By Sandra Zunino
Harriett McNeal of Centreville was intrigued by embroidery since the age of 7. When she fell in love with Japanese embroidery 22 years ago, she started her journey toward mastering this rare and beautiful art form.
Traditional Japanese embroidery, or nihon shishu in Japanese, actually started in China more than a thousand years ago. Introduced to Japan by Korean artisans, it was originally used only for decorating religious ceremonial items. As shishu developed Japanese characteristics, it was used for decorating kimonos and other royal garb. Both tedious and expensive to create, shishu was only available to higher ranks in society for centuries.
A highly coveted skill, when Harriett first witnessed Japanese embroidery, she was unable to find a resource to teach her its intricacies. It was 10 years later when she joined the Embroiders Guild of America and met Tonie Evans, a Japanese embroidery instructor who was demonstrating the art. She has been taking lessons every since.
According to Harriett, there are 22 phases of learning Japanese embroidery. In order to become a teacher, one must complete the first 10 phases and an exam at the Japanese Embroidery Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Shuji and Masa Tamura, masters of the art form, founded the Japanese Embroidery Center in 1989. This was the first time teachings of shishu were allowed to leave Japan. To preserve the art form’s traditional technique and appearance, teachers must learn from a master, or a student of a master who has passed the teaching exam.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful craft,” says Harriett. “I’m doing this just because I love the beautiful work that uses layers of stitching.” Harriett says that while anyone can learn to do Japanese embroidery, the expense of the materials and equipment is limiting. Each work uses pure silk and genuine precious metals. Additionally, most of the tools are handmade with only the frames fashioned by machinery.
Literally stitching metal into the silk background requires the use of gold or silver wound around fine cotton threads. Using pure silk threading provides a luster unmatched by synthetic materials. One of Harriett’s finished works cost $450 in materials alone, and took a year to complete, working an average of 20 hours per week.
Originally inspired by nature, Japanese embroidery designs of flowers, birds, animals, trees and celestial bodies represent symbols that provide meaning to the finished product. Traditional Japanese embroiderers only use designs handed down from generations of masters. “There are some who claim to be doing Traditional Japanese embroidery and designing their own work,” says Harriett, “But that is not traditional.”
Many layers and intricate stitching create a three-dimensional quality to the embroidery that Harriett says can only be truly appreciated in person. While her works hang in her home, they have been displayed on exhibit at the Easton Historical Society and at local banks. Harriett has also participated in several Embroiders Guild exhibits at Salisbury State University where she demonstrated the art.
Even though Harriett’s teacher and family say she is ready to instruct Japanese embroidery herself, she is reluctant to take that step saying she is not yet able to articulate lessons to her satisfaction. “I have studied many kinds of stitching,” she says. “By far, this is the most challenging and rewarding.”
For more information on Japanese embroidery lesson, email Tonie Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.