Teaching Chinese Textiles
What Is The Forbidden Stitch?
The forbidden stitch, to the arts layperson, might sound a little like H.P. Lovecraft mixed with a crafts book. What eldritch knot following non-euclidean geometry (and crafted from hand-spun hypoallergenic alpaca yarn) could such a thing be?
Disappointingly, the forbidden stitch is actually a misnomer. The stitch resembles a seed stitch or a French knot, and is made by wrapping embroidery thread around the needle to create a hoop and then stitching it down. More than 20 variants have been identified, and the earliest known examples date as early as China’s Warring Period.
How the forbidden stitch got its name is up for debate. One popular theory is that the stitch was so fine that the young girls who embroidered the robes, table runners, shoes, purses, wall-hangings, and other textiles used by nobles, went blind from the intricate level of detail required. This rather fantastical (but nonetheless romantic) notion is almost certainly apocryphal. Another notion of how the forbidden stitch got its name is that it was supposedly reserved for the Imperial household of the Forbidden City, essentially restricting the technique behind sumptuary laws. This is also probably incorrect, and the truth is much more mundane. The forbidden stitch, also known as the Peking stitch or even the Pekinese stitch, was likely a title meant to enhance the desirability of the technique, making it sound more exclusive and desirable. Essentially the name “forbidden stitch” was just a marketing ploy!
Even so, the technique is undeniably beautiful and intricate. The silk-floss stitches are often used in tandem to create neat, orderly rows to fill in areas of a design. The difficulty of executing the forbidden stitch normally limits the stitch to being used as accents in a larger design, as seen in Lot 278 of our Winter Asian Art and Antiques Auction. The forbidden stitch in this court lady’s robe is used only in the central flower on the sleeves and for the butterflies in each of the roundels. Sometimes for particularly special pieces, the entire design is rendered in the forbidden stitch: a difficult and surely daunting proposition for even the most advanced seamstress, as seen in lot 282 of our Fall 2018 Fine Asian Art and Antiques Auction. This embroidery panel depicts lingzhi mushrooms, scholar's items, the Buddhist treasures, and roundels of fruit and flowers in vases. The gold-toned accents are sewn with couch stitching, as are the white borders of the designs, but the lion’s share of the piece is rendered in the forbidden stitch.
A note on handling pieces featuring the forbidden stitch: one should never wear jewelry, even watches or bracelets when handling textiles that include the forbidden stitch because the loops of this stitch are very delicate and prone to snagging and pulling. It is nearly impossible to repair the forbidden stitch, so care should be taken to treat silks with this technique gently to avoid any damage in the first place.
About the AuthorJennifer Clary has a Bachelors and a Master's Degree in Art History, and is currently pursuing a second Master's degree in Arts Management. She has worked at Oakridge Auction Gallery for 3 years.