Published: 14:15, May 14, 2024
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Embroidery shows vibrant Tibetan techniques
By Yang Feiyue

The ancient craft deeply rooted in culture is now being given modern appeal, Yang Feiyue reports.

Tibetan embroiderer Lhamo Yudron checks a traditional embroidered hair braid accessory for Tibetan women at her workshop in Shagou township, Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Qinghai province. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lhamo Yudron's Tibetan embroidery workshop looks as if it is wrapped by a tapestry of polychromatic paintings. Items are neatly arranged on the walls and feature elements like Tibetan mastiffs, antelopes, girls carrying water on their backs, as well as the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism, including the conch shell, the treasure vase and the golden fish.

Their special technique of Tibetan embroidery renders them a three-dimensional effect, as if they are about to jump out of the cloth.

"If you look closely, you can see the vivid facial expressions of the historical figures, which is a result of repeated exploration and experimentation, embroidered layer upon layer to follow the contours of the facial muscles," says Lhamo Yudron, who comes from Shagou township in the Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Qinghai province.

Tibetan embroidery originated in the 9th century and is regarded as one of the three major arts of Tibetan Buddhism, alongside thangka painting and pile needlework (fabrics being trimmed, pasted and sewn back together to deliver a deep visual impact).

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Tibetan embroidery is also one of the most distinctive traditional embroidery styles among China's ethnic cultures, known for its vibrant colors, smooth lines, lifelike characters and exquisite craftsmanship.

It features dieceng stitching, the layered technique that involves patterns upon patterns to create a three-dimensional effect. The stitching gives the embroidery depth and texture.

She sorts out a finished Tibetan embroidery painting on the wall. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lhamo Yudron was born into a family of embroiderers, and from a young age, she was exposed to Tibetan artistic techniques simply by being around her elders.

"Almost all Tibetan women know how to embroider, and the tradition is mainly passed down within families," she says. "In the past, Tibetan embroidery only appeared on the clothes and braided hairbands worn by women."

Her childhood pursuit turned into a passion after she saw embroidery from across the country at the Sichuan Museum in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province.

"It blew my mind and led me to realize that embroidery can be really exquisite," she says, adding that the experience inspired her to carry on the heritage of Tibetan embroidery in her hometown on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

In 2006, Lhamo Yudron started working at a Tibetan embroidery company her father had founded, and began to research ways of innovating traditional techniques to appeal to more people outside the plateau.

"Good Tibetan embroidery should not only meet the aesthetic preferences of modern people, but also integrate our traditional skills and ethnic culture in a way that delivers better expression," she says.

Lhamo Yudron offers guidance to local villagers on how to make Tibetan embroidery at her workshop. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

However, she found that most local crafts were passed down by the older generation. Driven by an ambition to carve out a new path for the art, she woke up at 4 am every day to study embroidery theory, and spent a great deal of time digging into books at libraries. With the help of the local government and senior embroiderers, she participated in training and cultural exchange activities and in the process, her mindset gradually opened up.

"After learning about sewing techniques and color matching elsewhere, I increasingly understood what the outside world wants," she says.

She came to better appreciate the characteristics of Tibetan embroidery and techniques after looking into the four famous Chinese embroidery styles, namely Su embroidery (with su as abbreviation for Jiangsu province, and Suzhou specifically), Xiang embroidery (Hunan province), Yue embroidery (Guangdong province), and Shu embroidery (Sichuan province).

"To put it simply, we needed to add some dimension to it, and vivid colors, and to highlight the layered stitching," she says. "When innovating, we must follow our own feelings and tell our own cultural stories."

In 2009, Lhamo Yudron set up an embroidery company in her hometown and transferred the patterns from Tibetan costumes onto canvas, showcasing natural landscapes and wildlife through the art, enriching its forms of expression.

At the beginning, she struggled to portray her subjects in a vivid manner. "When I wanted to embroider a Tibetan antelope, for example, it was difficult to depict with the silk threads traditionally used in Tibetan embroidery, as they had too few colors and were not fine enough," she says.

So the first issue she had to address was the thread. "There were only about 20 colors of thread available locally, making it a bit difficult to achieve the desired color combinations," she says.

A 20-meter-long embroidered scroll painting featuring stories around the legendary ancient hero, King Gesar, is among the highlights at her workshop. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lhamo Yudron traveled to cities like Beijing and Shanghai, scouring every corner in search of suitable materials. Eventually, she settled on the silk thread from Suzhou, Jiangsu province, which comes in over 1,000 colors.

With the support of local government, she has traveled across the country as well as to countries like Thailand, Nepal, and Iran to exhibit Tibetan embroidery.

"I consider turning Tibetan embroidery into a more popular handicraft, as it enables more people to understand and appreciate it," she says.

She still keeps two embroidered Tibetan mastiffs on display in her workshop.

One looks a bit pale in juxtaposition with the other one, which stands out for its glossy, lifelike fur. "They illustrate the progress made in Tibetan embroidery craftsmanship in recent years," she explains.

In 2011, some of her works were added to the collection of the Hainan prefecture museum.

Born of the belief that she needed to produce something that would create a brand for Tibetan embroidery, Lhamo Yudron has been working with her father since 2018 on a massive piece that is a meter wide and approximately 260 meters in length featuring the legendary ancient hero, King Gesar.

To guarantee the quality of the artwork, she and her father hired domestic experts and scholars to offer guidance to the painters, helping them draw over 200 sketches, before contracting 50 embroiderers to participate in the project.

The piece's dimensions make it a challenge and so Lhamo Yudron and her team developed a seamless embedding technique and came up with a way to upgrade the embroidery racks.

"We have already embroidered more than 200 meters, and hopefully we can finish it by the end of this year," she says.

Lhamo Yudron explains to guests the 260-meter-long King Gesar work that is about to finish this year. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Today, her products have made their way to Beijing, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, and products such as embroidered Tibetan sachets and pendants have become popular at local tourism markets.

Booming market demand has enabled her to entice more villagers to join her trade and make a career out of Tibetan embroidery and to date, her company has given training and employment opportunities to more than 1,000 people.

Wen Changji from Shagou township has followed Lhamo Yudron for five years.

"Before I met her, I used to struggle with poverty as a result of an illness, but now I can make 40,000 yuan ($5,540) to 50,000 yuan a year," Wen says, adding that she is proud that her efforts have helped her family move into a new house with better living conditions.

Shi Yuxiu from Qiabuqia town, about a three-hour drive from Shagou township, has also had her life improved. Her family of six used to live off just 0.4 hectares of land. "We could barely keep our heads above water," Shi says.

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Following a friend's recommendation, she began to make Tibetan embroidery with Lhamo Yudron in 2009 and has worked her way up to become a key employee at the company. Now, Shi earns at least 4,000 yuan a month.

"When I look back, it is still like a dream that I have been able to give my family a better life through my handicraft," Shi says.

Lhamo Yudron says she takes pride in helping women make a career out of Tibetan embroidery.

Last year, her company paid about 4 million yuan in salaries. "It makes me feel I'm doing something meaningful," she says.

She recently received a May 1st Labor Medal, the nation's highest honor for workers. She says it has charged her with a stronger sense of responsibility and has encouraged her to keep expanding the influence of her craft so that more people can come to appreciate China's traditional ethnic cultures.

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