Embroidery Techniques

Seed Stitch ("Forbidden Stitch") and Pekinese Stitch

I am asked repeatedly to point out examples of the "Forbidden Stitch" in Chinese embroideries. This moniker normally refers to the "Seed" or "Knotted" stitches used along with satin stitches and couching on highly decorative, finely-worked silk costume items.  One romantic view suggests that this label appeared when such work was forbidden among young girls because its fineness contributed to eyestrain.  A close look at Chinese embroidery, however, discloses a variety of other stitches that are sometimes worked with similar intricacy.  I can only conclude that this label has only been a marketing ploy. 

Below are a few examples of the various effects achieved with the "Seed" or "Forbidden" stitches.  Later on this page are examples of the "Pekinese Stitch," which is sometimes confused with the Knot stitches, but is a different structure entirely.

Seed Stitch

Also known as Knot Stitch,  Chinese Knot,  Peking Knot,  French Knot,  Ring Embroidery,  or Forbidden Stitch
These terms all consistently refer to small knots made on the fabric surface by wrapping a heavy embroidery thread, usually silk floss, around a needle and then stitching it down.  This has been done with varying numbers of wrappings and degrees of complexity. Wang Yarong says that more than twenty varieties of knot stitch can be found throughout history--presumably in East Asia alone. She mentions that early relics of this stitch have been found in an Eastern Han tomb at Nuoyinwula, Outer Mongolia, and even earlier examples on a pair of silk shoes discovered in a tomb of the Warring States period in Linzi, Shandong Province.

Five types of "knot stitch," Wang Yarong, Chinese Embroidery,  New York & Hong Kong, 1987, pp 141-142.
The small purse below is worked with the simplest kind of knot stitch, like that in the diagram at the left above. Each stitch is left open to form a small ring. When worked closely, a finely textured surface can be produced. 

Young Y. Chung shows the same basic stitch, but one that is more plump and rounded because of an extra loop formed around the needle. She calls it a "seed stitch," and points out that the closest approximation to this stitch in European work was the French knot, which she says "cannot compare with the fine perfection achieved in Chinese embroidery with minute yet basically simple execution...sometimes so fine that it can barely be seen from more than a foot away." 

The photo below shows a detail from a sleeve band on a woman's informal robe. It shows the small knots worked with several strands of silk floss together, in rows, but  massed to fill sizeable areas.  Here they are combined with couched gold threads and satin stitch.
"Seed Stitch." Young Y. Chung, The Art of Oriental Embroidery, New York, 1979, p. 37.

Other authors show a knot stitch with only a single loop around the needle.  Pamela Claburn decribes this as "a stitch resembling french knots and often mistaken for them," but says that, "The Chinese knot is flatter, more shapely and not so twisted. In Chinese embroideries it is seldom used as an isolated stitch but is generally massed together, often covering large areas."

Among actual Chinese embroideries, it is unusual to find the knots so widely spaced or scattered as in the drawing. The spacing is dependent upon the length of the connecting stitch on the under side of the fabric.  Each knot is indeed separate, however, and this distinguishes the stitch most clearly from the Pekinese Stitch shown later on this page.  The example below represents the kind of knot stitch most often found in extant late 19th century Han Chinese costumes-- looped once around the needle, fairly flat and closed, worked in rows that are combined to fill sizeable areas. 
"Chinese Knot" or "Pekin Knot," Pamela Clabburn, The Needleworker's Dictionary, New York, 1976, p. 60.
Seed stitches have also appeared in Chinese Minority costume embroideries. Below are details from a Miao Baby Carrier from the Taijiang area of Guizhou Province. The Miao artisans developed a style which combined knots with heavy couched and overcast cords.  It became popularly known as "Dazi" embroidery.  Below, "Dazi" borders are used along with masses of intricately folded silk appliqué.

Pekinese Stitch

Also known as the Peking Stitch or Chinese Stitch

Even a quick glance at the drawing on the right, by Mary Gostelow, should tell us this is an embroidery structure quite different from the Knot stitches.  On embroideries where the work is especially fine, however, it's not always to easy to recognize the difference without severe magnification.  
"Pekinese Stitch."  Mary Gostelow, The Complete International Book of Embroidery, New York, 1977, p. 256.

"Pekinese Stitch," Young Y. Chung, The Art of Oriental Embroidery, New York, 1979. p.31
Here Young Y. Chung takes us through the process. First, a back stitch is laid down, with stitches that are fairly long and loose. Then, with a blunt needle, the Pekinese Stitch itself is laced through the back-stitch segments, going forward two and back through one to form a series of loops. The finished appearance can differ depending upon the kinds of threads or floss used, the size of the stitches, and how firmly the thread is  pulled. Among Chinese embroideries, the Pekinese Stitch has been used most often for linear elements, rather than as fillings for large areas.  

The first example below, from a small purse, shows the Pekinese Stitch done with two different colors, and different types of yarns; thus the structure is easy to see. The backstitch was done with blue silk, then a gold-foil-wrapped silk thread was laced through those blue stitches.

In the belt purse below, backstitching and lacing threads are the same color and fiber.  The Pekinese Stitch is used throughout, forming the design entirely with linear elements.
In a Zhuang baby carrier from Yunnan, China, below, the Pekinese stitch has been closely worked to form leaves and flowers. In solid areas it is difficult to isolate individual stitches, but where single rows of one color appear, the tight, linear arrangement becomes clear. If the lacing thread is pulled firmly, a ridge forms along one side of each row. In the detail at the left, the artisan has sometimes reversed the direction of her stitching, placing those ridges together for a special accent.

Here's one more example of Pekinese Stitch--on a Miao appliquéd child's pinafore from Guizhou Province, in southwest China. Here the effect is of an asymmetrical looped edging. It is very finely worked.  

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