Threads of Light–Chinese Embroidery from Suzhou and the Photography of Robert Glen Ketchum

UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History–Los Angeles, CA
Reviewed by Margaret Briscoe, NAN Certified Judge
Originally Published Spring 2005

This incredibly beautiful book feeds the mind, the eyes and the soul of the reader along with recounting a brief history of the Suzhou Silk Embroidery Research Institute (known as SERI) and of Chinese embroidery.

The introduction by Zhang Meifang gives a broad overview of the traditional Chinese embroidery and a brief but informative history of SERI. Two embroidery artists, Shen Shou and Yang Shouyu, played important roles in the promoting and developing of Suzhou embroidery in modern times. Shen Shou was exposed to both painting and calligraphy when young. Her talent attracted the attention of the court and she became a teacher in the imperial workshop in Beijing. She went to Japan to observe the Japanese style of embroidery but felt that it was far inferior to Chinese embroidery.

In 1911 Shen Shou founded the Independent Women’s Training Institute. She took first place in the Panama-Pacific International Fair in San Francisco in 1915 with her masterpiece, Portrait of Christ. Among her students was SERI’s first director, Jin Jingfen.

Yang Shouyu’s style of embroidery was unique in the history of Suzhou embroidery. She graduated from an art school; served as drawing and embroidery teacher and an associate professor at the National Academy of Fine Arts. She integrated traditional needlework with the brushwork and coloring of painting and sketching. She altered traditional Chinese embroidery techniques by using unequal lines of stitches and by building up layers of different colored threads. These techniques taken along with the traditional techniques, complement and supplement each other in creating entirely new and exciting possibilities for Suzhou embroidery.

The next chapter is by Patrick Dowdey and begins with the explanation of how these extraordinary embroideries came about. It details the meeting between Robert Glen Ketchum and the Embroiderers of the SERI and how he persuaded them to adapt his photographs to embroidery. Again you are given an overview of the importance of embroidery in the Chinese culture and at the history of Shen Shou and Yang Shouyu and their influence on the modern techniques of Chinese embroidery. Both were unique in their approaches yet have many similarities. It was the blending of the traditional with the random stitches and the blending of threads creating a new depth to embroidery that brought Ketchum to the SERI . He sought to commission them to interpret his photographs; he wished more depth and feeling of nature captured in  his photographs  and felt that embroidery could create the feeling he was looking for.

In Robert Glen Ketchum’s chapter/explanation we are privileged to see the total involvement of the designers, stitchers and thread dyers. Every piece requires its own specially dyed threads; the artists research  the how and why of the photograph, followed by endless discussions with the primary designers   Fabrics, threads, selection of stitches are all in place before the actual stitching begins. It is a long and often tedious process. Some of the pieces took as long as a year or more to produce and the framing was (as now) carefully considered. We are taken through every step of the commission and the final results are shown in a magnificent catalogue included in the book.

The embroideries are luscious! The color photographs are outstanding and make one want to learn more and more about this technique, the SERI and the extraordinary embroideries and embroiderers of China. This book is one to constantly refer to just for the sheer pleasure of the beauty of these embroideries.