!

I am constantly amazed by the vast world of textiles. The rich history and tradition of Chinese embroidery is fascinating, and it is good to know that this tradition carries on in the silk embroidery of Suzhou and in the work of the artists at the Su Embroidery Studio.

Thanks for the photos, Chunhua Mao, and for the opportunity to share them with my readers!


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(63) Comments

  1. I am totally rendered speechless. What artistry!! I Also have a soft spot for that peacock and parrot. Thank you so much for sharing. πŸ™‚ xxx Enjoy your weekend, Elza from Cape Town xxx

    1. Hi, Pam & Elza –

      Yep. It’s incredible, isn’t it? And humbling, as Pam said!

      Elza, my soft spot is for the parrot. I love it! It sort of reminds me of that lilac-breasted roller….!!!!!!! πŸ™‚


  2. Wowww…wowwwwwww!!!!! You mean that kitten ISN’T a photograph? You’ve got to be KITTING me! (Ok, lousy pun, but… :)) Wow!

    Absolutely, incredibly, totally making me feel like a blind, ham-fisted idiot when I think about what my attempts at realism look like…!

    Thanks, Mary, you’ve done it again!

  3. Dear Mary We once looked after a friend’s parrot , an Amazon Green, the very same one you showed us and I felt very nostalgic. He was so sweet and could speak quite well.
    And I have not forgotten the lilac-breasted roller, but I know you were rather busy lately. I still don’t know how you managed everything but you sure do a pretty good job of it!!! πŸ™‚ Love Elza

  4. THIS is how I want to be able to stitch. I have a loooooong way to go.

    Thanks for sharing, Mary. They are lovely.

    Carol S.

  5. I can only dream of being able to embroider like this. I so want to paint with my needle. I fear that my inability to draw or paint means that I will never be able to produce this type of work.

    Still, a girl can dream!

  6. Mary, this is wonderful.
    I don’t know how many have seen such. But I have seen several pictures at the New York State fair this past summer and was speechless. I thought that I know all there was. The artistry is phenomenal.
    Thank you for posting.

  7. Thank you for showing this wonderful website.
    A feast for the eyes…I wanted to buy at least half of the pictures, fantastic work.

  8. Such beautiful work, no I guess this is not work. Anything this lovely truly must be a labor of love. My hands ache to do work of this magnitude. What a pure pleasure it was to see these examples. I am still shaking my head with the wonderment of it all!
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  9. Mary, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing this incredible article with us all. It made my day end up shining as 1,000 suns ! I knew Chinese and Japane artist embroiderers were light-years ahead since long before we Europeans could even weave properly… But what I saw on Needle And Thread today goes far beyond imagination and dream.

    Knowing that some people still create such breath-taking marvels is really, really, really wonderful. And it brings infinite hope : the thread is still strong πŸ˜‰

    Thank you Mary,


  10. Absolutely Beautiful work. What a talent. Thank you very much for sharing this Mary.I know myself well enough that I will never be able to do such work but I enjoy very much looking at these works of art.
    Maria in Kansas

  11. Dear Mary … I first must thank you for all the creative joy you have given me the past several months since I found your site. Sharing your talent and knowledge is so much appreciated πŸ™‚
    Thank you for making my day πŸ™‚ every day πŸ™‚

    I have missed commenting on several subjects, but this one I must write about!

    Several years ago I had the great fortune to see many of the masterpieces from Suzhou exhibited in the UCLA Fowler Museum in Los Angeles.

    The subject was the “Threads of Light: Chinese Embroidery from Suzhou and the Photography of Robert Glenn Ketchum”
    Among other pieces, several of R. Ketchum’s photography was translated into thread painting.

    It took our breaths away! my stitcher friend and I first walked through it devouring these beauties as fast as we could … then we looked at them one-at-a-time enjoying these awesome creations for the whole day.

    There was a large panel of silk gauze with all the imaginable butterflies embroidered on them, and the front and the back looked all the same!

    An other large piece was embroidered on natural background with dark human hair .. a glimpse of an old Chinese settlement, with buildings and people done in a simple but very detailed form.
    You would never believe it that it was stitched,
    and .. with human hair.

    There were so many beautiful pieces … the Ketchum photographs translated to threads .. the little white kitty so lifelike you could hear her purring …
    All and all this was the most breathtaking group of stitching I have ever seen.

    As you say Mary, and absolute Visual Feast!

    Some more Eye Candy πŸ™‚
    Here is a link to R. Ketchum’s website to enjoy his awesome photography, BUT under “TEXTILES” you can find some of his photographs in stitching. A couple was in the exhibition.

    The book of “Threads of Light” still available at Amazon … it has ALL the pieces from the Exhibition, great quality book … A MUST HAVE !

    I really enjoyed looking at these newer creations you have posted … there are just no words for what can be done with needle and thread! So inspiring!

    Sorry for this being a long post, but I can hardly contain my excitement about the subject!
    Can you tell?

    Thank you for all your hard work and sharing!

  12. “I can only dream of being able to embroider like this. I so want to paint with my needle. I fear that my inability to draw or paint means that I will never be able to produce this type of work.” –
    Oh coral-seas don’t defeat yourself before you have begun! You never know what you might accomplish if you don’t try. I don’t think you have to be able to paint to do needlepainting. Experiment with colored thread and the long & short stitches and see where it leads. Lots of good books out there on how to needlepaint. πŸ™‚

  13. This is amazing work, absolutely beautiful. Looking at their web site these pieces of work seem to be quite inexpensive (only a couple of hundred dollars for some) for what is weeks or even months of work, barely enough to cover materials I would expect! Is the skill of these amazing embroiders valued so little?

  14. Hi Mary,
    Their work is stunning. Have you ever worked with Chinese silk? I am curious about the processing- chemical wise.
    My husband was there last year and brought home hanks of thread for me (what a sweetie) but as I have been unable to locate any spools to wind them onto I am afraid to open the hanks. I tried to make a few, wasted effort; looked online, wholesale only. Any suggestions on how/onto what- to divide, sort, or wind would be most welcome.
    Many thanks, ji

  15. Although the photos do capture the beauty of these incredible silk paintings, in person the WOW factor is x100. About 2 weeks ago, I wandered into Lulu’s Silk Art Gallery in Carmel-By-The-Sea, in California. This gallery has an eye-popping collection of the Su embroideries for sale. Prices range from $150 to $15,000. I was amazed at the detail and light the silk threads give to these works of art. If you are close to Carmel, CA, stop in and see for yourself. Lulu’s is on Mission between 5th & 6th. You can get more info. at their web site http://www.Lulusilkartgallery.com Be prepared to have your jaw drop to the floor. I cannot put into words how beautiful these works are.

    1. Ah, Janice! I was just in Carmel a year and a half ago, for a couple days! Oh, had I only known! I didn’t come across them while walking the streets there, but there are so many galleries – I must’ve missed it, or they weren’t in operation then. Rats!

  16. Thank you very much Mary for sharing all those pictures..they are visual feast…incredible, cont imagine one can do such a wonders..is it a dream!!My God I am speechless..

    Love n Regards
    Lakshmi Sadala

  17. Oh dear Lord to be able to stitch like that…What a gift! To think there are people in this world caplable of truly amazing magic like this takes your breath away. Just looking at them delivers you to a whole new dimension in in art-craft. Thank you sooooo much for sharing this with us.

  18. I am speechless with wonder. I wonder even if i could paint to this perfection, leave alone stitching. thank you so much Mary for sharing and letting us know there are people so talented.

  19. Oh My Goodness!! I should live so long as to develop skill like this. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Cheryl in Halifax

  20. I’m totally speechless, gob-smacked call it whatever you like! These are amazing all of them, perfectly stitched right down to the last detail. I could sit for hours admiring these beauties, thank you so much for sharing!

  21. Marie Angel wrote a book called “Painting for Calligraphers”.

    In there, she details the study and painting of fur and feathers. It might be worth you interlibrary loaning (copies are hard to get) to see if there’s anything there useful for you?

    all the best, and as for the needlepainting above – yowsers!

  22. I stay without word, it is so fantastic. I believed being a good needlepointer but now I have to rethink about me and the pleasure that I had. I have to reconsider my work. You open a paradise we ha e to try to enter in<;
    Excuse my English, I'm French.

  23. No wonder I can’t get anything done! You’ve had me looking at Su Embroidery for hours!!! Each page brought such joy … and a list of items I would love to own!

    I know stitching in that way is impossible for me … but I enjoy each stroke of the artists’ needles.

    Thank you!!!

  24. Thankyou so much for sharing these wonderful photos! I have a soft spot for the parrot because I have a wonderful young Blue-fronted Amazon named Achilles as a companion!
    A few years ago I was given a terrific little book by my sister called ” A-Z of Thread Painting” published by Quilter’s Resource publications. This book has several really detailed pictures with instructions, but the one that I really want to do the most is the baby Burrowing Owl. The picture is so realistic, I almost expect it to blink!

  25. That is absolutely exquisite. I love to think that I can do most anything artsie if I work at it long enough and hard enough, but I can’t imagine ever being able to do that.

    I’m a newbie at embroidery, and have been drooling over silk thread and floss since I checked out Helen M. Stevens’ book Embroidered Gardens from the library. I’m dying to work with silk. Maybe I’ll spend the evening doing a little more research and go ahead and place an order.

  26. Ihad seen chinese thread painting before but this chinese thread painting is better then anything I had seen. Thank you for sharing.

  27. Thank you, Mary for sharing such exquisite work. My fingers are itchy to cross hatch if only the result…. Susan S (Aust)

    1. Hi, Susan – I want to give it a try, too, and I think I will one of these days. It might be something interesting to mix with other techniques! ~MC

  28. This has been such an amazing thread, Mary. Thank you for the wonderful pictures, info and links. Because of it, I got Threads of Light by Ketchum from the library. Looked at it every day for 3 weeks. The visuals are breathtaking. I also got out a book called Needle Painting. Both are on my to buy list.
    I do large needlepoint/petitpoint patterns of the Old Masters on cordova canvas with 3 threads over 1. This summer, I want to try needlepainting in silks. Thanks so much for this fabulous article. Now all I need to know is, where can I buy some of the ultra fine gauze fabric that they stitch on. I used silks and silk gauze years ago, but never in such large pieces or rolls.

  29. Grazie Maria per tutte queste notizie! Non arriverei mai a scoprire tali bellezze se non mi fossi iscritta al tuo blog! Bacioni

  30. As a person who shares her house with elevin birds what I wouldn’t do to be able to capture each one and their personality like this. These are incredble. To capture the colors of my Sun Conure, Kiwi, oh bliss.

  31. I am utterly blown away by this. I tripped across this article when I was looking for something else. I think I’m great when I complete a Trish Burr kit – and Trish has done all the hard work for me – but this level of expertise is outstanding and just so inspiring. Thank you so much Mary for your dedication to this site and for all the inspiration you bring. It is not easy to keep a site so well stocked with new and intersting ideas and to be updating so frequently but i consider it such a treat to log in everyday and see whats going on.

  32. Beautiful! I have an aunt still living but on the other side of the country from me who is skilled at double sided embroidery. I so wish I could have learned that from her! Instead, she taught me cake decorating and crochet and left the embroidery and other needlework to other family members that didn’t do or didn’t know how to do double sided works. I was never able to pick it up on my own.

  33. Non ci sono parole!!!! Ricami meravigliosi, minuziosi, una grande capacitΓ , lavoro e pazienza. Complimenti, complimenti vivissimi!

  34. Dear Mary,
    Simply beautiful pieces! They are truly inspiring, I love the peacock but I have to say my favorite is the lake.
    I can’t help but thik of a particular painter named Leonid Afremov and how wonderful his paintings would look when worked with silk thread like these. He uses a lot of blues and reds and there’s almost always water somewhere in his works.
    Thanks for sharing.

  35. it is said that….seeing is believing, but in some cases – such as this embroidery – that does
    not apply! what else can i say…?

    if there is embroidery in heaven…this would be it.

  36. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. These take my breath away and make me want to learn how to do this. These embroideries depict exquisite beauty. I would love to do this. Especially any of Koi carp.

    Josephine from England.

  37. Thank you for your posting about Chinese embroidery technique, I always love Chinese artworks very much.

    I personally think that Chinese arts (including embrodiery) are underrated in comparison to French arts, Japanese arts, and Italian arts.

    Despite of China’s bad rep today, I am still fascinated with Chinese arts.

  38. Amazing.

    Thank you for this post Mary. I have always wondered about and wanted to know more about Chinese embroidery.

  39. OMG! I just stumbled on this past post and to say that these silk embroidered works took my breath away is an understatement. They are absolutely stunning! The time and talent that goes into each piece is truly remarkable. Thank you for sharing this.

  40. Quite beyond my abilities but my heart soars when enjoying the creativity of others.

    Trish Burr comes to mind – as I’ve purchased a few of her kits – and have done nothing more than look at them.

    Thank you, Mary, for sharing so much of yourself.

  41. hello ,this all so beautiful ,i hope i can learn to embrioder almoost like this.
    my name is Ria i am from the netherlands. i embrioder e view jears now ,also i do richelieu,
    have a nice day,in spijkenisse ware i live it is 2.30 in de afthernoonen 12 degries.
    bye bye

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