When this delightful piece of Suzhou embroidery arrived in the mail, it was accompanied by a collection of Chinese silk embroidery threads, in what looks like the majority of the colors used in the embroidered needlepainting.
Today, let’s look at those silks and chat a bit about Chinese silk embroidery threads.
Here’s the heap of Chinese silk, and at first glance, I know it looks like a hairy mess of entangled silk. In fact, the threads are tied together in separate bunches, and when a bunch is picked up by the knot, it separates from the collection without any problem at all.
Chinese silk is a filament silk. It is reeled straight off the moth cocoon in a long thread, and because of this it has a very high sheen.
It can also be extremely fiddly to work with. The individual strands of silk easily catch on …. well. Anything! Chapped hands are the bane of any stitcher working with this thread, as it really does snag and catch at every opportunity on anything slightly rough. And in fact, even if you think you don’t have chapped hands, working with this thread might change your mind on that point. That having been said, if you work with this type of silk, you get used to handling it and controlling it after a while, so that you can reduce its likelihood to fly away and catch on everything.
Chinese silk comes in an extremely wide range of colors and shades. In the US, the line of silk that is most similar to the silk in these photos is Eterna silk, which comes in 545 solid shades. You can read more about Eterna silk in this article comparing flat silk embroidery threads and in this stitching experiment with flat silks. You can see Eterna silk at work in these embroidered carnations, and also in the sky background on my Agnus Dei project, where Eternal silk was used for the sky, and was couched over with gold passing thread.
In the best quality Suzhou embroidery, the embroiderer separates these little strands of thread anywhere from 4 to 16 times, resulting in a thread that is barely visible to the human eye. How’d you like to stitch with that?!
Because of its very fine nature and its ability to be separated into smaller and smaller strands for stitching, and because it’s silk and therefore quite strong, Chinese silk works well for embroidering tiny detailed elements – like eyes, in small portrait embroidery.
A little caveat here: Most Chinese embroidery silk that I’ve used – especially Eterna – is not perfect. In a typical skein of this kind of silk, you do run into flaws, so when you consider the price per skein as something incredibly affordable (Eterna runs around $.95 for a 5 meter, 12-ply skein), you have to keep in mind that the silk is not necessarily the best quality silk. You have to be willing to work around these imperfections, sometimes cutting and ending your thread where you wouldn’t necessarily want to, or sometimes avoiding a length of thread, because it is messed up. That having been said, I do still think it’s a usable thread, especially if you are looking for a very fine thread for working minuscule details on things. And I suppose I better mention again that it is pretty darned fussy to work with. If you’re new to using silk, this isn’t the thread I’d start with!
But the colors are pretty, aren’t they? And the sheen is amazing, isn’t it?
I do love looking at thread!
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