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Reviving ancient silk embroidery skills
By Tan Weiyun

LU Aiguo and other silk embroidery artists in Sanlin Town - once famous as Embroidery Village - are busy demonstrating their ancient skills for the Pudong Arts and Culture Festival.

Sanlin Embroidery, which arose in Sanlin Town in the Pudong New Area, developed from Gu embroidery, the so-called original Chinese embroidery. Sanlin style is more than 700 years old and considered to be part of China's intangible cultural heritage.

"I've been sewing since I was a little girl," says 48-year-old Lu who now works in Sanlin Embroidery Manor, where works are made, exhibited and sold. "The embroidery my sisters and I made could support the whole family at the time."

In the 1970s and 80s, when embroidery was popular, almost every girl in Sanlin sewed and embroidered with their mothers and sisters to support their families.

They embroider landscapes, flowers and auspicious animals on bed linens, nightgowns, coasters, towels and various fabrics.

"A dragon in the clouds sold for 2.2 yuan back then," Lu recalls. "In those days, when 500 grams of pork sold for 5.6 yuan, 2.2 yuan was really a lot, equivalent to around 100 yuan today."

During the 1980s, more than 200,000 Sanlin women embroidered works for export to Japan, Europe and America.

The town became known as "Embroidery Village" and Sanlin embroidery was considered on park with famous Su embroidery that originated in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.

"It's weird that we can do Su embroidery but Su embroiderers cannot do Sanlin stitching," says 50-year-old Zhou Weiwen, a full-timer in the Sanlin Embroidery Manor.

Sanlin embroidery requires dozens of complicated stitching and sewing skills. A medium-sized piece could take one woman at least a month to complete, while a large piece could take several years.

Zhang Huizhen has been working on "Seven Saints" for more than a year. The 48-year-old expects it will take two more years to complete the 120cm-by-60cm work.

The subject is an ancient Chinese painting depicting seven sages having a banquet. Zhang is making a replica that is exact down to the most subtle hue and shadow. "It's not easy, it should be exact down to a single hair," she says.

A saint's hair, though apparently black at first glance, actually combines more than 20 shades of black; a complexion is rendered with around eight shades of yellow and pink.

"It's priceless and it's not for sale," Zhang says.

Hand embroidery began to lose its popularity after the 1980s when machine embroidery and computer-sewing emerged and intricate works were widely available and affordable. The export department of the Sanlin Embroidery Factory shut down and women stopped working. In the 1990s, it had all but disappeared.

In 2005, a nationwide campaign to protect intangible cultural heritage began to rescue the ancient skill. With local government support, Sanlin Embroidery Manor was set up and recruited 20 women to revive the skill.

"It's a skill that you should learn young. I stopped embroidering for 20 years but when I picked up the needle again, it all came back," Zhou says.

Since 2006, many local schools have launched optional embroidery courses. "Some children have great talent," says Zhou who teaches classes every Tuesday at Sanlin High School. "We hope they can hang on and it can become a life hobby."

Sanlin Embroidery Manor

Address: 866 Lingyan Rd S., Pudong

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