As unlikely as it may seem, the embroidery found on the handkerchiefs and pillowcases into which grandmothers have invested countless hours of fine needlework actually extends from an ancient and culturally rich Japanese art form that dates back more than 1,000 years ago. And grandparents and their families can now explore the origins and beauty of this intricate and long-enduring art for free at the Japanese Embroidery exhibit in the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech.
Running through September, the exhibit showcases two galleries full of gleaming threaded pictures of cypress fans, white cranes and other traditional East Asian imagery from the Japanese Embroidery Center (JEC) in Atlanta, a non-profit organization that seeks to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Japanese embroidery, also known as Nuido, or the “Way of Embroidery”.
One of the largest and most eye-catching pieces featured in the galleries, “Fan Screen,” depicts an array of exquisite cypress fans, each one augmented by its unique ornamentations and the vibrantly colored threads that create them.
On the other side of the room, the piece “Golden Pine” draws eyes with the metallic luster of its golden threads, which form bonsai-like limbs that give way to sprawling fans of pine needles.
Finally, one of the most impressive and moving pieces featured in the galleries is “Pine of Nindo – Moonlight” by Judy Lin, which uses texture and well-blended thread colors to create an almost painting-like depiction of a tree clinging to a cliff. According to the text that accompanies this piece, the image is meant to symbolize the importance of patience and endurance: “Even under a scorching sun and enduring severe cold, everything is just a condition. And it is among Nuido (a patient world where everyone must endure).”
In addition to beautifully embroidered images, gallery guests will also get a chance to learn about the special technical skills and even the spiritual components of Nuido from several of the pieces on display.
At the JEC, students must learn how to stitch patterns such as the double central braid from phase five, which appears in the piece “Resonance Chords,” and lines of short stitch holding from phases six, which appears in the piece “Eternal Grace.” To master this complex art, students must achieve skills from all 20 phases.
However, the acquisition of technical skills and knowledge about these types of stitches is just one part of this deep-seated art.
To become a true artist in Nuido, students must also develop artistic sensitivity and awareness and understand the spiritual aspects of shishu (Japanese embroidery), which leads ultimately to a state of peace, calm and harmony.
These internal aspects are important because of the deep connection that persists between the artist’s heart and the skill of his work, according to the JEC.
Prior to the development of this art form in Japanese culture, it was a symbol of status that was used simply to decorate the clothes of nobles or items for religious ceremonies.
Though the precise origin of embroidery is uncertain, embroidered artifacts have been found in several ancient societies, including ancient Egypt and Greece. The technique itself is thought to have arisen within the Orient.
Before making its way to Japan, embroidery first arose in China, where the earliest piece of Chinese embroidery ever found is more than 2,000 years old. China was the first country in the world to discover the use of silk, the production of which gave rise to embroidery. And during China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), the art became much more prevalent, causing it to spread through Korea and then Japan.
But after seeing and learning about the extensive heritage and cultural significance that makes embroidery a true art form, grandmother’s embroidered tea towels may start to seem a bit more extravagant than before.