Master embroiderer gives traditional craft a new lease on life

Updated: Jan 4, 2022 China Daily Global Print
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At the top of a three-story studio on Paifang Street-a popular tourist spot that has a host of well-preserved ancient structures in Chaozhou, Guangdong province-10 women focus on their embroidery work, each of them at work looking like a demure portrait with their fingers deftly moving in silence.

"Embroidery is a slow art," said Kang Huifang, founder of the studio, who is a national-level inheritor of Chaozhou Embroidery, a national intangible cultural heritage item.

A slower pace and burying oneself in such traditional craftsmanship can be a challenge for many amid the hustle and bustle of urban life. But Kang has devoted herself to Chaozhou Embroidery for more than half a century.

Born in 1948, Kang began to learn embroidery at home at the age of 15 to help support her family. She was quick to learn and showed talent.

"Since I had decided to earn a living from embroidery, I was determined to learn from the best in the trade," she said.

Chaozhou has a long tradition of the craft. It was bustling with embroidery businesses during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, according to historical records. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, almost every household in the city had family members involved in embroidery. Yet the expert knowledge of Chaozhou Embroidery is not common, regardless of the period.

An important feature of Chaozhou Embroidery is its padding techniques, which make the patterns look more vivid.

Kang's talent and persistence opened a door for her to approach experts.

When she was 18, she won the opportunity to work at a local embroidery business where she received training from experienced embroiderers. There she picked up the craft and stood out from her peers.

When she was 33, she was admitted to a Chaozhou embroidery research center where she gained further expertise from an inheritor of the craft. She recalled she was also taught painting, sketching and the fundamental principles of fine arts at that time.

Riding the wave of the country's reform and opening-up, Kang quit her job and founded her own studio in the 1990s. She soon shot to fame in the industry for her prowess and innovation. Some of her embroidery works have been given to foreign leaders as State gifts.

She has since developed new methods to create double-sided embroideries, giving the traditional craftsmanship a new lease on life.

In cooperation with the local fashion industry, she has integrated the cultural heritage into the design and making of wedding dresses and evening gowns. This has helped Chaozhou become a trendy manufacturing hub across the two segments.

Embroiderers work at Kang Huifang's embroidery studio in Chaozhou, Guangdong province. ZHENG ERQI/CHINA DAILY
Padding is one of the key techniques adopted in Chaozhou Embroidery. ZHENG ERQI/CHINA DAILY

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